Coming in at Number 8 on the list of favourites is, believe it or not, the brussels sprout. More usually maligned, the vegetable deserves respect. It’s been a victim for too long of that unforgivable British cooking technique, the dedicated overcook.
Cultivar of a subgroup of the cabbage family with a subtly different taste, it is, somewhat surprisingly, a native of the Mediterranean region. Very early versions are thought to have been found in Ancient Rome. It first appeared in northern Europe during the 5th century. The first reference to it appears in 1587. But it had begun to be cultivated for its edible buds in the 13th century near Brussels, which gave these gemmifera (bud producers) their name. (This is useful information to pass on to those who insist there’s no ‘s’ on the first word).
Belgium is still the largest producer on the Continent, with 82,000 metric tons a year. While the Brits grow a similar amount, they don’t export them. French settlers to Louisiana in the 18th century introduced them into the United States. Not a bad record for a vegetable so many people consider despicable.
Perhaps all they need to do is try a different recipe. They are considerably uplifted by the addition of chunks of chestnut and/or crispy bacon bits or lardons. But did you know what the zing of curls of lemon zest can achieve? Toasted hazelnuts are another complement.
Roasting rather than boiling brussel sprouts is the technique currently popular. However, it can make them bitter and leave them unpleasantly crunchy. A better method that brings out their sugar is to cut them in half to produce a broader surface and sizzle them in oil and butter, cut side down in a large frying pan over low to medium heat for 5 minutes. Then slam a lid on the pan for a further 5 minutes for the brussels sprouts to wilt. If you then want to give them a Middle Eastern twist, before serving, throw in a handful of pomegranate seeds and drizzle over a little pomegranate molasses to add a crunch and acidity.
You don’t have to wait until Christmas to eat brussels sprouts. This vegetarian cheesy gratin makes a soothing one-dish meal all winter long.
- 600g Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved if large
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 50g unsalted butter
- 2 shallots, finely chopped
- 50g flour
- 750ml milk
- 1 large tablespoon grainy Dijon mustard
- 100ml creme fraiche
- 150g Cantal or other strong-flavoured cheese, grated
- 40g dried breadcrumbs or Panko
- 2 thyme sprigs, leaves only
- 60g skin-free hazelnuts, roughly chopped
Preheat the oven to 220C.
Bring a large pan of lightly salted water to the boil. Add the sprouts and cook for 3 minutes then drain and set aside.
To make the bechamel sauce, heat the oil and butter in a medium saucepan until the butter is foaming. Add the shallots and cook over a low heat stirring occasionally until soft. Tip in the flour and cook for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and in several pours, slowly whisk in the milk to incorporate it into the flour paste, continuously whisking until you get a smooth sauce.
Return to the heat. Add the mustard and simmer for 2 minutes. Keep on whisking. Slowly incorporate the creme fraiche, followed by the cheese. Season to taste with freshly ground black pepper, and salt if it needs any.
Toss together the dried breadcrumbs, thyme leaves and hazelnuts. Tip the sprouts into a deep 30 x 20cm ovenproof dish and pour over the sauce. Top with the breadcrumb mixture. Bake in the centre of the oven for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown and bubbling.
Leave to rest for at least 10 mins before serving.
This dish can be made well in advance before the final baking step. It goes particularly well with any cut of pork or ham but makes a substantial one-dish meal on its own. Crispy bacon bits can substitute for the hazelnut crumbs for a different take.
This column written by Julia Watson originally appeared in the December 2021 edition of The Bugle.