Sprout Up

Chefs try to conquer the veggie’s bad reputation.

Pity the poor Brussels sprout, maligned by finicky millions and condemned to spinach/pea preconception. But redemption is possible—no, probable—with a pot of simmering salted water or a pan of olive oil and thyme.

Last night was proof. My exchange-student daughter predictably wrinkled her nose at the sight of them in their cardboard basket. “What are those? I don’t think I like them,” she groused. (Her English is perfect, if not her assumptions.) “Trust me,” I said. And she did, an hour later demolishing a pile of the oven-roasted, oil- and balsamic-glazed orbs. I’d bet my peas and carrots that she wouldn’t have been alone. Given the right treatment, these mini-cabbage-like buds, now available from Southern California, are gems of tenderness and vegetal depth. Convincing diners of that truth is a chef’s constant challenge.

“People consider Brussels sprouts a lot like lamb and cauliflower in that, at some time in their past, someone screwed up cooking them,” says Chef Chris Vergara of Meritage Restaurant (1505 Weaver St, Scarsdale 914-472-8484; meritagerestaurant.net) and the new Harper’s Restaurant & Bar (92 Main St, Dobbs Ferry, 914-693-2306). “Now, there’s a stigma around them. The tendency is to cook them either way too much or not enough, and they’re not pleasant to eat.” That won’t be a problem at Meritage, where the leaves are separated “for a more delicate form,” Vergara maintains, then sautéed with butter, shallots, and herbs and paired with cod or striped bass. For a heartier partnering with roasted pheasant or venison, the sprouts are quartered, sautéed, and roasted with pancetta, then glazed with a red wine or cider reduction and a touch of maple butter. “Brussels sprouts are mild enough but substantial enough to carry that kind of treatment,” he says. But some salted water will do the trick as well. Just halve or quarter the sprouts and simmer until they’re soft but not mushy when bitten into. Then drain, butter, and salt them. “It’s simple,” Vergara says, “but the integrity of the vegetable comes through.” Integrity, yes. So enough with the naysaying—it’s time to hit the market, turn on the stove, and show some respect.

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Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta and Cranberries
(Courtesy of Chris Vergara, Meritage Restaurant)
(Serves 4)

1 Tbsp olive oil
½ cup pancetta, cut into ½-inch dice
2 cups medium Brussels sprouts,
½ cup dried cranberries,
reconstituted in one cup hot water
for 15 minutes and drained
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup apple cider, simmered until
reduced to 1 Tbsp
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper,
to taste

In large sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add pancetta and cook until fat renders and begins to crisp. Add Brussels sprouts and toss with pancetta. Cook, tossing frequently, until Brussels sprouts are lightly browned and tender.

Add cranberries and toss. Drain off excess fat. Swirl in butter and cider reduction until a light glaze forms. Season with salt (keep in mind that pancetta is salty) and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

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