Brussels sprouts (and yes, that is the proper name whether you are referring to one or many) have been cultivated since Ancient Roman times. In fact, they are of Mediterranean origin. Brussels sprouts, or Choux de Bruxelles, that we know today, were possibly grown as early as the 13th century in what is now Belgium, as it seems that vegetables tend to be named after the region in which they were grown.
Brussels sprouts are a cultivar group, the same species as cabbage, broccoli, and kale. They are cruciferous, belonging to the Brassicaceae family and are a cool weather crop that grows best at temperatures between 59-64 degrees F. Harvest time ranges between 90-180 days after planting. The edible sprouts grow like buds in a helical pattern along the the thick stalks, maturing from the lower part and up. They form one at a time at the base of a single leaf. Picked by hand, resulting in multiple harvests over the span of a few weeks. Entire stalks may be cut at once for processing, depending on the variety. Sprouts are considered to be sweetest after a frost, which makes them a traditional winter vegetable.
Brussels sprouts are sometimes referred to as the “Christmas killer”. And no, despite what my child thinks, it’s not because of the smell while cooking them! They are insanely high in vitamin K and can reverse the effects of Warfarin, a common blood thinner that works by interfering with vitamin K-dependant clotting factor. Medical reports have described people dying of heart attacks and strokes related to Brussels sprouts consumption. People on this medication should consult their physician before partaking with their traditional holiday dinner.
So why do some many people hate Brussels sprouts and what causes that smell and bitter taste? This is where it starts to get complicated.
Glucosinolates are a class of bitter organosulfur compounds found naturally in a range of green vegetables including Brussels sprouts. When broken down by cooking or damage, these compounds are called isothiocyanates. Sulforaphane, which contains sulfur, is from one of them. Sulforaphane is similar to a synthetic chemical called PTC, or phenylthiocarbamide. In 1931, a DuPont chemist named Arthur Fox accidently released a cloud of PTC into the air of his laboratory. His lab partner exclaimed, “what is that bitter taste from?!?”, however, Fox did not taste anything. Spawning more research, Fox discovered that 70% of people could taste the bitterness of PTC, and 30% tasted nothing. It has been proven that the majority of people have inherited a single dominant gene which makes them sensitive to the sulfur protein compounds giving that YUK taste. The PTC test is done in science classes today to help students understand genetic traits.
See, there is truth behind your child (or husband) saying “I hate Brussels sprouts!” It’s in their genes. However, farmers (or are they biochemical companies?) are working on breeding the bitterness out of Brussels sprouts to make them more palatable to those of us with the sensitivity, but to what cost to the plant and us? It is believed this bitter taste protects plants against diseases and wards off insect pests.
Glucosinolates are being studied today for their potential antioxidant qualities. Research suggests that it could have a protective effect against neurodegenerative disorders. None of this has been 100 percent medically proven as of yet.
Have I stimulated your appetite yet? If so, here are a few ways to prepare these Choux de Bruxelles or “cabbages of Brussels”
Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad with Lemon and Pecorino
3/4 cup sliced almonds
1 lb Brussels sprouts
2 oz finely grated Pecorino Romano
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 1/2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp salt (or to taste)
Spread almonds evenly on a baking sheet and place in a preheated 350 degree oven for approx. 8 minutes or until golden. Remove from heat and let cool.
Trim bottoms off and wash Brussels sprouts. Use a slicer blade of a food processor to shave the sprouts, or use a Japanese mandolin to slice them very thin.
Place all ingredients in a medium bowl, toss and serve
Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Garlic
2 lbs washed, trimmed Brussels sprouts
2-4 cloves garlic (depending on your vampire occupancy)
2 Tbs. olive oil
1tsp salt & pepper (or to taste)
Preheat oven to 400
In a heavy roasting pan, gently toss all ingredients. Bake in oven for 20 minutes, toss with a long handled spoon after 10 minutes. Done when crispy, golden brown.
Serve sprinkled with grated Parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast
Caramelized Brussels Sprouts with Apples and Pecans
2 Tbs. olive oil
2 Tbs. unsalted butter
1 lb Brussels sprouts ( trimmed and quartered)
1 Honeycrisp apple ( cored, chopped into 1/2 “ pieces)
3 Tbs. Sherry vinegar
1/2 cup pecans (chopped & toasted)
3 Tbs. raw, local honey
1/2 cup fresh parsley (chopped)
Salt & pepper to taste
In a large cast iron skillet, combine olive oil and butter over medium-high heat. Add Brussels sprouts, season with salt and pepper, cook until sprouts just begin to caramelize, about 4-5 minutes.
Add apples and toss to combine. Cook until apples and Brussels sprouts are caramelized and almost tender, approx 3-4 minutes.
Remove from the heat, add the sherry vinegar, toasted pecans, honey and parsley. Quickly toss to combine, season with salt and pepper and gently spoon onto a platter. Drizzle with additional olive oil if desired.