When I think of Brussels sprouts, I often — not always, but most of the time — simultaneously think of bacon.
Other cooks do too: One fond restaurant memory is of a side dish of sprouts, broken into individual leaves (no doubt by an eager, non-salaried stagiaire), with each tiny leaf harboring an even tinier cube of fabulous cured, smoked pork belly. Sounds fussy, but it looked and tasted wonderful.
Back in the real world, what sprouts could be better than those parboiled (or steamed) and fried up with bacon? Probably none. But from time to time, Jackie and I aren’t feeling like bacon. Or we’ve run out. Or a dinner guest is a vegetarian or has religious scruples about pork. (There’s always something, isn’t there?)
The other day, one of these rare moments made me wonder, “Why bacon?” Apart from the obvious replies, which really go without saying, one answer is “umami,” that basic component of taste often translated as “savoriness” and found, for instance, in cured meats (such as bacon) and ... mushrooms.
So, in advance of supper, I lightly browned some mushrooms (hen of the woods /maitake) in olive oil with a sliced shallot, and steamed some halved Brussels sprouts until starting to cook but still firm. When it was time to eat, I added the sprouts to the mushrooms in a skillet, salted attentively and sauteed over medium-high heat until everything was lightly browned.
In a way, it was even better than Brussels sprouts with bacon. All the umami, but with little masking of the vegetable’s bitter/sweet/cabbage-y flavor. Don’t wait for a vegetarian guest before you try it. Any mushroom will do, too.