What's in Season at the Farmers Markets: Sweet Winter Brussels Sprouts
Brussels sprouts on the stalk at the South Central Farmers Cooperative booth at the Hollywood market.
It was the vegetable so many kids loved to hate. Too bad, as it was mostly because parents were overcooking it into a sulphur-smelling, dull green blob of goo. Yum. Thankfully that's a mostly extinct cooking trend.
The Brussels sprout (with the 's' at the end to honor the modern cultivar's origins), when cooked, pickled, or preserved properly, is a nutty and sweet brassica, full of the nutrients your mom wanted you to eat and without any of the stink. The Brussels sprout needs chilly weather to thrive, which is why there are tight green buds spiraling down freshly cut columnar stalks at so many growers' tables this time of year. Recent cold snaps also mean that they'll be a little sweeter than later springtime harvests. For the best flavor, get them between now and the last frost.
Turns out kids the world over have probably been hating on the Brussels sprout for thousands of years. The precursor to what we know as the modern Brussels sprout came from ancient Rome, and in the 1300s it found a good home in Belgium, where it evolved into the little green orb we know today. The French brought it to Louisiana around 1800, and from there it was sent to California's fertile Central Valley in the 1920s. Today, it's predominantly grown along the cooler coastal regions, where it can produce harvests from late summer through the following spring.
The Brussels sprout tastes best when grown in super chilly winter weather, especially if it sits through a frost. The chill turns the flavor decidedly sweet (true for other brassicas like broccoli and kohlrabi), which pins its prime season between December and February.
Overcooking ruins it, both nutritionally and aromatically. The worst thing you can do to a Brussels sprout, aside from burning it, is to boil it. This releases one of its most beneficial compounds, sinigrin, also responsible for that eggy stink people love to hate. Opt for roasting, which brings out its nuttier taste, or a gentle steaming.
The Brussels sprout also preserves well, either in a pickle or freezing. If freezing for later, be sure to blanch for three to five minutes, depending on the size, before putting it in cold storage. If buying them on the stalk, look for firm, leafy foliage and sprouts evenly spiraling down the stalk. Before cooking, remove them with a sharp paring knife and trim the stub and outer leaves. If buying them already off the stalk, select for tight and dense buds that squeak a little when pinched. Avoid soft, squishy sprouts and look for small holes.Though pests are rarer in cooler months, they do occasionally hitchhike.
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