Ode to My Pantry: Brussel Sprouts

Learning to feed yourself can be one of the most terrifying things. Am I about to give myself food poisoning? If I eat this too often will I end up with scurvy? How can I get the most nutritional bang for my buck? Why does this still taste like ass?

With Ode to My Pantry, learn to navigate a grocery store without having a meltdown in aisle three. Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a queer to cook and stave off malnutrition for another semester.


If you’re going to learn to cook something that frightens you, might as well dive into the deep end. Boiled Brussel sprouts were those noxious stench bombs that showed up on my Thanksgiving dinner table when I was younger. Putrid, soggy and flabby, I never understood why we bothered serving them since no one would touch them. So over a decade later, when one of my friends told me I was in charge of prepping the Brussel sprouts for one of her annual dinners, I pretty much told her to eff off. Then I remembered she wasn’t trying to poison me and that I should be a little more minded.

The Problem

As an FYI, veggies, plants and other living organisms don’t actually prioritize a ride through your digestive track on their List of Things to Do Today. Given that Brussel sprouts and the Brassica family lack the feet needed to outrun their predators, those sneaky jerks use chemical warfare instead. Hurt them (aka break open their cell walls) and they’ll hurt you right back with a punch of mustard to the face. Even though you may scoff at eating a culinary stink bomb, those green grenades are a powerhouse of vitamins, fibre and possibly cancer-fighting compounds. If employed correctly, Brussel sprouts can be sweet, earthy, nutty and complex with just a hint of sulfur that leans savory instead of stinky. Conquer the sprouts, liberate the nutrients, win all the points! Much like dealing with a live grenade, you’re going to need a strategy.

 

The Plan

  1. Choose a weakling.
  2. Disarm it.
  3. Give ‘it hell.

 

1.  Picking your target

The easiest way to overcome your foe is to choose a specimen that isn’t well-armed to begin with. In the same way we break out when we freak out, cruciferous plants produce more glucosinolate (ie. the precursor to bitterness) when they’re stressed. What makes a Brussel sprout flip its shit? Heat, sunlight and drought. Purchase sprouts in the autumn or winter for less bitter buds and your tongue will thank you.

Sprouts should be fresh. Nix anything that doesn’t look worthy of a Cabbage Patch Kid.

Choose dark green sprouts with tightly packed leaves and minimal discolouration. Smaller sprouts require less cooking time, so ignore the exceedingly bulbous ones. Even though the outer leaves don’t drastically affect the flavour, the darker colour implies a higher concentration of vitamins and minerals. Yellowed or damaged leaves are already on their way out and taking their nutrients with them. Plus, pretty plants imply less peeling prepwork and more Brussel for your buck. Win-win.

Did you know you can buy Brussel sprouts on a stalk? Did you even realize that they grew on a stalk? I bought a branch of Brussels and was left kind of dumbfounded by the useless wooden stalk. Stick to loose orbs unless you need to fashion a bayonnet the first lady would approve of.

2. Disarming

So now that you have your sprouts, how do you go in for the kill? The plant’s bitter compounds are concentrated in the most actively growing parts. When you’re looking at Brussel sprouts, focus on the core. You could painstakingly harvest the leaves one knife swipe at a time, but the tediousness may be more offputting than the taste. A faster way to decore the suckers is to cut them in half or quarters and just cut the damn chunk out. Or you can be brave, leave the core in and attempt to overcome the glucosinolates another way.

Chop Chop Chop: Trim the leaves from the core, slice them in halves or quarters or shred into adorable coleslaw.

Unless you have hardcore nostalgia for grandma’s overcooked orbs, boiling isn’t a gateway cooking method for Brussel sprout bromance. A shitton of boiling water does dissipate some of the stinkier compounds, but it leaches away and/or degrades vitamins and cancer-fighting compounds too. It’s a slippery slope from green orbs to grey mush, but if you still  insist on boiling the suckers, try cutting them in half so they’ll cook through faster and spend less time in the brew.

There’s debate on which cooking methods preserve the most nutrients without sacrificing flavour, but apparently heating sprouts doesn’t disarm them as cancer fighters. Limit the cooking time to help the sprouts maintain their shape and structure. You might as well get ‘em hot and crispy to improve the likelihood of taking a second bite. Hot, dry cooking methods like sautéing, broiling and grilling bring out the better side of Brussel sprouts’ bitterness. Caramelize or char them long enough and they’ll reveal their hidden sugars.

 

3. Fighting back

If I haven’t emphasized it enough, Brussel sprouts are the flavour juggernauts of the cabbage family. If you play it nice with gentle flavour pairings, the sprouts will walk all over your dish and your tastebuds. If you enjoy a sulfurous ass-whooping you might enjoy them as is, if not, pair them with equally strong ingredients to acclimatize your palate to the sprouts’ pungency.

 

101 Cookbooks and cheese makes everything better

Garlic and onions make everything better and Brussel sprouts definitely follow that rule. All three are characterized by similarly sulfurous scents, so they echo one another while making each taste more like itself. If you were eating them raw this could knock you out, but given enough heat and time they produce a caramelized, earthy dish. You could do a helluva lot worse than Brussel sprouts sauteed with a shitton of garlic and butter.

Since Brussel sprouts resemble tiny cabbages, why not treat them as such? Finely shred them and use them in your favourite coleslaw recipe. I use them in my pseudo Waldorf salad, alternating sprout shreds with layers of apple, craisins, pickled onions and walnuts. Or bravely pickle them and let me know how they turn out.

If you’re still doubtful, throw bacon at it. Smokey, savory, salty, sweet and (most importantly) fatty, bacon rounds out the Brussel sprouts’ harshness. Serve it over pasta, include it in a breakfast hash or make it into a sandwich for tasty times. If you happen to lean more towards the vegan side of things, you can still echo the bacon spirit using liquid smoke or maple and miso.

 

Try your hand at the orbs and learn to cook them to your liking. For all you know, you could be the one to reinvent them for your family’s Thanksgiving. Or you could just resign yourself to silently eating another helping of grey mush next week.

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Hailing from Vancouver, Kristen's still trying to figure out how to survive Montreal's Real Legitimate Canadian Winter. So far she's discovered that warm socks, giant toques and Tabby kittens all play a role in her survival. Her ultimate goal is to rank higher than KStew in the "Kristen + Autostraddle" Google Search competition.

Kristen has written 140 articles for us.

36 Comments

  1. Thumb up 8

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    Roasting. Roasting is what it’s all about with Brussels Sprouts. I take the yellowy leaves off, slice them in half, and put them in the oven with a touch of olive oil and salt, and roast them at about 400degrees. Once they’re browned, they’re done. Also, saute works, and they’re great with soy sauce and other veggies in a stir fry.

    Be not afraid!

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    I grew up on boiled brussel sprouts and OBVIOUSLY hated them b/c who likes plain boiled brussel sprouts?!? Then I went to college and discovered roasted brussel sprouts with a drizzling of balsamic and now I am the happiest sprout :)

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    Oven roasted (or grilled) with olive oil and salt and pepper. That’s all there is to it. Same way I like my asparagus.

    Too bad my mother didn’t have this figured out when I was growing up. Vegetables boiled to a flavorless, mushy mess. Ugh.

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    Again, AS is posting things that couldn’t possibly be more relevant to me! A few weeks ago, I got my girlfriend to eat Brussels sprouts for the first time….and now she’s OBSESSED. We’ve been making them a lot so ill have to try some of these other techniques. We usually roast them (like in the first comment but with tons of lemon squeezed on and cracked peppercorns). Also, frozen is NOT the same as fresh!! If you can find fresh ones, that’s the way to go!!

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    Even boiled into a grey mush, these were my sister’s favorite vegetable so we always had them for her birthday. And no one else liked them.

    Clearly that has changed now that we all learned to cook, and we’re having brussel sprouts (roasted, with pine nuts) at Thanksgiving, I’ve been told.

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    The first time I ever had Brussel sprouts was at my uncle’s place when I was 12. He made curried Brussel sprouts and it was YUMMY. I grew up in a place where Brussel sprouts were non-existent so the only thing I knew about them was that every kid hated them. As a veggie-loving kid I didn’t get the hate, especially after my uncle’s curry.

    Not too long ago I was watching an Oprah episode where she’s helping parents get their picky eater kids to eat veggies. It as then that I saw what the problem was. YOU ALL BOIL THE VEGETABLES TO DEATH! NO WONDER there’s this massive meme about Western kids in particular not liking veges. I grew up in Malaysia where everything was flavourful and filling and healthy, liberal uses of spices and sauces and such. Geez. Boiling veges and that’s it? No wonder the kids won’t want to eat them.

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    So happy to see other ladies loving the sprouts. Ok this is my mom’s not so secret way to cook brussel sprouts so everyone will love them…
    Remove bad leaves, cut in half and throw in saute pan. Add water so it reaches to about 1/8 of their height, a splash of olive oil and a couple pads of butter. Turn heat to med and cover. Watch until the water steams and boils away. Uncover and turn to med-low. Turn enough so they don’t burn while they finish cooking on the outside and carmalize/crisp on the outside. For finishing touch add a pinch or so of nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste.

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    Another roasting devotee. I like to half them, toss with olive oil and minced garlic (keep the dicing big), sprinkle with coarse sea salt and some white pepper, roast for for 10-15 minutes at 400F on parchment paper, then drizzle on some white balsamic and maple syrup, toss some more, and roast for an additional 10 minutes until crispy. Gah.

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    Thanks for sharing my recipe for brussels sprouts, sweet potato, and bacon hash! This week I’ll be making them sans sweet potatoes….just cooking up some bacon, then sauteeing the onion in the bacon grease. Brown the sliced sprouts in the bacon grease, then add in a splash or two of chicken broth, cover, and steam till the sprouts soften and the stock reduces. Salt & pepper. Perfect!

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