JANINE PINEO

Mad about that gadabout of sprouts

Posted Nov. 25, 2011, at 3:32 p.m.
Brussels sprouts nestle in the leaf axils of a plant in late October.
Brussels sprouts nestle in the leaf axils of a plant in late October. Buy Photo

It’s the scourge of the dinner plate.

It’s portrayed as universally reviled.

It’s even more unpopular than broccoli.

You have but to say the name and watch for reaction. I mean it. Say it.

Brussels sprouts.

What did that conjure up?

A good many of you just went “eeeeew” and thought of a boiled-to-death muck with a yucky taste and texture.

I never thought so. I always liked vinegar on mine, which adjusted the unique flavor.

Over the past few years, whenever I thought Brussels sprouts, the image that came to mind was a bit different.

Failure.

I couldn’t grow a Brussels sprout to save myself.

I tried to grow them here and there and never made it anywhere. Either bugs ate the plants down to little skeletal structures or they just wouldn’t grow bigger than a blade of grass.

I think the only reason I persisted was because I couldn’t grow them. Mother Nature hurled the gauntlet and I ran with it, a half-dozen or so plants a year falling in the battle.

I always thought the name was a tiny bit exotic. I mean, those Belgian folks with their chocolate and sprouts. Any more opposite in their culinary attractions and the poles might flip.

The origins of the name is a bit hazy, as is the origin of the plant itself. Brassica oleracea var. gemmifera is considered a tall-stemmed cabbage, according to the Texas A&M University horticulture site. Tiny heads form at the leaf axils, instead of one big head of cabbage.

Weird note from the Texas gang: “After a head of common cabbage is cut from the plant, numerous tiny heads often will grow from the remaining stem in much the same manner as in Brussels sprouts.”

I’ve seen something similar on broccoli, so I guess it’s a family trait. Brussels sprouts just do it first.

A lot of references say the sprouts are so named because the plant has been around in the region of Brussels, Belgium, for centuries. Some put the first recorded date to mention the plant in the late 1500s, but a couple state that “market regulations” for the European capital name it in the early 13th century.

The plant didn’t start to travel until the 1700s, making its way through Europe. By the early 1800s, Thomas Jefferson was growing it at Monticello.

The Europeans love Brussels sprouts, although it’s not a surprise to read that they prefer them about a half-inch diameter in size. We Americans tend to want things bigger, which might affect the pungency.

There is a cooking method that will win most folks over to the lusciousness that is the Brussels sprout. Instead of being a dyed-in-the-wool Yank and boiling them, try roasting them.

Cut the little gems in half. Cover a cookie sheet with enough olive oil so the sprouts won’t stick (they don’t need to swim through the oil). Sprinkle a bit of salt on the olive oil and then place the sprouts flat side down. Put them in a 400-degree oven and let them roast.

Depending on the size of sprouts, it might take 20 minutes, but don’t be afraid of the sizzle. You don’t want them black, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if it took 35 minutes or so to get them a crispy, golden brown on the outside. And you’ll probably need to shake them or even turn them over once or twice to keep them browning evenly.

Some of you may want to try tossing the sprouts in a bowl with the salt and olive oil before putting them on the pan and into the oven. That’s OK, too.

Trust me on this: Either way works.

Then, as soon as they are done, eat them.

You’ll want the whole pan.

Which might be the underlying reason I wanted to grow my own sprouts: a steady supply to feed my roasting habit.

They should be easy to grow in Maine. They are a cruciferous vegetable, which means they thrive in places with cooler summers, such as here.

The trick is to not plant them too early, have a steady supply of moisture, and a long growing season to let them mature during the fall.

Check, check and check.

All I did was plant them.

Thanks, Mother Nature, for doing the rest.

jpineo@bangordailynews.com

www.janinepineo.com

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