How to Eat – the series identifying the best way to eat Britain’s favourite foods – is perennially baffled by the division brussels sprouts provoke. When you consider the criminal acts that occur on the Christmas table – bone-dry, taste-void turkey; the medieval torture that is bread sauce; bitumen-like gravy; juvenile cranberry jelly; powdery husks of roast potato – how is it this member of the Brassicaceae family gets so much heat?
Sprouts – subject of this month’s HTE Christmas special – are a not just delicious but essential element of any Christmas dinner.
If the occasion is less a meal than a perilous ascent up a meat-and-potato mountain, the vegetables on the plate act as a resting point, a breather, an inflection of freshness as revitalising as oxygen at 24,000ft. After your 14th pig-in-a-blanket, the bitter sprout is the mineral-metallic palate cleanser, the metaphorical energy gel that makes that last push through the final mouthfuls possible.
But more than that, we should be enjoying sprouts in contexts other than that of this overblown roast dinner. Despite growing abundantly in Britain from September to February and providing a healthy source of beneficial antioxidants for most people, the brassica oleracea is regularly ignored in cookbooks. The world regards sprouts as faintly comical when in fact – inhale that sulphurous promise from the stove! – they offer genuine gustatory excitement.
There is a theory that people who love sprouts lack the “bitterness” gene, TAS2R38. But HTE is unconvinced by that take. As with grapefruit, coffee, jacket potatoes or west coast IPAs, it is quite possible to love sprouts precisely because there’s a bitterness folded into their flavour portfolio. That is an unusual, useful characteristic. One that deserves to be celebrated.
A few years ago, it was fashionable to cook with brussels tops (the leaves from the growing stem) – it still is in some quarters – and, apparently, Los Angeles is all over the sprout. But in Britain they are often discussed solely as festive leftovers. HTE is here to change that. One suggestion at a time.
Pleasant ways to eat sprouts
Boiled, as is
Only for the hardcore? HTE would disagree. Some swipe cake mix from the bowl. Others steal more cheese than they grate. The discerning few know that being able to snaffle extra boiled sprouts – your tongue exploring the sprout’s frilly inner leaves as it relinquishes its elemental juices – is one of the major upsides of serving Christmas dinner. Add butter and salt, if you prefer. But, eaten naked, there is something of the very soil in the sprout that makes you feel alive. Note: don’t cross the stem, just trim and boil.
All the other ways, too
“Why anyone boils sprouts when they could roast or fry them is one of life’s great mysteries,” Ottolenghi once wrote. Wrong, but HTE can see his point. Frying, roasting, wood-firing or grilling chars and caramelises sprouts in a way that both intensifies their sweetness and brings a toasted, fireside edge to their bitterness. And such methods also allow you to introduce pork fat to proceedings …
It is a cliche of modern cooking to say: “If in doubt, add bacon.” Not everything benefits from its salty, porcine presence. Sprouts definitely do. Don’t tinker too much. Arguably, adding additional onion or garlic is over-elaboration. Working in sweet elements (cranberry sauce, honey, marsala wine), definitely is. The dish will get rich and sticky. It will lack clearly delineated flavours. Shredding or finely slicing the sprouts before mixing them with the bacon risks a lack of balance in central areas. That can easily become a bacon salad, the sprouts but a whisper on the meaty wind. Instead, you want discernible chunks of sprout seasoned with bacon and its fat.
With chilli (garlic, soy sauce, sesame …)
As with its close relation, cabbage, there is something magical in the interaction of fiery heat and the sprout’s vegetal density. It is like putting Christmas lights on a tree: it brings points of brightness to what could, otherwise, be just a load of dark green foliage. Halved or shredded sprouts also lean into meaty, umami Asian flavours (garlic, soy and/or fish sauce, sesame, etc) and come alive around spring onions and ginger (and Lao Gan Ma). Therefore, they can be very effectively deployed in stir-fries. Finishing cooked spouts with a spritz of citrus also lifts them, and they have an affinity with peanuts, meaning they work surprisingly well in a meat-free pad Thai, too.
Gnocchi is frequently a soft, pillowy stomach-filler. Bland carb overkill. Sprouts are useful in bringing an astringent, adult edge to your gnocchi. Throw in some sausage meat and you are home and hosed.
Marcus Wareing is not known for his midweek teas. But he is the original source for the pearl barley, chorizo and sprout “hot pot” (think: risotto), which is a firm favourite at HTE Towers. Its main flavours – fatty, fermented pork, paprika and tomatoes, by turns sweet and smoky – are ones that sprouts play off and around brilliantly.
Used to mine a pasta bake
Sprouts are amazing tucked betwixt short strands of curly or tubular pasta. Aim for a nubby, stubby rubble of components. Texturally, the pasta and sprouts offer a toothsome contrast and cheese is one of the sprout’s great foils (see also gratin).
On a white pizza
Paired in a no-brainer with mozzarella and pancetta. Not that this approach, popularised by New York’s Motorino (Honest Crust in Manchester do a fine version), always receives a warm welcome. As Graham Faragher from Bertha’s Pizza put it in 2015: “Sprouts get a lot of bad press and this pizza is a nightmare to sell.”
With chestnuts and cream
As with spinach, almost any combination of cream, shallots, garlic, wine, mustard, nutmeg and sprouts is going to fly.
Used up in bubble’n’squeak
The greatest day of the festive season is always that evening, between Christmas and New Year, when you are struck by the urgent need to use up your remaining leftovers. But, in the dark, sleepless fug of “party season”, you find yourself incapable of cooking anything that requires great effort. Instead, you simply mash and fry everything available into well-browned, crusty pats of pleasure. Topped with an egg and doused in your preferred chilli/tomato/random sauce, this is comfort food in excelsis.
Less pleasant things that can occur with sprouts
Eating them raw in a slaw or salad
Raw, shredded sprouts are a surprisingly neutral vehicle for vinaigrettes, mayo, mustard or Asian-influenced combos of garlic, chilli, ginger, lime, fish sauce, etc. But the texture? It is leathery rather than crunchy and harder work than food should be. It all feels a bit “cattle feed”.
They encounter blue cheese
No blue cheese in hot food is a rule HTE lives by. It has served it well. Please, step away from the stilton.
You are asked to drink them …
… in a smoothie. (Yes, this is a thing people do.)
They are combined with fruit
It is normally apple (due to sprouts’ affinity with pork), but you also see poor mini-cabbages married with everything from sultanas to pineapple, pomegranate molasses, fig jam or cranberry jelly. HTE tries to remain open-minded (honestly!) but combining sprouts with chunks of fruit, and/or the high-contrast sweetness of syrups and jams, feels like one of those Hey, what if it was opera … but drum’n’bass? ideas – in other words, best left on the drawing board. Shortly before breaking up the drawing board and taking it to the tip. Not all food must be sweet. Sprouts do nothing to invite that “tweak”.
They are dressed with nuts
The suggestion you might spruce up cooked sprouts by simply scattering almonds, walnuts, pecans and pistachios on them seems a bizarre textural collision. Possibly inspired by those who describe sprouts as “nutty” in flavour. Plainly, they are not.
So, sprouts, how do you eat yours?
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