B is for Brussels Sprouts

I’ve been waiting to publish this until I got my paper back, just in case my teacher Googled it and failed me for cheating because he thought I stole it off the internets (Chef, I totally wrote this paper if you ever run across it–me, I am the author of this paper, for srs–when you handed it back, it had a written thank-you note for submitting a well-organized and well-written paper).  I had to write a paper on a vegetable or fruit or something, and I initially wanted to do saffron, but I thought that wouldn’t be appropriate (probably could have done it, but whatever), so I chose the Brussels sprout instead because 1) I love Brussels sprouts, and 2) I figured nobody else would have picked it by the day I decided to change my topic because most people do not love Brussels sprouts.

I do have to warn you, though–well, I need to reiterate, this is a paper I wrote for school.  That means it’s, uh, not as light-hearted as I usually make my posts–there’s no swearing and there’s also probably some bullshitting I had to do to make sure the paper was long enough.  There is a minor reference to Dr. Strangelove, but that’s about it.  I’m only posting it because we’re not too far out of the B’s and  . . . well, who knows, maybe someone needs to know about Brussels sprouts, I dunno.  If you want actual information about Brussels sprouts and not witty(ish) commentary, you will find it here.  There’s even a works cited page, because that’s just the kind of gal I am.

Enjoy a taste of my serious(er) side.  Me, I’m going to go cook up some Brussels sprouts and bacon.

A Brief Primer on the Brussels Sprout

The Brussels sprout, like many of its fellow cruciferous vegetables, has long been considered the bane of the dinner table—particularly if one has children.  The Brussels sprout belongs to the mustard family, the genus Brassica, along with kale, cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage.  This family of vegetables can be classified botanically as having tap roots and erect, branched stems (Deverson); nutritionally, the cruciferous family is high in vitamins C and E, folate, and potassium, among other vital nutrients.  The compounds that give cruciferous vegetables the flavors that some find unpalatable (the “cooked cabbage” smell) also provide great nutritional benefit when broken down in the human digestive system (Broccoli and Beyond!).

Brussels sprouts have potentially been cultivated since the 13th century or possibly before; market records in Brussels may mention the little cabbages as early as 1213.  The first clear reference to the Brussels sprout– choux de Bruxelles in France, where they are popular—was written by Charles Marshall in his Plain and Easy Introduction to Gardening in 1796.  His description of the sprout as a “winter green growing much like [kale]” indicates that Brussels sprout may have originally been grown for the greens rather than the sprouts themselves.  The first mention of actual sprout cookery does not occur until Eliza Acton’s work Modern Cookery in 1845.  Ms. Acton suggests preparing and serving the sprouts “in the Belgian mode,” which entails boiling the sprouts and covering them in melted butter (Ayto).

Nutrition Facts of the Brussels Sprout

Despite its off-putting flavor to some, the Brussels sprout is packed with nutritional benefits.  A cup of cooked sprouts contains only 61 calories (with no fats added, of course), but gives you 4 grams fiber, 4 grams protein, over 100% of your daily recommended intake of vitamin C, 465 milligrams of potassium, and 23% of both folate and iron (Broccoli and Beyond!).  These sprouts also contain significant amounts of vitamins K and A, manganese, fiber, and even omega-3 fatty acids (World’s Heathiest Foods: Brussels Sprouts).  Additionally, a compound called sulforaphane, which is found in Brussels sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables, has been found in the lab to prevent cancerous cells from multiplying in the body (Svoboda); in Holland, a study revealed that men who ate Brussels sprouts daily for three weeks showed 28% less genetic damage than those who did not (Harrar).  When raw or freshly cooked (not cooked from frozen, or frozen after cooking and thawed), Brussels sprouts are a significant source of protein and amino acids, which makes them a great food source for vegetarians (Lisiewska, Slupski and Skoczen-Slupska).  Clearly, despite our collective reaction to the Brussels sprout, Americans especially could reap great nutritional rewards from adding them to our regular diets.

Obtaining and Storing Brussels Sprouts

Although most Brussels sprouts in the U.S. are grown in northern California’s fog belt, this plant is a winter-hardy vegetable that grow best in colder climates.  Brussels sprouts can be cultivated anywhere that cabbage and broccoli are grown.  Average garden soil will produce a perfectly good sprout, but they do prefer moist conditions.  Brussels sprouts do not mature until after approximately three months, so sprouts should be planted roughly 90 days before the first fall frost; in warmer climates, sprouts may need to be planted later to prevent heat from damaging the plants (Doiron 92-93).

Brussels sprouts may be purchased loose or on the stem; although sprouts are easier to ship and sell if packaged loose in plastic containers, specialty and gourmet stores have begun to offer Brussels sprouts still attached to the original stalk.  If purchasing Brussels sprouts, choose sprouts which are firm and bright in color; sprouts should not have loose, yellowing leaves.  Sprouts which are fairly uniform in size will cook more evenly than sprouts which vary greatly in size.  Sprouts can be stored in the refrigerator in a sealed container or a perforated plastic bag for up to two weeks; sprouts should not be washed until just before use to prevent mold (Colwyn).  Frozen Brussels sprouts not only have significant nutrient loss but also have losses in texture and flavor, and should be avoided.

Culinary Uses and Reaction to the Brussels Sprout

There is a scientific explanation for the strong dislike that some people have for Brussels sprouts; some people’s palates may be genetically predisposed to react strongly to the compounds in Brussels sprouts, called glucosinolates, that cause a bitter flavor (Doiron 96).  Supertasters, people who have large clusters of taste buds as opposed to more evenly-spread taste buds, are especially disinclined to enjoy the flavors of some foods based on the phytochemicals present (Born to hate Brussels sprouts?).  Many people who dislike Brussels sprouts, however, simply have had negative exposure to the vegetable—either a parent who passed their dislike along to his or her child, or chronic consumption of improperly-prepared dishes containing Brussels sprouts.  Overcooking sprouts can lead to a mushy, unappetizing texture and an overdevelopment of the sulfur compounds that cause the “cooked cabbage” flavor that puts many people off of Brussels sprouts.  Smaller brassicae have a stronger flavor, so ensuring that Brussels sprouts are cooked properly is a crucial factor of enjoyment.

Proper cooking methods include sautéing, roasting, blanching, and steaming.  Because the vitamins in Brussels sprouts are water soluble, using less water to cook Brussels sprouts will result in less nutrient loss from leeching.  Brussels sprouts should be cooked until tender, but not mushy; sprouts may be blanched for five minutes or steamed in the microwave on high for seven minutes to achieve this texture (Colwyn).  Sautéing or roasting sprouts helps to develop sweeter flavors to counteract the bitterness of cruciferous vegetables; using a healthy fat, such as olive oil, will add to the nutritional benefits of sprouts.  Using butter or bacon drippings will enhance the flavor of the sprouts, but somewhat counterbalance their health benefits.

When serving Brussels sprouts, one can pair them with, among many other things, goat cheese, sautéed onions, carrots, or walnuts (World’s Heathiest Foods: Brussels Sprouts).  Bacon, while not the healthiest ingredient, is a classic mate for Brussels sprouts; the sweet and smoky flavor of the pork balances the flavor of the sprouts very well.  In Belgium, sprouts are served with peeled chestnuts.  Brussels sprouts taste like tender cabbage, so you may pair them with any traditional foods that you would eat with cabbage—potatoes, sausage, or beef would pair well with Brussels sprouts.  Sprouts may be pickled like cabbage; an inventive application could take from the Korean dish kimchee and include sprouts fermented in a spicy sauce.   Sprouts can be eaten in salads, in stir-fry, in hash, or as a side dish.

How We Can Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Sprout

Foods that have been long snubbed by a culture that turns to fast food restaurants for sustenance have been making a comeback in recent years.  Foods like broccoli, turnips, beets, and, yes, even Brussels sprouts have been reemerging as people begin to challenge the conventional judgments rendered about these ingredients.  The benefits of adding cruciferous vegetables to one’s diet, particularly Brussels sprouts, are so great that one would be mad not to attempt to learn to love this culinary outcast.  In the author’s personal opinion, a plate of Brussels sprouts sautéed in butter or tossed with bacon satisfies the palate in ways that few foods can.  By choosing fresh Brussels sprouts, employing proper cooking techniques, and pairing sprouts with complementary flavors, almost everyone can leave behind their sprout prejudices and find themselves voluntarily—perhaps even joyously—cooking sprouts as part of their regular diet.

Works Cited

“Brussels Sprouts.” An A-Z of Food and Drink. Ed. John Ayto. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

“Born to hate Brussels sprouts?” Prevention 49.12 (1997): 29.

“Broccoli and Beyond!” Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter 26.4 (2008): 4-5.

Colwyn, Kim. “Brussels sprouts.” Better Nutrition 67.10 (2005): 46-49.

“Brassica.” The New Zealand Oxford Dictionary. Ed. Tony Deverson. Melbourne: The Oxford University Press, 2004.

Doiron, Roger. “Brussels sprouts: Love ‘em, don’t leave ‘em.” Mother Earth News February/March 2008: 92-96.

Harrar, Sari. “Want to Drop Pounds? Learn to love the veggies you hate.” Good Housekeeping 244.6 (2007): 158-161.

Lisiewska, Zofia, et al. “Content of amino acids and the quality of protein in Brussels sprouts, both raw and prepared for consumption.” International Journal of Refrigeration 32 (2009): 272-278.

Price, Hugh C. “Brussels Sprouts.” World Book Advanced. World Book, 2011.

Svoboda, Elizabeth. “Broccoli Kicks Cancer.” Discover 26.1 (2005): 77.

World’s Healthiest Foods: Brussels Sprouts. 21 February 2011 <http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=10&gt;.

(I don’t know why this last entry looks crazy, the code looks OK from this end.  *shrug*)

4 thoughts on “B is for Brussels Sprouts

  1. I adore brussels sprouts! Just yesterday I was at the store and they had some absolutely beautiful brussels sprouts out in the produce section so I got some. I’d seen a recipe a few months back for a pasta dish with sauteed brussels sprouts, garlic, bacon, and a cream sauce so that is what I made and it was wonderful. Yum!

    • Oh my God…. that sounds freaking fantastic.. WANT THAT RECIPE PLS, KTHX. :)

      Yeah, but seriously, sauteed Brussels sprouts are so good I even got my husband to eat them, and he’s very uh–cautious–about vegetables.

  2. http://www.ireallylikefood.com/735874000/penne-with-bacon-brussels-sprouts-and-parmesan/

    is the original recipe I worked off, but I only used about half as much bacon. I didn’t have any chicken stock, so I used pasta water. I didn’t have any cream so I used some butter and milk. I also transferred the pasta directly into the frying pan with all the other ingredients rather than tossing it separately (why mess up another bowl?). I didn’t toss in a half cup of cheese, either, I just grated some on top because 1) that stuff ain’t cheap and 2) I’m trying to watch what I eat a little and it already had a bunch of bacon and butter in it!

    Regardless, it was still very yummy!

    • Holy moly, that looks magical.

      I’ve been using peccorino Romano in place of Parmesan lately. The new store we’ve been visiting has a kick-ass selection of cheese; however, all of the blocks of parm are huge(ish), and like ten bucks! I just don’t need that much all at once, ha. The peccorino is still really nice but is cheaper–and it’s mainly going into cooked food so the salty sharpness is all I really taste, anyway.

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