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April 25, 2006

Eat Your Heart Out—April 25, 2006

Despite being an adventurous eater (I still profess a dislike for olives and strong cheeses, but that’s another story in itself), I spent much of my childhood disliking lots of foods. I shunned fish, shrimp, carrots, broccoli, and spinach, among many others, but there was one food that was at the top (bottom?) of the list: Brussels sprouts.

Now, some people who dislike Brussels sprouts have probably eaten sprouts that were overcooked. When cooked for too long, the sprouts release sulfur compounds and give off an unpleasant smell. But most people dislike Brussels sprouts because they contain high levels of glucosinolates, contributing to their bitter taste. Of the five tastes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami—the fifth taste which can best be described as meaty), bitter is the only one people are not naturally inclined to like. As I was a fussy child to begin with, Brussels sprouts were out of the question.

So how did I get to where I am today—that is to say, a Brussels sprout convert? I learned how to cook them. The food scientist Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, suggests halving the sprouts and cooking them in a large pot of boiling water. This will remove the bitter flavor components that are concentrated in the center. I find this to be an efficient method. (I have also found that smaller sprouts tend to be less bitter and more tender than larger sprouts. Thus, when shopping for sprouts, purchase the smallest possible.) Finally, when trimming the sprouts, be sure to discard any withered or yellow leaves, remove as much of the bottom core as you can, and make a small slit in the base of the sprout to remove some more bitterness.

Of course, the following Brussels sprouts recipe is enhanced by the addition of bacon—after all, how could bacon not make a dish better?—which provides a salty, meaty coating to counterbalance any bitterness. Swirling in butter at the end also adds a sweet richness and binds everything together. This is a great side dish with roast chicken or any other poultry, or it can be eaten in a bowl by itself. Brussels sprouts have never tasted so good.

The Ingredients

Serves 4

1 Tablespoon olive oil

3 slices bacon, finely chopped

1 shallot, minced

1 pound small Brussels sprouts, trimmed

2 Tablespoons butter

salt and pepper to taste

The Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in an oven-safe pot atop the stove. When the oil starts to glimmer, add the bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until nearly brown. Add the minced shallot and continue cooking until the bacon starts to crisp. When the bacon and shallot are browned and the bacon is fairly crispy, remove from pot and set aside in a bowl.

2. Meanwhile, trim the Brussels sprouts (essentially just cut off the tough bottoms). After removing the shallot/bacon mixture from the pot, add the Brussels sprouts and sauté until bright green, about three minutes. Then place the whole pot in the oven and cook uncovered until the sprouts sizzle, about 10 minutes.

3. Swirl in the butter, add the bacon and shallot mixture, and combine well. Salt and pepper to taste and serve.