Clearly coming from an era unaffected by modern horticultural technology, I remember when all vegetables tasted and looked as Mother Nature intended: flavorful without a doubt, but aesthetically blemished.
For a confirmed vegetable lover it is embarrassing to admit, but my childhood was spent avoiding almost every vegetable that came to the table, not out of dislike so much as sheer terror. For I discovered the greenest of all were inevitably tainted with plant borers, white flies and who knows what other form of agricultural scourge.
Indignities Ignored Skipping the vegetables was not easy. My mother, who had once contemplated going to medical school and considered herself to be a scientific free-thinker, was not squeamish in the least. More pertinently, she did not condone that weakness in other members of her family. Her appetite was not dampened in the least by a dash of sand in the spinach or, worse yet, the discovery of some alien insect in a ripe tomato or a pear. And she could never understand my cry over such indignities.
Bouts with Brussels sprouts were particularly painful because I dearly admired the sight of those rosebud cabbages blooming on a single stalk in my grandmother's garden. I also prized her scrupulousness in their preparation, as she assiduously parted each tiny leaf to make absolutely sure no offending arthropod entered the skillet.
My mother tried that too. But she was weak when it came to arduous precooking preparation. After unfurling and picking over the first handful she would dump the rest of the Brussels sprouts into boiling water and let nature take its course.
A Secret Denizen I will never forget the sensation of utter helplessness when I uncovered a curled denizen of the garden in the center of a partially consumed sprout at the dinner table.
"A worm," I shrieked, throwing my utensils to the floor and kicking my heels. Actually, it was half a worm I found. And no amount of supplication or the promise of chocolate cake later could assuage the offense to my sensibilities. "You let me eat a worm!" I accused.
My mother was sanguine on the subject. "Listen," she said, "I'm sorry. But what happened to you is just part of the balance of nature. Worms have to eat and survive like everybody else, don't they?"
She got no argument from me. Worms' territorial rights were inviolate from that moment on. I simply never ate a Brussels sprout for a decade.
These days, Brussels sprouts are air-sprayed before packing to keep them pure. And they are among my favorite winter vegetables, particularly stir-fried. Try the following fiery ginger, shrimp and Brussel sprouts dish borrowed from the Chinese.
BLAZING BRUSSELS SPROUTS AND GINGERED SHRIMP
10 ounces Brussels sprouts, trimmed
1/4 cup peanut or vegetable oil
8 green onions, bulbs and green tops chopped separately
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons minced ginger root
1 pound shrimp, shelled, deveined
1 teaspoon crushed dried hot red peppers
2 tablespoons prepared chili sauce
1 teaspoon ground mild chiles or chili powder
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons dry Sherry
2 tablespoons water
Cut X in stem end of Brussels sprouts. Cook Brussels sprouts, uncovered, in boiling salted water 8 minutes. Rinse under cold running water. Drain. Cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices crosswise. Reserve.
Heat oil in wok or large skillet over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add chopped green onion bulbs. Cook 1 minute. Stir in garlic and ginger. Cook until golden, about 3 minutes. Add shrimp and hot peppers. Cook, tossing constantly, until shrimp turns pink, 3 to 4 minutes.
Combine chili sauce, ground chiles, sesame oil, Sherry and water in small bowl. Stir into shrimp mixture and cook 1 minute. Add Brussels sprouts. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, until warmed through. Add chopped green onion tops. Serve over rice. Makes 4 to 5 servings.
My mother's slack inspection of Brussels sprouts would have never harmed the next recipe.
BRUSSELS SPROUTS SOUFFLE
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
8 to 10 ounces Brussels sprouts, trimmed
1 medium potato, peeled and cubed
1/2 cup whipping cream or half and half
3 egg yolks
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
Dash hot pepper sauce
4 egg whites
Butter 1-quart souffle dish and sprinkle grated cheese over bottom and sides. Set aside in cool place.
Cook Brussels sprouts with potato, uncovered, in boiling salted water 15 minutes. Drain.
Place half of Brussels sprouts and half of potato pieces in container of food processor or blender. Add 1/4 cup cream and process until smooth. Transfer to medium saucepan and repeat with remaining sprouts, potato and cream. Add second batch to saucepan.
Heat pureed mixture to boiling. Remove from heat and let stand 1 minute. Beat in egg yolks, 1 at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Add nutmeg, hot pepper sauce and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Beat egg whites until stiff. Fold into pureed mixture. Pour mixture into prepared souffle dish. Place dish in 400-degree oven and immediately reduce oven heat to 375 degrees. Bake until puffed up and golden, 30 to 35 minutes. Makes 6 servings.