Friday, November 9, 2012

Brussels Sprouts

DuBois, PA Late Nixon Administration The benchmark, established at a Formica and chrome kitchen table in the real not Instagram early Seventies, is a bland, mushy bitterness, battered, green and soggy, throat-closing and frightening.  Common practice at 523 Burt Street DuBois, PA and at Grandma’s house the next block over on Reams Street (in retrospect, more an alley than a street but I think it has been paved since) was to cook a vegetable into complete defeat.  I can’t blame my family; it was common practice then in many households.  The mandatory splat of four or five sprouts on a Thanksgiving plate otherwise filled with happy, brown, carbohydrate-centric foods disrupted our turkey Zen, scratching the Polaroid holiday memory yet to be realized.  No matter how much gravy and bread awesomeness went into my mouth, I knew that the slow static warfare over the sprouts had begun.

Of course, I grew up and left DuBois primarily to escape vegetable persecution.  I avoided Brussels sprouts for many years.

The Occidental, Washington DC, 1986 During the peak of the al dente vegetable, the Brussels sprout was simply another veg. on the Enterementier station to blanch, shock, dry, and cut before service.  I’d trim the roots and outer leaves, drop them in boiling slated-‘till-it-tastes-like-blood water, and gamble on when to pull them out.  If not blanched long enough, the warmed but still raw cores would brown halfway through service, causing our hostilely narcissistic, compulsively abusive sous chef to throw them across the kitchen and screetchinlgy mock me.  If cooked too much, they’d dissolve into mush when they hit the butter of the finishing skillet before served on a plate of lamb chops with piped sweet potato puree and rosemary-scented jus.  This mushy mess would also end up decorating the wall over the dish station to cigarette-breath expletive-laden barrage of same Sous Chef. 

I can’t remember a day I got it correct.  The arrival of asparagus season, while presenting a separate set of issues, brought happiness to me that had nothing to do with the arrival of spring.  I received a six-month reprieve.

Berkeley, CA 1994 As I am exiting the Graduate program in the Chemistry Department, finishing my coursework and collect my consolation prize Master’s degree from the top Chemistry program in the world.  As an adjustment to my return to cooking, I picked up a cook’s job at Baywolf Restaurant in nearby Piedmont.  I liked the place, Mediterranean-California cuisine focusing on seasonal ingredients, local products, and tasty but accessible wines.  (Sound familiar Highland Ave?) It was fall, and even though everything gowns all the time in California, the East Coast rhythms of harvest and planting still showed through menus. 

Needless to say, it was Brussels sprouts time.  We served them with the duck that came off my station.  Before service, I’d sear them with a little reserved duck fat, season them with salt, pepper and fresh thyme, barely cover them with duck stock, and allow them to bake, self-glazing in the oven.  Unfortunately, while I now understand the idea, it was impossible to accomplish the goal without reducing the sprouts to mush.

Pittsburgh, 90’s After moving back to Pittsburgh, fusing with big Burrito, ferreting out a lot of awesome local farmers, and re-discovering my connections with the seasons, topography, and generally awesome mojo of this region, I undertook the project of Brussels sprout realization.  It seems to me, a fan of rapini, mustards, cauliflower, and any other Brassica that passes my way that I could grow to love the sprout.  Here are my findings:

  1. It likes the fat, preferably swine.  Duck fat and schmaltz are good, but butter doesn’t have the heartiness for it.  Olive oil is good if you want.  But why not lard?
  2. They need to be cooked thoroughly, but not to mush.  To that end, I quarter or half them as I clean them so that all members become approximately the same size.  This ensures even cooking.  The want to be well seasoned. 
  3. Brussels hate to be blanched and shocked and view it as an insult.  If you need to pre-cook them for service, better to pre-roast, or to cook them in batches and finish them ala minute with some fresh heat and seasoning. 
  4. They want a lot of flavor with them.  Salt them well.  They like a little acidity and the faint slaughterhouse porkiness of cured pig parts.  Black pepper, red pepper flakes, any dry, hot chili goes well.
  5. Don’t tell your kids that their name is Brussels sprouts.  I made this error and, if a time machine is invented in my life, I will go back and correct that moment.  “Broccoli Spheres” seems like it could work.

SPQR, San Francisco, Summer 2007 Invited to attend a 3-day potato conference at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley, I add a day at the beginning, rent a convertible Miata, and blast around the city myself checking out restaurants.  Of course, San Francisco in the summer is freezing in a convertible, but it was worth it on the drive up the coast and across to Napa.  I stopped in at SPQR, a tapas-style Italian place.  I ordered a couple of small plates and a glass of frizzante.  The mussels and warm salad were excellent, but the fried Brussels sprouts with lemon and white anchovies floored me.  A whole new wrinkle in sprout deliciousness!  It has inspred a sixth rule of sprouts:

  1. Fry them raw.  Quarter or slice them and fry them in nice hot oil until well cooked.  When you first want to pull them out, let them fry.  They are done when there is a lot of delicious Brownness, some really crispy blackness, and a little residual greenness.  Shake off the oil, season quickly, and eat them before your friends see them.

I hope you and yours have an awesome Brussels sprout season.  Following are two simple recipes if you want to give it a shot.

Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta

½         #          Piece of uncooked pancetta, diced small
1          ea.      Medium onion
1          Tbs.    Duck fat (you probably don’t have rendered duck fat at home so use your favorite oil)
3          #          Brussels sprouts
½         C.        White wine
Black pepper
Salt to taste (be careful)

  1. Dice ham into 1/8” dice.  Be careful and use a sharp knife as the ham has a very heavy texture in this state.  Dice onion small. 
  2. Trim hard root ends off Brussels sprouts.  If they are not small, halve or quarter.
  3. Place pancetta in a shallow pot.  Render. 
  4. When rendered, scoop out pancetta and set aside.  Add onions.  Place on medium flame and bring up to a sizzle.  Sauté/sweat onions until lightly browned. 
  5.  Add Brussels sprouts and wine.  Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer.  Lightly season with pepper.
  6. Cook with occasional stirring until Brussels sprouts are tender and cider is evaporated (20 minutes to half an hour).
  7. Season with salt only at the end and only if necessary.
Crispy Brussels Sprouts, White Anchovies, Lemon Vinaigrette, Parmigianino Reggiano
2       #          Brussels sprouts
12     ea       White anchovy filets
Oil for frying
Lemon Vinaigrette (see below)
Chunk of Parmigianino Reggiano

1)    Quarter or eighth sprouts. Discard ugly outer leaves and dark stem tips.   
2)    Heat oil in a heavy skillet or home deep fryer to 350۫º.  Fry Brussels sprouts in batches until dark brown on leaf tips. 
3)    Lift out with a slotted spoon or round Chinese strainer and place on paper towels. 
4)    Season with a tiny bit of salt immediately after frying.
5)    Arrange on plate.  Drizzle with vinaigrette.  Drape with anchovies.  Shave parm atop.

Lemon Vinaigrette
Zest and juice 3 lemons
1       ea.   Shallot minced
½      C.      Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

1)    Place lemon zest and juice in a stainless steel bowl.
2)    Whisk in extra virgin olive oil.
3)    Season with salt and pepper.

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