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.