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November 09, 2008

Green scream: brussels sprouts three ways


It takes a while for couples to settle on the ground rules in any new relationship, especially after moving in together.  We all have our little quirks.

Rachel learned about one of my more oddball needs within months of sharing an apartment with me: No brussels sprouts in my home.


Yes, some people draw the line at guns, drugs, or porn in the house.  Not me.

I still remember returning home one evening shortly after moving in with Rachel only to be overwhelmed by an evil stench.  "Oh God, you made brussels sprouts," I said, in a tone that was half accusation, half anguish.

"Yeah, I love them so I had some for lunch," she replied.

Unfortunately, the mere scent of these vile green orbs -- even six hours after cooking them -- makes me want to retch.  So I laid down the law, which is to say I pleaded with Rachel to never make them in (or near) our home again.

To my wife's credit, a brussels sprout has never darkened our door in the decade since that horrifying day.  I owe her a debt of gratitude for this continuing act of kindness I have never repaid.  Until now.

Brussels sprouts.  Just typing the words makes me cringe.  I've overcome pretty much every food prejudice I've ever had.  I now eat and enjoy every other green vegetable I loathed in my youth, like spinach, broccoli, peas, and asparagus.  I even delve into the most obscure corners of gastronomy to experiment with rabbit ears, horse fat french fries, and lamb brains.  But there are still brussels sprouts, those little globes of grossness I still cannot stomach.

I've tried, too.  On two memorable occasions I didn't mind them.  The first time I ever felt even one iota of pleasure from a brussels sprout was at Bymark, Mark McEwan's gastro-cocoon for Bay Street bigwigs.  A few summers ago, he served a weekly slow roasted pork special with roasted brussels sprouts.  I requested a substitution, but Rachel, who had been denied so long, was thrilled.  So I tried one of hers, and I must admit I enjoyed it enough to try and steal a few more before she threatened to stab my hand with her fork if I made one more move towards her precious stash.

The world's only other decent sprout can be found at Lupa, Mario Batali's Roman-style trattoria in New York City.  His raw brussels sprout and pecorino antipasto actually had me eager for more.  After years of hating brussels sprouts, I was shocked to find myself enjoying them raw with only some cheese, olive oil, and lemon juice.  Batali's ability to extract pleasure from a brussels sprout is a sign of his genius, in my opinion, so I was thrilled to find a similar dish on the menu at Toronto's Tomi-Kro last year.  When I asked chef Laura Prentice about it, she said she too was inspired by Batali's dish.

Unfortunately, neither McEwan nor Batali have published their recipes yet, which means digging deep into my cookbook collection to participate in Thursday Night Smackdown's brilliant ingredient you think you don't like First Thursday event.  The event rules explicitly forbid improvisation and mandate learning a little something from the cookbooks I already own, so I scoured my collection and found not one but three dishes worthy of the occasion.

Of course, it's foolish for a hater to cook three possibly gag-inducing dishes without having a back-up plan.  Mine is my wife and our friends Jill and Rob.  All three are lovely people, who, despite their many admirable qualities, somehow go gaga for brussels sprouts.  But, hey, it beats throwing them out, right?  (The brussels sprouts, that is.)


Given that Mario Batali produces one of the world's only two decent brussels sprout dishes, The Babbo Cookbook seemed like a good place to start.  And you know what?  It was.  I took one bite of his brussels sprouts with pancetta, and then I took another, and yet another after that.  These sprouts are firm with pleasant caramelized and smokey notes that mask the worst qualities of the primary ingredient.  I confess: this dish is alright.

Like raw sprouts with pecorino, this is yet another simple yet elegant Batali effort.  The brussels sprouts are par-boiled for a mere two minutes, sliced in half vertically, then finished in a saute pan over high heat with some pancetta drippings before being served with lardons of pancetta and a little thyme and parsley.

Of course, bacon and bacon-like products have a way of transforming trash into treasure. That's why I'm convinced Batali owns a dog, because if I learned anything from my mutt, it's that serving something with bacon pretty much guarantees it will be eaten.


If only serving brussels sprouts with a quick and easy pea and whipping cream puree were as successful.  Unfortunately Michel Richard's Jolly Green Brussels Sprouts from Happy in the Kitchen was my least favourite dish.  I took one bite of these green monsters and all those old feelings came flooding back.  It was all I could do to choke one sprout down without gagging.

I had come to suspect that my real problem is with boiled brussels sprouts.  If you include the sprouts with pancetta, the only three brussels sprouts dishes I've ever enjoyed feature raw, roasted, or sauteed sprouts.  Richard, on the other hand, boils his frozen brussels sprouts for eight minutes before sauteeing them for three then stirring in a sauce made with whipping cream and defrosted frozen peas.  The result is very soft and much too bitter for me.

But that doesn't explain why I tolerated, but didn't really enjoy, the third and final dish, Thomas Keller's duck confit with brussels sprouts and mustard sauce from Bouchon.  Keller par-boils his brussels sprouts for five minutes then simmers them in the mustard sauce before service.  These sprouts taste fairly mild, and the mustard sauce and duck are excellent, but I certainly wasn't dazzled by them.


The explanation for why I tolerate or detest a given sprout may lie not in the cooking but in the slicing.  A quick consultation with Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking yielded meaningful results.  According to McGee, brussels sprouts contain two bitter compounds concentrated in the centre of the sprout, one that diminishes only with rapid cooking, the other only with slow cooking.  In other words, you're screwed no matter what you do.   Unless, advises McGee, you slice the sprouts in half and boil them, a step that "will leach out both precursors and products" of bitter flavours.

As I look back at the many brussels sprouts I detested and the few I tolerated, I've come to realize that those I've enjoyed have all been sliced.  Batali's raw sprout and pecorino antipasto is basically a slaw.  Likewise, the brussels sprouts in the pancetta dish are sliced before sauteeing (though McGee at least implies this shouldn't diminish bitterness) and Keller's tolerable sprouts are sliced then simmered.

After sampling all three dishes I found only one, Batali's brussels sprouts with pancetta, I'd eat again.  Oddly enough, my three fanatical companions all selected Richard's dish as their favourite precisely because it had the most pronounced sprout flavour.  I guess I still have a problem: my favourite dishes are the ones that most mask the flavour of the sprouts.

But Rachel's sprout problem might be solved.  She's hatched a pact with Jill and Rob to head over to their place the next time they recreate one of these brussels sprout recipes.  She's suffered through a decade of sprout deprivation.  It won't be pretty.


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Paula Maack

Fun post! I love brussels sprouts with pancetta!

In fact, Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta happens to be on my Thanksgiving menu, which is posted on my blog this week. I did not know Mario Batali had a recipe published for this classic recipe, but I do love Mario, so I will have to look into it and compare his recipe to my own.

I agree that everything is better with bacon. My turkey recipe, which I have finished writing up tonight and am posting tomorrow, has bacon as a star ingredient.

It seems as though we have similar tastes. I look forward to reading more of your blog.


~ Paula
(from Ambrosia Quest)


Last time was at Tomi-Kro (a couple of years ago) I had a terrific appetizer of sprout leaves with bacon and cheese (can't remember if it was Pecorino or Parmigianno Regianno). The leaves were peeled off the head and blanched (if I remember correctly) or perhaps just quickly sauted with the bacon. Slicing would be less labour-intensive.

I grill sprouts on the barbecue: cut in half, toss in oil, grill in a veggie basket. If you catch them at the right moment, the outside is crisp and nutty, while the inside is tender. This may be one for the sprouts fans, because they do retain some bitterness, which I like.


Your blog is super. So are your photographies. They make me hungry. I have spent a nice moment when seeing them. Thanks a lot.

Feikhal Madhur

I commend you on your maturity in accepting the brussel sprout now.

I'm betting you probably have a good stash of porn though.

Now that you're flirting with Brussels sprouts, you might want to try peeling off the leaves and then stir frying them with butter. Since they cook so quickly, the strong odours and flavours are minimized. I like to deglaze the pan with orange juice and a bit of Canadian whiskey. You can also start this kind of dish with bacon and add less butter.

Hope you try it and learn to LOVE sprouts!


Now that you're flirting with Brussels sprouts, you might want to try peeling off the leaves and then stir frying them with butter. Since they cook so quickly, the strong odours and flavours are minimized. I like to deglaze the pan with orange juice and a bit of Canadian whiskey. You can also start this kind of dish with bacon and add less butter.

Hope you try it and learn to LOVE sprouts!


I just wanted to chime in for the first time in on your blog. I have read every entry you have ever written over the past 6 months and loved every word !!!

On brussel sprouts. I found it so interesting that you had such distaste for them. They are one of our favorites, much more so than cabbage because of their inherent sweetness. I think it may be because i was raised eating them only one way. Indian style. I think that the way in which my mother prepared them and I still do. This is how we do it. I would be interested in your thoughts.

We half each sprout and then slice them into fine shreds. Warm some canola oil on medium heat. Place some mustard seeds in the oil until they pop (put splatter guard on top) and then add 5-6 fresh curry leaves, 2-3 sliced green chili's. Watch out because the oil will spatter. After 10 seconds add about 5-6 cloves of garlic sliced into 3mm circles. Afer they have just started to take on color, add the shredded sprouts and salt and stir. Cook Covered with a few tbsp of water until bright green. Take cover off and then stir every couple minutes until just starting to caramelize.

I think slicing them and then adding the spice takes away all bitterness. If anything they are actually sweet.

Hope you like it.


Like you, I really have a problem with Brussel Sprouts. As a child, I suffered the well-intentioned torture of my mother's boiled sprouts and vowed that, as an adult, I would never allow another to pass my lips.

I had read before about Mario Batali's recipe, but don't have the book and have never actually seen it. This post, with your helpful illumination of the preparatory details, inspired me to give it a shot tonight. I parboiled them for two minutes, then sauteed them in pancetta grease, emboldened by a small shot of good olive oil). I served them up with the pancetta, parsley, thyme, and some roasted pine nuts thrown in for good measure.

It was awesome. Beautiful in color, these Brussel sprouts are not merely acceptably palatable, but really, really savory. I think I could actually, without guilt, serve this to other people, with the reasonable expectation that they, too, would enjoy it.

Culinary Conferences

I like your blog very much, brussels sprouts are always my favorite.
The photo look great.

Thanks for posting.


Hello brother in law (?!) in the Great White North.
Try this method. Even Uncle Andy might eat them
(with hoisin sauce, I imagine..) xo

Split 'em in half. Toss them in a pyrex dish with a LOAD of whole garlic cloves and lots of olive oil and good salt. Roast at 375 (oh, that's Farenheit) for half an hour or so.

Your only challenge will be which wine to quaff.

With love from California.

ps. How are the squalls?!

I too have hated brussel sprouts my entire life. However, I recently had a side dish at David Chang's Momofuku Ssam Bar which consisted of deep fried brussel sprouts in a fish sauce based dressing. The flavor was a combination of nuttiness from the sprout which was complimented by the salty fish sauce. Needless to say I will no longer disregard the brussel sprout the next time I see it on a menu.


Excuse me for commenting so late.

I had a similar conversion in adulthood, having been horrified by oversteamed brussels sprouts throughout my youth. I think maybe it was the bacon that did the trick to change my mind. Or maybe the wine vinegar? Or was it garlic?

Laura Calder has a very good version of Brussels Sprouts as well, using just the leaves. Even though it's much easier to cut x's into whole sprouts, parboil them and then slice them in half and sauté them with garlic and breadcrumbs (and bacon if someone didn't finish all the bacon that morning for breakfast).

G Harrington

Late post, but this is a legendary Brussels Sprout recipe. Ssam Bar in NYC.

sarah k

hey, was just flipping through a gourmet archive and this sounds similar to the batali slaw:

i'm going to try it at a dinner party this weekend. i'll let you know how it turns out.

teddy s

thanks for the ideas. As everyone else is raving about your writing style and pics, I too found it super appetizing and easy to understand. Those pics make me hunger. lol. thank u


I LOVE brussels sprouts. I have to say, though, that frozen sprouts are -awful-. Not even the same kind of food. For the sake of your future efforts to eat them, stay far FAR away from the frozen ones!!!


I do not care for them either. I do not care if you put sugar all over them, I will not have them in my house either. It is nice of you to share this with those who like them but it will not be me. Another food I can not stand are beets.


After viewing your blog for the first time and coming across your (yawn) distaste for Brussels Sprout, I am curious as to why you had to be "forced" to find an adequate preparation that would allow you to coexist. Grow some balls and experiment with this tasty micro-cabbage head on your own. I believe each and every elemental fruit of the earth can be transformed into a delicacy. It's not Tuna Casserole. Use your head!

oil of lemon

Lemon oil is my favorite oil. How do I choose and use essential oils? 

chaussures umbro

i am fond of your post very much.thank you for your nice post!

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