The 'Christmas' vegetable that I don't think you have to learn to love; I just think people need to learn how to treat with care.
Welcome to ingredient, where once a month I take a deep dive into some of my favourite seasonal and store cupboard ingredients. This month I’m focusing on Brussels sprouts: usually the most controversial item on the Christmas dinner table.
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My father and I used to smuggle a Brussels sprout stalk into the house every Christmas.
I’m not even kidding, my mother is so obsessed with Brussels sprouts (a vegetable my father loathes and I only found my appreciation for once I discovered you could do things other than boil them) when they started selling them in supermarkets on the stalk in the early 2000’s we put a stalk of them in her Christmas stocking. And she was delighted (and yes, before regular readers pause to scratch their heads for a moment, we’re a Jewish family who celebrates Christmas, stockings, the tree, turkey, Christmas pudding and all!)
Oh the much maligned sprout. Forget if you should or should not put a cross on the bottom before boiling them, allowing them even arrive in a pan of boiling, salted water, or even a steamer is the real crime in my book. I tried making brussels sprout kimchee one year, and it only served to intensify that horrible, sulphuric, boiled cabbage flavour of these miniature cabbages that gives them such a bad rap.
So I’m here to rehabilitate the humble sprout, the ‘Christmas Vegetable’ by sharing all the ways this otherwise delicious brassica can be roasted, shredded and caramelised. Because I think a true sprout hater is a very rare case: instead, people just need to learn how to cook them to their best advantage.
But, shall we take a moment to shine a light on the culprits behind this sorry state of affairs if you’re the much maligned sprout?
Between us, my mother and I own four Christmas cookbooks: Nigella Lawson’s Feast (#ad, in my mind one of the very best cookbooks ever written), Delia Smith’s Christmas (printed the year I was born: I think every British family had a copy of it in the 90’s, and most of these families will probably still use it to this day), my Mother’s Marks & Spencer St Michael Christmas Cooking by Arabella Boxer (a 1980’s cookbook, from which come lots of our traditional family festive recipes) and Nigel Slater’s The Christmas Chronicles (ad) which we both own, because I found a never been even opened edition in a charity shop for a couple of pounds when I was living in East Dulwich (only recently trumped by the brand new copy of Larousse Gastronomique #ad I snagged for £10, rather than the usual £80).
And do you know what? Nigel, beloved Nigel is the only one who does not demand that for Christmas we cook the damn things with either chestnuts, bacon, or both. Arabella goes just for the chestnuts with chicken stock (though I do enjoy she wrote the recipe in an era where you were expected to prepare your own chestnuts, rather than simply buying them vacuum packed), parsley, butter and some seasonings. Nigella adds bacon, and at least upgrades the stock to Marsala. Delia adds garlic, shallots, and a splash of Riesling, back when we tended to specify the type of wine used in a recipe, rather than just the colour and the level of sweetness and dryness.
Yes, I know I’m guilty of this sprout treatment too, but at least I had the good grace to shred mine before adding them to the pan with pancetta and chestnuts: I can’t hide from it, type ‘shredded sprouts with pancetta and bacon’ into Google and I’m right up there as the second result. However, in my own defence, not only is the whole point of this essay to encourage you to do something like shredding sprouts, but I’ve also published a recipe for Brussels Sprout Caesar Salad which I’d much prefer to eat, preferably with the cold cuts leftover from Christmas dinner.
Back to Nigel, who I suppose must point out published his Christmas opus most recently out of the quartet. The Christmas Chronicles is not just a Christmas cookbook, but one covering the whole mid-winter period spanning from November 1st to February 2nd, and is somewhere where we’re treated to a veritable feast of sprout recipes: he’s got a recipe for Herb-flecked Brussels Sprout-studded Custards I’ve been meaning to sample, Jerusalem Artichoke and Brussels Sprout Fritters where he describes the colour of said sprouts as being a ‘vital green’, a salad of Brussels Sprouts, Clementines and Russet Apple, a dish for Salmon and Sprouts, and a salad of Young Kale and Avocado in which the leaves of sprouts have been gently separated before being tossed through the other ingredients.
God I love you Nigel. We’ll return to you after we’ve had a chat about this months recipes.
First, we’ve got my Apple & Pomegranate Shredded Sprout Salad. I must apologise here, that I have sort of published this recipe before, but I have tweaked it a little since then, and besides, buried in the archives of Instagram past, if it took me a good half an hour to root it out when I knew what I was looking for, I think I can be forgiven in repeating it because this quick salad really is that good: if you’re after a version with roasted sprouts, turn to pg 30 of One Pan Pescatarian (ad), though please ignore the picture: I don’t think we managed to get enough wonderful colour and charr on the sprouts to really do the dish justice in the bustle of the studio.
Anyway: here, sprouts are simply shredded before being tossed with a tangy, white balsamic dressing (such a wonderfully light vinegar with I think just the right balance of sweetness and tang, but which sadly people don’t seem all too familiar with for everyday use unless they happen to cook a lot of my or Diana Henry’s recipes - we’re both big fans, and I have a suspicion I may have picked up my love for it from her in the first place), topped with crunchy pomegranate seeds, refreshing, complex, crunchy slices of apple, and most importantly, a generous amount of pecorino cheese shavings for a creamy, salty hit: I’ve specified pecorino here because I really think it’s slightly more complex, lighter notes show off sprouts at their best, and not because even though I do I’m really not supposed to eat parmesan, and pecorino is something I can enjoy in abundance!
Next, we’ve got a fantastic (if I may say so myself) recipe for Brussels Sprout Fried Rice. It is a very, very close relation to the simply sublime Sprout Nasi Goreing in Meera Sodha’s simply excellent vegan and vegetarian cookbook East #ad her publishers sent me to review around this time last year, and which has honestly been one of the best things I’ve made all year. It really is as ‘filthy and delicious’ as she describes in the headnote, but even after I enjoyed it as much I knew the recipe was too involved, too fiddly for me to make again for something that is simply Friday night fodder.
So I took the spirit of the recipe: a deep sauce flavoured with Kecap Manis and tomato puree stirred through rice and a generous amount of caramelised shredded sprouts, and a fresh, vibrant tangle of quick pickled sprout and birds eye chilli slaw on top to create a simple, speedy recipe that is something I’ll actually manage after a week of work.
Finally, we’re roasting our sprouts simply with a little oil, salt and pepper before tossing them in an addictive hot honey mix for the perfect side dish to anything you want to bring a little heat to - or a simple veggie main spooned over steamed Jasmine rice (I’ve included my new favourite method in the fried rice recipe) - honestly, you’ll want to save the recipes both for the roasted sprouts that go wonderfully crispy on the outside and tender in the middle, and the addictive hot honey for later.
Now, I’m going to leave you with the headnote Nigel provided for that salad of sprouts with clementines and russet apple, because I think it captures the spirit of what I’ve been trying to say in this essay better than I’ve been able:
I know a salad of Brussels sprouts sounds mirthless, but I urge you to give it a chance. It has enough citrus, almonds and rough-skinned apple to be interesting. A dressing made with liquid honey and clementine zest removes any notion of worthiness. There are a few sesame seeds and some flat-leaf parsley, but it’s not complicated with unnecessary ingredients. It has a certain simplicity to it.
I tend to think if you can smell a sprout then you’ve overcooked it. In this recipe the leaves are given a hot bath rather than cooked. A brief two-or-three minute dunking in boiling water. It sets their colour to a vital, lively green. It tenderises without softening. This is the sort of salad you could eat with grilled bacon. Sprouts and bacon fat is a fine marriage.
The sprouts seem sweetest when cut straight from the stalk. It’s an infuriating way to buy them. The stalk is ridiculously long and weighs far more than you expect. Initially, I wrote off the sprouts-on-the-stalk thing as a greengrocer’s gimmick. An attempt to make your shopping bag feel like it had been to the farm gate. Wrong. They do stay perkier when bought on the stalk. Though in my defence the bloody things are virtually impossible to shoehorn into the fridge.
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Love Brussels sprouts!
It was your sprout salad from One Pan Pescatarian that changed my mind about brussels sprouts! I love them roasted with apple or pear, works so well!