The little beauties from Brussels

Last updated 05:00 22/06/2014
brussel sprouts

GREEN GOODNESS: Much maligned, brussels sprouts need some better PR.

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Pan-braised sprouts with bacon and garlic

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When it comes comes to vegetables, the brussels sprout certainly creates strong opinions.

These funny mini members of the cabbage family are maligned by many and loved by others. Named for the city of Brussels in Belgium where they are thought to have originated, I associate them with the colder winters of Europe.

In Belgium and in France, they are traditionally served with a nice coating of melted butter and a little stock for flavour. This is a great improvement on the British method I am more used to, where they are served overcooked and unadorned.

As long as I can remember, brussels sprouts have been prepared by cutting short the nub of the stalk and slicing a cross into them - or, as we say in our house - "crossing their bottoms". Next they are boiled in salted water (hopefully not until they are grey and smelly).

This is the problem with the brussels sprout. Overcooked until their sulfur compounds were released, the brussels sprouts retrieved from my grandmother's warming draw were never appealing.

The "crossed bottoms" is a way of allowing heat to penetrate into the centre of the vegetable to avoid the unpleasantness of overcooking. Now, we simply cut them in half, or quarters, and the problem is resolved.

Thankfully, boiling just about anything other than peas, pasta or potatoes is out of fashion, and this suits the brussels sprout.

Steamed, pan-fried, braised, roasted, charred or flaked into leaves and baked like a kale chip, these little green gems are universally more appealing.

When I first saw brussels sprouts growing on the stalk I was amazed and a little stunned. Like weird sci-fi art, they cluster up the main stem of the plant looking like a knobbly green invasion.

This stem hides beneath a more traditional-looking, but open, cabbage head. If you haven't seen them growing it is worth doing an image search to see these warty "alien legs" in full colour.

There are two main brussels sprouts growing areas in New Zealand and they both have cool climates.

The first is Ohakune, in the central North Island. It produces smaller earlier-season hybrid sprouts with compact heads. Their higher mustard-oil content gives them a slight piquancy.

The second big growing area is down south in Oamaru, which produces slightly larger sprouts with looser leaves. North Otago brussels sprouts come to the market later in the season and have a sweeter flavour.

To cater for the earlier market, a hybrid, similar to the Ohakune brussels sprout, also comes from North Otago. North Otago brussels sprouts can be referred to as NOBS, which seems the perfect moniker for this funny wee vege.

Brussels sprouts have had a revival on television cooking shows and with modern chefs. My recipe for pan-braised sprouts with bacon and garlic is a common variation of the current theme.

This is a recipe that is both "safe" and delicious. If you thought you had been put off the brussels sprout for life because of the stinky, grey overcooked servings of your youth, try this recipe.

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As the scent of crispy bacon and golden garlic shards fills the kitchen, you might just change your mind.

- Sunday Star Times

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