This week's look at what's new, bountiful or even mysterious in the produce aisles.
Remember those soggy, bitter, vile-smelling blobs that you pushed around on your plate as a child? They were too big to hide under your mashed potatoes like peas. Or perhaps you tried to sneak them to the dog under the table. Whatever the maneuver, the underlying motivation was the same.
So you hated Brussels sprouts as a kid. Get over it. They're too good for you to bear any grudge.
The Brussels sprout is a small cruciferous vegetable that contains high levels of antioxidants along with a healthy dose of fiber, potassium and iron. Along with all of these vitamins and minerals is a hefty amount of sulforaphane, which, unfortunately, tends to rear its stinking head when sprouts (and other members of the cabbage family) are aged or overcooked. The solution is simple: buy fresh sprouts and prepare them properly.
HOW TO BUY AND STORE: The fresher and smaller the sprout, the milder the flavor. Avoid prepackaged sprouts and select evenly sized, compact little cabbage heads with dark green leaves. Pass over those with yellowed, withered or loose leaves and check the stem end where they were cut from the stalk; if it's dried out, toss it aside. This time of year, fresh Brussels sprouts are available on the stalk at farmers' markets.
Keep in mind that one pound will feed four of all but those with voracious appetites.
Use Brussels sprouts as soon as possible and within three days of purchase. Store them, unwashed, in an open paper or plastic bag in the refrigerator.
HOW TO CLEAN: Soak Brussels sprouts in cold water for several minutes, then drain. Trim the very bottom of the stem and remove and discard the tough outermost leaves.
HOW TO PREPARE: When Brussels sprouts are fresh and carefully prepared, their delicate, nutty flavor (don't laugh) makes a wonderful accompaniment to hearty meats such as pork, veal and turkey.
Sprouts can be cut in half or quartered through the base to ensure quick and even cooking. Some chefs cut a 1/4-inch "x" in the stem, claiming it ensures even cooking; other chefs find it to be an old wives' tale. Suit yourself.
Ann Cashion, chef and co-owner at Cashion's Eat Place and Johnny's Half Shell, sneaks them into a saute of winter vegetables, including carrots, pearl onions, parsnips and chestnuts.
Or for a mild-tasting and elegant presentation, pluck the leaves from the sprouts and saute them in butter, then season to taste. Chef Brian McBride of Melrose restaurant in Foggy Bottom adds pancetta to Brussels sprouts and serves the mixture as a bed for fish. And the leftover cores-- all but the stiff white portion--can be shredded for coleslaw, sauteed with butter and rosemary, or steamed and stirred into mashed potatoes. For a quick hors d'oeuvre, nestle mashed sprouts and potatoes in the steamed leaves and sprinkle with crumbled bacon.
For the traditional-minded, sprouts can be steamed, boiled, braised or blanched and then quickly roasted or sauteed. The simplest--and common--approach is to steam or boil, uncovered, in a small amount of water for a short amount of time, just until tender. This allows those sulfurous compounds to escape and results in a mild flavor and a bright green color. Take heed: When sprouts are overcooked by just two minutes, the amount of hydrogen sulfide doubles. Drain and, if desired, toss into a skillet with butter and saute briefly (drizzling with honey or maple syrup for the kids). Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Infuse the sprouts with lemon flavor by squeezing lemon juice into the water. Or sprinkle the steamed or boiled sprouts with crumbled bacon or prosciutto, bread crumbs or cheese (especially Parmesan, Swiss or Taleggio).
Blanch some sprouts and then saute them in butter with shallots and hazelnuts. Roast them with root vegetables. Toss them with feta cheese and pine nuts. Cut in half and sear, cut-side down, in butter for a caramelized flavor, or in olive oil and then drizzle with vinegar, a pinch of sugar and chopped pistachios.
Still not convinced? Look to sauces. Fanny Farmer served sprouts simply boiled and topped with a white sauce. Take it one step further by dusting with nutmeg or stirring a bit of mustard or curry powder into the sauce. Substitute blanched, chopped sprouts for potatoes in potatoes Dauphinois with white sauce, Gruyere cheese and a touch of nutmeg. Or just toss them with a bechamel, hollandaise or mornay sauce.