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 V.21 No.4 | January 26 - February 1, 2012 

Eating In

Vegan or Bacon?

Brussels sprouts swing both ways

Ari LeVaux

Brussels sprouts with bacon is hardly a new idea, but the combination has taken off lately. Now the pairing is a menu meme, a darling of online recipe searches and food TV. But those green brassica balls also go effortlessly and deliciously, for example, in that most vegetarian of dishes: the leafy salad.

Raw Brussels sprouts are too strong for most palates, so they generally need to be cooked before you toss them in a greasy pan or a salad bowl. My two favorite ways of cooking them are roasting and steaming. However you like to prepare your sprouts, the fundamentals are the same.

Growing Brussels sprouts is a grind. They take a long time to mature and don't produce much poundage per plant. That's why they're expensive, and each orb should be groomed like the treasure it is. Trim the cut end at the bottom of the sprout to create a new, non-browned end, and pull off the outer leaf or two if they're brown, yellow, dirty, shriveled or otherwise tainted. What remains are densely packed layers of green and pre-green yellow.

The foundation of the most successful dishes is that the sprouts are cut in half. Splitting them multiplies the ratio of surface area to volume, which is key when it comes to holding sauce. The many layers of tightly wrapped leaves exposed by a halved Brussels sprout can sop up a surprising amount. This is crucial, because they have a strong flavor of their own, and the more you balance it with the better. You can cut beyond half if you wish, but it isn't necessary. And if you're going to chop them finely, you might as well use cabbage.

Steaming preserves a clean, bright innocence in sprouts, the better to deflower with bacon grease.

When preparing them with other vegetables, just make sure everything is cut to a size that allows them to cook at the same rate. Both carrots and squash cut to Brussels sprout size will take about the same time, or just a few minutes longer.

Whether you steam or roast is entirely dependent on the final dish you have in mind. If you plan to fry them in bacon grease, a quick steaming is way less trouble. Steaming preserves a clean, bright innocence in sprouts, the better to deflower with bacon grease, ranch dressing, or a light mix of olive oil, salt and vinegar. They only need 5 to 10 minutes in the basket, depending on thickness, until they soften all the way through but retain the rich green glow of spring grass.

For salad, the rough, rich flavors of roasted Brussels sprouts add a bold contrast to leafy greens.

For salad, the rough, rich flavors of roasted Brussels sprouts add a bold contrast to leafy greens. The dry heat cultivates extra flavor as the outer layers develop a brown crisp. In the oven, I roast my cut sprouts at 350 degrees, sprinkled with olive oil and tossed with carrot coins or slices of winter squash. Stir often and cook for about half an hour, or until the first signs of browning.

I go for sturdy greens like romaine lettuce or endive to accompany Brussels sprouts in a salad, along with a dressing of equal parts olive oil, cider vinegar and soy sauce. Some or all of the cider vinegar can be replaced by balsamic if you prefer.

Adding seasonal fruit is a snazzy way to liven up a winter salad. Living near the citrus orchards of Arizona means we can eat seasonally, if not locally, in winter. Chunks of orange or grapefruit add nice acidic sweetness, as do pomegranate seeds.

And there’s always bacon vinaigrette. Start by chopping the bacon and putting it in a pan, perhaps with a little olive oil if the bacon isn't super-fatty. While it's cooking you can also add other red meats, such as beef or venison, and let it all brown together. When the bacon is crisped to your liking, add some minced or mashed garlic and stir it in well. As soon as you smell the garlic, which should be just about immediately, add roasted sprouts, along with any other veggies you may have cooked them with. Stir quickly and deglaze with a shot of bourbon if you have it, and turn off the heat—all within about a minute of when you first added the garlic.

That bourbon shot is a secret trick, by the way, from hunting camp.

Season with black pepper and hot sauce, and add the above dressing of vinegar, soy sauce and olive oil. Toss the sprouts to maximize their uptake of dressing. Add the meaty, greasy sprouts to your salad, or pop them straight in your mouth.

After hanging on their stalks like bare knuckles in farm fields through late autumn, Brussels sprouts can be stored all through the winter if kept cool and covered (i.e., in a lidded container in your fridge), waiting to offer a refreshing bolt of green when you need it most. If more people knew how to cook these tight wads of bitter leaves, maybe Brussels sprouts wouldn't be such a symbol of vegetable-hating. Just remember: Cooking them right starts with slicing and sauce.

 
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