Brussels Sprouts have a bad rap. This verdant and sweet vegetable is known far and wide as being smelly, mushy, and slimy, when really the only thing wrong with it is that some people just don’t know how to cook it correctly. Children seem naturally disinclined to like this unpopular vegetable; but then again, so do adults. Once, when visiting Scotland, an innkeeper jokingly told me he liked to start boiling his Brussels sprouts three days before Christmas so they would be ready for the Yuletide feast. He then twisted up his face in a mock illustration of disgust for the poor unloved sprout. Now I realize he was kidding, but obviously this lovely man who made a wonderful breakfast at his inn in Oban had bought into some universal idea that the only way to cook sprouts was to boil the life out of them, and that they were therefore ghastly. Well this horrible rumor needs to end now.
Contrary to popular belief, Brussels sprouts are best when cooked al dente. Sautéed until slightly crisp, they have a lush taste that is both sweet and savory on the plate. If you sat in a hot bath you'd get all pruney, right? Well overcooking Brussels sprouts does the same thing, while also bringing out a sulfuric smell. But all this can be easily avoided if you keep your eye on them and DON'T OVERCOOK.
Brussels sprouts belong to the cruciferous family, which includes cabbage, kale, broccoli, and cauliflower. As I mentioned last year in my Scary Vegetables post, these foods are super vegetables. Full of antioxidants and vitamins, and thought to have cancer-preventing and fighting agents, Brussels sprouts and its cousins are ridiculously healthy for you.
But if you haven't cooked this unloved veggie before (of if you overcooked it) here are a few tips for the novice cook:
• Don't boil them! Experts in sprout cooking can feel free to cook them however they'd like, but newbies should stick to sautéing or broiling as it's just too easy to overcook your sprouts in a pot of hot water.
• Try cutting your sprouts into quarters before cooking. Brussels sprouts are naturally bulbous and therefore difficult to evenly cook when whole.
• Start cooking your sprouts on a high flame to sear and then lower the flame and cover to cook through. This really brings out the sweetness in the leaves.
• Consider slicing the sprouts thinly so the leaves are slivered.
• Try roasting them in a hot oven (halved with olive oil, sea salt and pancetta).
• If you eat meat, try adding in some pancetta or bacon, which pairs beautifully with sprouts.
Following is my recipe for Pasta with Slivered Brussels Sprouts, Pancetta, Walnuts and Mascarpone Cheese. As I mentioned last week, my daughters powered through this dish, eating each bite without complaint. For two girls who claimed they detested Brussels sprouts, this was a little win for Mom.
Pasta with Slivered Brussels Sprouts, Pancetta, Walnuts and Mascarpone Cheese
Makes: Enough for 6 people
1 lb Brussels sprouts cleaned with the outer leaves removed and slivered* (see note)
1/2 cup cubed pancetta
2 large shallots minced
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
2 heaping tablespoons mascarpone cheese (can substitute cream cheese if needed)
Parmesan cheese (enough to sprinkle on each dish before serving)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2/3 of a pound of dried pasta cooked al dente
*Note: you can either sliver your Brussels sprouts with a sharp knife or using a food processor. To sliver, clean sprouts, remove outer leaves and then cut each in half. Thinly slice each sprout. To use a food processor, use your mandolin attachment and then feed halved sprouts into the machine.
1. Heat a large sauté pan on medium heat. Add 1 Tbsp of the olive oil and the pancetta. Cook for 2 minutes. Add in the shallots and sauté another 2-3 minutes or until everything is golden brown. Remove pancetta and shallots from the pan.
2. Heat pan on high and add another 1 Tbsp olive oil. Add the Brussels sprouts to the pan and let sit for about 1 minute, letting the sprouts sear. If the pan starts smoking, then lower the heat a bit.
3. Reduce the heat to medium again and then add the pancetta and shallots back in, mixing all the ingredients together and then moving to the far side of the pan in a bunch.
4. Add the walnuts to the pan, browning in the area that is now free for about 1 minute and then incorporate everything together. Add in the remainder of the olive oil at this time as well as a small ladle of pasta water. Salt and pepper to taste.
5. Cook for another minute or two and then turn the heat off. Mix in the mascarpone cheese until everything is covered in its creaminess and then mix in the pasta.
6. Serve with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese on top.