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Brussels Sprouts: Follow Your Nose

December 02, 1993|MICHAEL ROBERTS

During the holidays, when our cooking is often done without recipes, we home cooks often overlook the importance of relying on our senses to help us prepare a meal that consists of so many dishes.

I'm talking about the sound that the gravy makes when it's cooked long enough in the bottom of the roasting pan. You can actually hear it bubble, calling to you that it's ready.

Or using your nose to tell you when the turkey is ready. If your nose is sensitive you will realize that the aromas escaping from your oven change when the bird is close to doneness. The aroma becomes more concentrated as the skin browns, as the juices caramelize, as clumps of stuffing escape from the bird and brown on the bottom of the roasting pan.

The signal I remember best is the smell of Brussels sprouts cooking. My mother used to boil them for about an hour, and when they were overcooked to her liking, their odor took over the kitchen, overpowering even the aroma of the nearly roasted turkey in the oven.

I always serve Brussels sprouts at the holidays, in memory, I suppose, of holidays past. Judging from the lack of Brussels sprouts recipes in cookbooks, I think that most of us serve them not because we're fond of them but because our mothers did. And we cook them from memory, boiling them until they smell.

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The smell test for knowing how long to cook Brussels sprouts turns out to be a real one. Brussels sprouts, like all members of the cabbage family, are rich in mustard oils that break down into odoriferous compounds when cooked. In fact, the longer they are cooked, the more these smelly compounds are produced. So, as the pungent bite of the raw vegetable disappears, it is replaced by an even stronger odor.

You'll know that the Brussels sprouts are done when they begin to smell--but not too much. You should achieve the appropriate balance between flavor and aroma, depending on the dish you're preparing. When cooked with a bit of care, Brussels sprouts are as versatile a vegetable as any.

For salads or to serve as a chilled marinated vegetable, blanch in salted water until barely tender and just beginning to release aroma. Chilled dishes aren't usually very aromatic anyway, and flavor is maintained.

To serve as a hot vegetable side dish, glaze in chicken broth rather than boiling in water until mushy. The time it takes to reduce the broth to a glaze gives the proper blend of flavor and aroma. To make a delicious soup, cook longer--until they start to smell rather strong--then puree with the cooking liquid.

To prepare Brussels sprouts for cooking, remove outer dark-green leaves. Trim off a bit of the stem and cut an X into the stem core.

MARINATED BRUSSELS SPROUTS AND ONIONS

1 1/2 cups trimmed Brussels sprouts

1 medium onion, very thinly sliced

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

1 teaspoon dried dill weed

Bring pan of salted water to boil. Add Brussels sprouts and boil 6 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water until cool. Drain.

Halve Brussels sprouts from top to stem and place in bowl. Add onion, vinegar, lemon juice, oil, sugar, salt, pepper and dill. Toss. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Makes 4 servings.

CREAM OF BRUSSELS SPROUTS SOUP

1 tablespoon butter

1 cup trimmed Brussels sprouts

1 medium onion, chopped

2 cups chicken broth

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

1 cup half and half

Melt butter in pan over medium heat. Add Brussels sprouts and onion. Cook, covered, stirring occasionally, 15 minutes. Add broth, salt and pepper and cook, covered, 30 minutes longer.

Remove from heat. Puree mixture in blender or food processor. Return puree to pan. Add half and half and cook over low heat until heated through. Serve hot. Makes 4 servings.

GLAZED BRUSSELS SPROUTS

1 1/2 cups trimmed Brussels sprouts

1 1/2 cups chicken stock or low-sodium canned broth

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

Combine Brussels sprouts, stock, butter, caraway seeds, salt and white pepper in saucepan or pan large enough to hold Brussels sprouts. Sprouts can be crowded, but should be in 1 layer. If pan is too large, add additional stock or water to cover sprouts. Bring to boil over medium heat and simmer about 20 minutes.

As liquid starts to turn into reduced, shiny glaze, gently toss or stir Brussels sprouts to coat on all sides. Transfer sprouts to vegetable dish, scraping any glaze over them. If not serving immediately, rewarm sprouts in covered dish in oven before serving. Makes 4 servings.

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