Let’s talk about sprouts, baby!
Sarah Morgan Jones
The humble sprout gets a mixed press: they are the victims of much misinformation and held responsible for all manner of after dinner unpleasantries, which even the dog would vehemently refute.
If you listen to The Archers, you could be forgiven for believing that Brussels sprouts need to start cooking in June.
In fact, if you are part of one of the many Facebook Archers fan groups, the jokes start flying around then, urging people to start boiling them now if you want them ready in time for Christmas.
And if you watch Gogglebox you would have recently seen Mary earnestly turn to her eccentric husband Giles and ask if cabbages give birth to sprouts.
Indeed, when I was a child, I believed all of those things, especially the after dinner wind.
Not offspring of cabbages, as Mary suggests, but a member of the Gemmifera cultivar, with edible buds which grow on stalks (which I also once believed made walking sticks) in that mathematical wonder of nature, the Fibonacci spiral.
My limited understanding of sprouts, as I was given the job of peeling them and cutting a cross into their bases, was that they took forever to cook and were generally expected to lose their colour entirely by the time they hit the plate on Christmas Day.
This was a hangover from my grandmother’s generation – she favoured long cooking times and a teaspoon of bicarb and the result was far from a gastronomic delight.
Soft grey mushy mounds of watery, bitter tasting baubles were given a wide berth by me and my brothers, and futile attempts to add them to the Boxing Day bubble and squeak simply meant that was avoided too.
Brussels sprouts are definitely the vegetable equivalent of Marmite. Science suggests that for some, depending on taste receptors on the tongue, they will taste of nothing at all, while for others – ‘Supertasters’ – bitterness is the overwhelming experience.
When it comes to the charges of ‘who smellt it, dealt it’ it is true that sprouts and their brassica relatives – cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and other green leafy veg – are so high in fibre that they can be a bit too much for your body to digest.
But the bacteria in your gut love to utilise it for energy, and this results in gas.
For many years I was in #TeamThumbsDown. Horrible, pointless and devoid of the good grace of their cabbage role models, I viewed the peeling and incising process as a last-ditch attempt to impress Santa, nothing more.
More recently, however, I found myself being asked to add them to my own Christmas dinners and so set about searching for a better relationship with the pesky articles.
I battle constantly with my husband over the length of time it takes to cook any vegetable – I love mine to have some resistance and for the cooking process to brighten not destroy the colour.
I want the water they are cooked in to retain just enough of the flavour to enhance the gravy, not to impart the sulphurous farts of Satan himself into the pan; nor do I want the kitchen to be shrouded with stinky steam or to feel like I am on a soft diet with everything on the plate mashable.
Packed with a sizable amount of vitamins C and K, plus folate, vitamin B6, calcium, potassium and good fibre, these babies deliver a decent nutritional punch, despite their bad rep. So minimal cooking not only brings out their unexpected sweetness but preserves their healthy credentials too.
Not bad for something which is 87% water.
But for those with the ‘nothing at all’ taste receptors, teaming them up with an assertively flavoured dance partner will leave the audience crying for more.
A glance through recipes online from big food players like Jamie, Hugh, Nigella, Delia or Mary plus all the cutely named websites, will reveal all manners of romantic entanglements for your humble sprout.
Chestnuts, bacon, balsamic vinegar, ginger, honey, garlic, chilli flakes, parmesan, shallots, halloumi, chorizo, pine nuts, candied almonds and even pomegranate! Who knew the little brassicas were so damned versatile?
And I’m sorry to break it to you, boiling is for bozos, folks. The new wave of gemmifera gameplay can see them roasted, steamed, stir-fried, creamed, air fried or even served shredded and raw in a Caesar salad or slaw (the latter is particularly good, though not with a gravy dinner, obviously) or turned into a soup… a step too far for me.
Asking various friends how they like theirs yielded an equal variety of answers – plopped into a gravy filled Yorkshire pud, with bacon and chestnuts, served as a Christmas eve salad, pizza’d, pureed, Parmesan’d, barbecued on a stick with pineapple, anchovies and oreos (might have made that one up), plain, always plain, missus…
But when serving with a dinner full of flavours, things don’t need to get too extreme.
I am not a massive fan of roasting brassicas, and the two major sproutophiles in my house are at opposite ends of the tradition and the meat-eating spectrum, so I either have to serve it two ways, or find a simple middle ground.
Both ways start with simply cutting them in half and only removing the bare minimum of outer leaves. Then I threaten them with boiling water – briefly blanching them to reach maximum green.
To go in the bacon direction, I may thinly slice a shallot and maybe a whiff of garlic and add it to some bacon bits in a pan of melted butter, giving them a head start. Butter burns quickly, so don’t mess about. If you don’t do butter, then olive or sesame oil make a good carriage.
Then tip in the blanched and strained sprouts, add plenty of pepper and salt to taste, toss them around the pan and whack ‘em in a serving bowl and stick it on the table. If you don’t do bacon, just leave it out.
That’s it. Done in ten minutes tops.
Sit back and wait for the fair wind or foul.
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