The last of Christmas - Brussels sprouts

"The Marmite of the Christmas dinner table." Countryside

Marmite is one of those umami things, so I can only assume that the writer of that comment is a fan. As is virtually every chef or cook worthy of the descriptor 'celebrity'. The Brussels sprout itself has become a celebrity and not just at Christmas. Indeed here at Christmas it is not technically in season, so we shouldn't be able to get them. Although of course we can. I do confess though that in our family we have switched to braised cabbage rather than Brussels sprouts as the 'greens' component of the Christmas dinner spread. I'm not quite sure why because I do like Brussels sprouts. Perhaps it's because the kids didn't like them so I gave up.


These days Brussels sprouts are one of those oh so trendy vegetables, although it's hard to pin down who started all of that. Yotam Ottolenghi perhaps. The world seems to have decided that it is a super food health wise not just because of the vitamins and minerals and all those other things with chemical sort of names, that they seem to be packed with, but also because:


"Sprouts, then, do most of their work low down in the digestive system, not much affected by acid in the stomach but broken down and fermented by that most fashionable of entities, the gut microbiome. Oh yes . . . suddenly sprout farts are not just a low-grade gag but something so relevant, so utterly cool you could run a lifestyle Instagram account all about them." Tim Hayward - Financial Times


He is so right. Other than the fact that Brussels sprouts were generally cooked to death in water, ending up with a mushy texture and a bitter taste, they were also responsible for wind - like beans, but that too seems to have been made into a virtue.


"Sadly another (particularly British) tradition at Christmas time is to boil sprouts until they are soft, soggy and sulphurous. This unfortunate introduction to overcooked sprouts in childhood may have traumatised generations and given the sprout a much undeserved reputation." Trevor George - The Conversation


Actually I have always liked Brussels sprouts even if they were cooked to death in lots of water. And, yes, my mother made a cross in the stalk before boiling them, although I gather this too is no longer the right thing to do. If I had any qualms about Brussels sprouts it was those that Bert Greene describes in his folksy introduction to the vegetable - the possibility of creepy crawlies hiding in between the leaves. Like peas, back in the day, you were likely to come across such things in vegetables. They hadn't yet sprayed everything with poison, and/or developed pest resistant varieties. Thankfully I think we have probably passed through the era of spraying crops with poison.

They are a very ancient vegetable, although probably not quite as we know them today. The Romans were big fans. And yes they do come from Brussels - well the Netherlands of Holland and Belgium. The climate and soil suits them admirably. They like frost. Yes they actually like it and the frost actually makes them taste sweeter. Initially though they were much more like leafy kind of greens.


"They were usually grouped under the tantalisingly vague title of “coleworts”. These were varieties with clear separate leaves, the kind of thing we might recognise today as kale, “spring greens”, sea cabbage or cavolo nero.

But, once the farmer cut the stem, the plant responded by “sprouting” tightly packed leaf buds. If the stem could be encouraged to grow tall, then many small sprouts grew around it in a manner related to the Fibonacci sequence — a pleasing spiral — a practice perfected, about 500 years ago, in parts of Germany and, significantly, around Brussels." Tim Hayward - Financial Times


Those leaves at the top can be eaten too and are also becoming trendy. As for the stems:

"sprout stems make amazing walking sticks, as strong and whippy as malacca cane, and ... certain varieties are grown for the particular purpose of their manufacture." Tim Hayward - Financial Times


Which means it's rapidly turning into one of those do it all plants like the coconut palm.


I actually tried to grow some last year. I think my one remaining plant of the batch I bought produced one Brussels sprout. Not an experiment I shall be repeating.


As for Christmas - I don't seem to have found any explanation for why they are such a Christmas tradition other than the coincidence of Christmas and the best time for them. It is certainly true that they are the must have green vegetable at Christmas time with the leftovers made into bubble and squeak the next day. Bubble and squeak, to my mind should be made with Brussels sprouts not cabbage.


"Personally I love a sprout. Sprouts are what make a Christmas dinner special, because they don’t tend to fit in any other meal and they’re seasonally available in the late fall/early winter, so they always taste of that one special day." Fraser McAlpine - BBC America - Anglophenia


So if boiling them to death is not what you should do how do we cook them today? Well actually of course, people have been cooking them other ways for a very long time - most usually butter, bacon, breadcrumbs and various nuts, especially chestnuts are involved. Robert Carrier has several versions of these basic recipes in his Robert Carrier cookbook. I was going to search for a few tempting modern recipes and then I saw this:


"It would be facile to give you a list of novel ways to “perk up” your sprouts this Christmas, to list quick and easy recipes — that’s what the internet is for." Tim Hayward - Financial Times


Which for a moment made me feel bad - and even worse - boring. Because, oh dear, I know I have a tendency to just list recipes. There are actually various complicated recipes on the net which I won't trouble you with. Yotam Ottolenghi is probably the place to start if you want to try that sort of thing. And do - the results will invariably be delicious. And actually Tim Hayward couldn't resist either because he actually proposes one of the more 'extreme' things to do with them - kimchi!

"Smash up some garlic, fresh ginger and hot red pepper to a rough paste. Trim 500g of sprouts, halve them and then massage them vigorously in a bowl with the paste and a couple of tablespoons of nam pla fish sauce.

Pack everything tightly into a preserving jar, excluding as many air gaps as possible, then cover with brine, 1g of salt to every 10g of water. Cover the jar loosely but don’t seal it.

After five days, your kimchi will be interesting; after two weeks it will be sensational and, quite possibly, explosively good."


The picture is actually from Bon Appétit which also has a recipe. It's slightly more complicated although not much.


Another intriguing recipe I found was from River Cottage's Gill Meller - barbecued sprouts. No picture for this one I'm afraid:


"Turn whole Brussels sprouts through olive oil with crushed garlic, toasted cumin seeds, chilli, lemon zest and sumac, then thread on to skewers, season with crunchy salt and grill over glowing embers. Blistered and tenderised, smoky, nutty and sweet, they are fantastic eaten off the stick with mint and yoghurt, as a side dish to barbecued lamb."


Then there are all the variations on roasted, soup, and salad although Jane Grigson is not a fan of salad:


"I am not so devoted to Brussels sprouts raw in salads though I made an exception for them mixed with grapefruit - just. Otherwise their cabbagey nature and texture is too pronounced and reminds me vividly of the dreaded coleslaw. If you want to make a good cabbage salad, you must use Chinese leaf." Jane Grigson


Coleslaw - another time. Or have I done it already?


If you have one of the current multitude of vegetarian cookbooks by all the world's best chefs and cooks, and if you just browse the internet as Tim Hayward suggests, you will find lots more ideas. Roasting seems to be the current favourite way to go and it's his too:


"I shall chop some smoked bacon and shallots quite finely, render them down and roll baby sprouts among them. I shall place them in an ovenproof dish, pour over crème fraîche, crust the top with breadcrumbs and a hint of Parmesan and put the lot in the oven at about the same time as the roast potatoes.

The liquid in the sprout leaves will turn to steam, softening them and increasing their nutty sweetness. The cream and bacon will combine to create a robust sauce. The crust will crisp beautifully and all will be well with the world."


The picture is not his, but I'm guessing it would look a bit like this version.


Robert Carrier had a recipe a bit like this, so perhaps not that new.


And that's the end of my traditional Christmas foods. I think I've done mince pies before, and does anyone really make or indeed eat Christmas pudding here in Australia any more.


Goodby Christmas, hello Easter. The hot cross buns are in the shops now.


POSTSCRIPT

We did have Nigella's Indian-spiced chicken and potato traybake. My husband was very impressed and I have to say it was very tasty and super easy. I had to make a couple of changes - no thighs with skin and bone in the supermarket - only fillets, so perhaps not quite as crispy as Nigella's. Also no mustard seeds so I just added a bit of mustard. And yes it is difficult to do the arithmetic when the recipe is for six and you are cooking for two, and the measurements are all imperial anyway because my particular copy of At my Table is the American edition. The Americans are obviously much more insular than everybody else as there are no conversions to metric. I think the arithmetic meant that I had slightly too much lime juice in there. Anyway - highly recommended. You can find the recipe here.

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