My Sunday Column grew out of a post on this blog about a superlative brussels sprouts dish I tried in a Los Angeles restaurant.
Here’s my theory of brussels sprouts: People eat them on Thanksgiving as a kind of Puritan penance. At least, that’s what I think happened in our house.
Preparing the brussels sprouts required the kind of coordinated joint effort usually reserved for a pig killing. My father and all the able-bodied men performed the annual chestnut-peeling ordeal — an event that involved much swearing, arguing over technique and finger pricking until a scant handful of crumbly bits was produced.
Meanwhile, my mother would trim and carefully mark each brussels sprout heel with a talismanic X so they would “cook properly.” This meant boiling them for the entire duration of the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade until they resembled not vegetables so much as eyeballs wrenched from the sockets of decomposing zombies.
The chestnut bits and slimy green scleras were then mixed in a bowl without butter or salt and declared perfect. This wasn’t a side dish as much as proof of absolute evil in the universe.
Being the kind of person who naturally likes all vegetables, even unfortunate ones like bitter melon and okra, I learned to make my peace with brussels sprouts. Boiling them whole wasn’t the way to go, but then about 15 years ago I encountered a recipe for hashed sprouts that required a whole lot of careful slivering and then a sizzling denouement in a hot skillet. It was tasty, though the sulfurous, cabbagey smell rising from the pan would be enough to knock a buzzard off of a platter of deviled eggs.
So I began ignoring brussels sprouts as best I could. Alas, they didn’t ignore me. Lately they have started showing up, halved and caramelized, on menus all over town. Jay Swift at 4th and Swift paired these crisp hemispheres with apples, pistachios, creme fraiche and cider reduction for a startling mouthful. Can something both sweet and cruciferous be delicious? Yes, indeed.
Like Swift, Todd Ginsberg at Bocado believes that his halved mini-heads deserve center court as a stand-alone appetizer rather than being relegated to the nether regions of the Thanksgiving buffet. You know what? He’s right. Thyme, lemon, Parmesan, capers — in Ginsberg’s kitchen they’re a sprout’s best friend.
Craig Richards at La Tavola claims he goes through 10 pounds a day of his popular brussels sprouts, which are halved, natch, then roasted with pancetta and butter. “The key, ” he says, “is cooking them thoroughly so that they’re soft and not as bitter” yet at a high enough heat to bring out their color and sweetness.
I have to say, though, the best version I have ever tried was during a recent trip to Los Angeles for a family get-together. We ended up at Gjelina restaurant in Venice, where the house specialty was charred brussels sprouts with bacon, dates and vinegar. Our waiter talked us into the first plate (thereby ensuring himself a spot in heaven) and didn’t act at all surprised when we ordered a second, and then a third.
Here is a recipe I devised that gets close to the original. By the way, I stole the brussels sprout charring technique wholesale from the great food blog, 101 Cookbooks. Cooking the brussels sprouts through in a covered skillet, then turning up the heat to char the surface, ensures that amazing, neither-soft-nor-firm texture.
If my mother had put these onto the Thanksgiving table, I don’t think I would have ever made it to the turkey.
Gjelina-style Brussels Sprouts
Fry the diced bacon in a heavy-bottomed skillet — preferably cast iron — until crisp-chewy. Set aside. Remove the bacon fat and wipe out the pan. (Resist the temptation to use the bacon fat for frying.)
Wash the brussels sprouts well. Trim the stem ends and remove any outer leaves. Cut in half from stem to top and rub each half with olive oil, keeping it intact.
Follow the 101 Cookbooks technique: “Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in the skillet over medium heat. Don’t overheat the skillet, or the outsides of the brussels sprouts will cook too quickly. Place the brussels sprouts in the pan flat side down (single-layer), sprinkle with a couple pinches of salt, cover, and cook for roughly 5 minutes; the bottoms of the sprouts should only show a hint of browning. Cut into or taste one of the sprouts to gauge whether they’re tender throughout. If not, cover and cook for a few more minutes.”
Return the bacon to the pan and add the date slivers. Toss gently with the vinegar and season to taste with salt and pepper. Eat like candy.