The joy of Brussels Sprouts
January 11, 2006
I want you to repeat after me. “I will not hold my mother’s/grandmother’s/father’s/school’s bad preparation of a vegetable against said vegetable. Instead I will, as an adult, give such items another go.” Now, with that said, let me talk to you about Brussels sprouts. And remember your oath.The Brussels sprout is an oft-maligned vegetable, for reasons, it seems, that have a lot to do with poor preparation. A cruciferous vegetable, it resembles a miniature cabbage. Its growing season is from late fall until early spring, making it a perfect winter side dish. The problem with Brussels sprouts, if you want to call it that, is that they release sulfur compounds when overcooked, making them stink horrendously. And, since we all know the aforementioned people and institutions have been known to over cook a vegetable or two, you might be recalling the scent right now and nodding. I personally realized that I had formulated my opinion of Brussels sprouts on scent alone. Before ever having eaten one I could confidently tell you that I didn’t like them.So imagine my chagrin when the chef at a restaurant I worked at in New York put them on the menu and forced the staff to try them at family meal. Most of us cringed – and we considered ourselves burgeoning foodies – then hemmed and hawed, until eventually, reluctantly giving in. The sprouts tasted sweet and nutty, not bitter at all. The result: an entire staff of Brussels sprout converts who would, in turn, head back out into the world to try and recruit others. Now I know full well the testimony of one writer about what may be considered the nastiest vegetable ever isn’t likely to change popular opinion, but I’m an optimist. So I decided to try and recreate the opinion-altering Brussels sprout dish and invited a few friends over for dinner. None of my guests had ever met a Brussels sprout they liked and were rather skeptical that I could woo them. Little did they know what I had up my sleeve: the Warm Brussels Sprout Salad “recipe” from chef Eric Kleinman at New York City’s ‘Inoteca.The salad is simple as are most of ‘Inoteca’s dishes (no hint of Martha Stewart-like irony here). Sticking to the advice of every chef I’ve ever worked with, I knew that fresh, high-quality ingredients would be the key to making this dish. I did a little research and found that the smaller, bright green sprouts are more tender and that it was important that they be as fresh as possible – the older the sprout gets, the “stronger” the flavor, says Epicurious.com.I did not take stronger to mean better in this case. So I headed over to Lisa’s Central Market where I picked up about a pound of sprouts. Since you don’t know how long the sprouts have been sitting at the store, I recommend using them the same day you buy them. The rest of the ingredients were easy: red wine vinegar, croutons, hard-boiled eggs, yellow onion, a little white wine, butter and pancetta or bacon.
To make the salad:Prep: Chop Brussels sprouts into even pieces.Chop three-quarters of a large, yellow onion.Chop four pieces of bacon or pancetta into one-quarter inch pieces.Hard boil two eggs. Cut in half. Remove yolks. Run through sieve, creating egg strands almost like grated cheese.In a large sauté pan, melt two tablespoons of butter over medium heat. (You can use olive oil, which is, of course, better for you, but I come from the school of cooking that says everything is better with butter and bacon.)Add onion. Cook until they begin to caramelize. I added a splash of the Pinot Grigio I was drinking, just for fun.Add bacon or pancetta. I used Applewood smoked bacon from Niman Ranch, which is nitrite-, nitrate- and sulfite-free and tastes great. Continue to cook over medium to medium-low heat, until bacon starts to crisp. Keeping the heat low will prevent the onions from burning. Add the Brussels sprouts and sauté until they start to turn bright green, that’s when all the flavor is at it’s best.Take the sprouts off the heat immediately.
Add one tablespoon of red wine vinegar and stir into the salad.Transfer to a serving dish and mix in croutons. Top with the sieved egg and serve warm.Because I felt obligated to feed my friends more than just a salad for their dinner I decided to knock off some other dishes from ‘Inoteca to serve with it. I picked up hot coppa (cured pork shoulder), prosciutto, fontina and mozzarella from Florian’s to make panini as well as some aceto (aged balsamic vinegar) for my favorite dessert. The only prep needed for the panini is making the noci (walnut pesto), which takes less than 15 minutes. I made a larger batch than I needed, figuring that I could always use the rest on spaghetti later in the week. To make the noci:Toast about one cup of whole walnuts. Be careful not to burn them.Place walnuts in food processor with two cloves of garlic and a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Blend until smooth. You want the noci to be spreadable, so if it seems too dry, slowly add a little more olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.
To make the panini:After the noci, making the panini is easy. I used a loaf of Truckee Sourdough’s ciabatta, but focaccia works well, too. Slice the loaf of bread in half and then again lengthwise. On the first half, layer the coppa and sliced fontina cheese, creating a sandwich that balances the spice of the cured meat with the sweet, mild creaminess of fontina. On the other half spread a layer of noci, then top it off with prosciutto and fresh mozzarella. Since I don’t have a panini grill (and smooshing the sandwiches is half the fun), I improvised. I sprayed my griddle with olive oil cooking spray and turned the heat up to medium. Once the griddle was hot, I put the sandwiches on, put a fry pan on top and then put a full teakettle on top for weight. Remove the panini from the grill when the cheese starts to get all melty and good and then carefully slice in half, making little triangles. Serve the panini with olives, nicoise are my favorite, for garnish.Dessert was equally simple:Cut fruits, I used pears, lady apples and apricots into quarters and place them in a small baking dish. Then pour aceto atop the fruit and stick them in the oven at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes, or until they start to soften. You may want to roast the apricots separately, since they have a lot more natural sugar and cook faster. Once the fruits are soft, take them out of the oven and place in a serving dish. Dust with fresh cracked black pepper and serve with a dollop of mascarpone (an soft, Italian cream cheese). The resulting desert is the perfect balance of sweet, tart, spice and lush creaminess.I served the meal with a bottle of Di Bruno Pinot Grigio and a Valle Reale Montepulciano d’Abruzzo that I got from Dean at the Pour House – the first being light and crisp, the second a nice balance of jammy fruit and mellow tannins.The dinner was an absolute success and should be easy for anyone to replicate. The panini are especially fun to play with and rarely involve much work. And I’ve got three new Brussels sprouts fans to send back out into the world.