Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Brussels Sprouts

Brussels sprouts are ready for their close-up. Like quiche, sparkling water and Fiats, many in the US have taken a bit of time to warm to this European favorite. But Brussels sprouts are gaining on kale as the go-to menu darling.

I love Brussels sprouts and can think of lots of reasons that they are finding their place at the table, like:

  • Plate appeal - Brussels sprouts are adorable. The little buds, which resemble baby cabbages, are, like any diminutive thing, darned cute (see baby artichokes, baby animals and, well, babies for reference).
  • Less of a learning curve - Now that we're getting the hang of cooking them, they are a lot tastier. (More on avoiding the sulfur stink, below.)
  • Versatility - Sliced thinly, they are fresh, light and crunchy in a salad. Roasted until they're nearly coal-colored, they're soft, sweet and earthy.

If that's not enough to make you a fan, read on.

A Brief History

Brussels sprouts are thought to have originated in Rome, but they really hit their stride in Belgium where they became popular as a vegetable crop in the 16th century. It was there that Brussels sprouts were tagged with the name they still carry today. French settlers brought Brussels sprouts to Louisiana around 1800 and commercial production began there in 1925. In the 1940s Brussels sprout production moved to the central coast of California as part of the growing frozen food industry.

Factual Nibbles

  • Although the vegetable is commonly called "Brussel sprouts," dropping the second "s" fails to reflect the plant's Belgian history.
  • Brussels sprouts' high levels of Vitamin K can interfere with some blood thinners. Eaters using anti-coagulants should monitor their consumption of the vegetable.
  • Although growing in popularity, Brussels sprouts are still the most hated vegetable in the United States.
  • All parts of the Brussels sprout plant is edible, including the leaves, which can serve as a substitute for cabbage in any recipe.

Cultivation

Brussels sprouts are a member of the Brassica family, which includes cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. A number of varieties are available with varying tolerances to growing conditions, but generally, the plants do best where the air temperature ranges between 45° and 75°F. The majority of our Brussels sprouts are grown in California, particularly the central coastal region, where the cool sea air creates ideal temperatures for the chill-loving vegetable.

Environmental Impact

Brussels sprouts are subject to a number of disease and infestation issues in the field. Commercially grown fields are typically limed prior to planting to prevent club root disease. Fields are often fumigated with metam-sodium or 1,3-dichloropropene to control nematodes, and to provide additional suppression of club root. Crop rotation and organic inputs are alternative methods of disease and insect suppression that have also proven successful. (*Read our Real Food Rule of Thumb, below, for more info.)

Seasonality

Although Brussels sprouts are grown in California from June-December, they are generally considered a cool weather crop, popping up in farmers markets in the fall. They can withstand a bit of frost but will yellow and open in warm temperatures.

Characteristics

You may never guess it to look at the little tubs of sprouts sold at the supermarket, but Brussels sprouts grow on sizable, leaf-covered stalks. The stalks are on average about two feet tall but can climb to four feet in some varieties. The towering stalks are covered with large green leaves that resemble those of collard greens and that can be cooked in a similar fashion. The part we eat, the sprout, is a little bud that grows at the leaf's base. The sprouts range in diameter from ½-inch to 2-inches, the smaller being preferred by frozen food growers and the larger buds going to fresh market sales.

When harvested by hand, the sprouts are often taken in several passes as they mature. The leaves are harvested separately, often early on in the plant's development, to concentrate the plant's energy on sprout production. When harvested by machine, the entire stalk is stripped in the field. The sprouts are gathered and the edible, nutrient packed leaves are (shamefully) discarded.

Nutrition

Brussels sprouts are good for you! They are high in Vitamin C and Vitamin K, which is valued for its anti-inflammatory properties. They are a very good source of nutrients including folate, manganese, Vitamin B6, dietary fiber, choline, copper, Vitamin B1, potassium, phosphorus,and omega-3 fatty acids. They are also believed to reduce cancer risk.

Brussels sprouts pack a lot of oomph for their asking price. They are listed in the Environmental Working Group's "Good Food on a Tight Budget" round up of affordable foods that have a high nutritional value.

What to look for

Brussels sprouts are sold on and off the stalk. When purchasing, look for compact heads with no sign of dulling or wilting. Sprouts should be bright green. Look for signs of insect damage and avoid sprouts with pinholes that can be a sign that pests, such as aphids, have set up home in the plant. 

Storage

Their affinity for cool temperatures make Brussels sprouts good keepers. They will last in the refrigerator for about two weeks when stored on the stalk and about half that if separated from it. To freeze sprouts, blanch by dipping briefly in a pot of boiling water, shock in cold water, pat dry and freeze for up to a year.

Pro tip

Be careful not to overcook Brussels sprouts. Too long on the stove and the sprouts will release foul smelling sulfur compounds.

Cooking

Brussels sprouts are delicious any way you fix them. Here are some ideas:

  • Raw - slice thinly and toss in salads.
  • Quick sauté - add them to your favorite stir-fry or give them a quick turn in the pan with crisp bacon or pancetta.
  • Steamed - sweet and simple, they're perfectly good from the steamer.
  • Grilled - their seasonality may not line up with your summer grilling sessions, but if you fire up your cooker in the cooler months, throw some on.
  • Roasted - perhaps my favorite, with sweet, caramelized edges.

And don't forget the leaves, which are edible and delicious!

Recipe

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Balsamic

Serves 6-8

This is my favorite way to cook Brussels sprouts. It's quick, easy and a crowd pleaser every time. I always make a little extra. The sprouts reheat really well and are great tossed with grains or greens for an easy next-day lunch.

Ingredients:

2 pounds Brussels sprouts, removed from stalks, if necessary, and any stem trimmed away

2 tablespoons olive oil

salt and pepper

1 tablespoon Balsamic vinegar

Method:

Preheat oven to 425F. Toss sprouts with olive oil, salt and pepper and arrange in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Roast until edges begin to crisp and sprouts are tender when pierced with a knife, but not mushy, about 20-30 minutes, depending on their size. Remove from oven and immediately drizzle with the vinegar. Serve hot or warm.

 

(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)