The Brussels sprout is like a tiny cabbage. It is a brassica. It matures just as summer ends and the weather turns cold. It has a tight head made up of a multitude of leaves. And a touch of frost just before harvest really sweetens it up.
It also travels in the same circles as its much larger cousin—adorning holiday plates, a happy companion to all roasts and really any kind of pork, or just delicious braised with butter and dressed with salt and pepper.
But the two vegetables are yet quite different. Where cabbage is hardy and easy to grow, the Brussels sprout is not.
“It’s a finicky crop,” says Chris Benedict, an Extension educator in Whatcom County who works with a number of small farms that grow Brussels sprouts. Benedict also plants them in his own garden. “They’re not as finicky as cauliflower [another member of the cold season brassica clan], but still pretty demanding.”
Too much rain makes them rot. Strong wind can blow over the top-heavy stalks. They’re substantial feeders, which means they need consistent fertilizer and a lot of it. And they’re easy prey for grasshoppers and cabbage worms.
“I’ve always thought of the Brussels sprout as the prima donna of the farm,” says Anna Martin, who grows organic vegetables and birds with her husband Geoff at Osprey Hill Farm in Acme, a little community in the North Cascades foothills. The plant requires space, time, and plenty of water and soil nutrients. “They’re kinda moody.” To top it off, she says, they aren’t ready for harvest until the weather turns sour. “Twisting tiny cabbage-like balls off in the biting cold and sideways rain is not my idea of a good time.”
Their first few years with the crop, the Martins harvested as much disappointment as they did vegetable. There were tricks of timing— putting it into the field too late meant there weren’t enough days for it to mature before the days shortened. Too early, and harvest happens when the weather is warm, and no one wants wilted sprouts. And the insects of late summer seemed to devour them.
At one point, the Martins were ready to drop the crop entirely. Though they had mastered the timing and the nutrients, the Brussels were suffering damage from October’s wind and rain.
But a few years ago they came upon an alternative called Flower Sprouts, which crossed the Brussels with kale. They were rewarded with green and purple buds, with leaves slightly looser than the traditional Brussels, and great cold hardiness and insect resistance.
Along with Brussels sprouts and their brassica relatives, the Martins grow potatoes, a collection of carrots and berries, and organic turkeys, ducks, and chickens. They sell most of what their farm yields through food co-ops in Bellingham and the San Juan Islands, and provide boxes of fresh produce, eggs, and poultry directly to subscribing customers in Whatcom and Skagit counties. In the fall, they have a stand at the Bellingham farmer’s market where, if you’re lucky, you can find their blemish-free Brussels sprouts.
A turn up the Martin’s drive, past the neighbor’s field of frolicking lambs, takes you to the first greenhouse where the Martins spend hours every day both tending plants throughout the winter and in the early spring starting seeds for the vegetables they will transplant to their fields. To hit the field in May, a Brussels sprout plant must be started sometime in March. Once it moves outside, it’s another five months, at least, before it’s ready for harvest.
Out in the field, the sprouts look odd, if not prehistoric. First the plants put up broad leaves and then their long stalks push more than two feet out of the ground, elevating the leaves. Dozens of tiny heads develop along the length of the stalk. You may have seen them still on the stalk in the grocery store.
It’s not really better to buy them like that, says WSU’s Benedict. “Well, it saves the farmers some labor,” he says. “It’s not amazingly flavorful, but it can be put into a vegetable broth and it does have an earthy aroma.”
But it’s not necessarily a treat for consumers. The sprouts at the bottom of the stalk may have had a month or more to mature than the sprouts at the top. Their sizes are different and they will cook differently, says Benedict. While the tender small sprouts are a good for quick steaming or frying, the larger ones are much better for roasting and braising.
“My favorite, and simplest, preparation is to caramelize them and then to finish with chopped garlic, chili flake, and olive oil,” says Executive Chef Jason Brzozowy, the chef de cuisine at Tilth, an organic restaurant in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. The restaurant was created by Chef Maria Hines in 2006 to feature organic and sustainable food from our region. It is among the nation’s first restaurants to be certified organic.
Tilth and its sister Hines restaurants, the Golden Beetle and Agrodolce, often make room for local Brussels on their menus. Brzozowy approaches the vegetable with playfulness and aplomb, using it in ways both elegant and comforting. At the Golden Beetle, the Brussels come roasted and then tossed with macaroni and cheese. At Tilth, the chef separates the leaves and blanches them in salty water. “They look pretty, and it’s a lighter way to serve them as opposed to whole or halved,” he says.
“One of our favorite uses so far has been featuring them in a caponata at Agrodolce [the Italian-themed restaurant in Fremont], along with onions, garlic, capers, and golden raisins,” he says. “It’s a perfect interpretation of a Sicilian favorite using Northwest ingredients.”
Brussels sprouts are increasingly popular, in part because we’re finding better ways to prepare them. But something else is at work, says WSU Extension educator Chris Benedict. The sprouts we have today are far less bitter than what our parents ate. That bitterness, brought to us by glucosinolates, has been selectively bred out of them. This may not be an entirely good thing. The glucosinolates, naturally-occurring compounds, have done the plant a service by repelling the insects that would infest them. They may also bring a cancer-fighting component to people who eat them by stimulating the body’s antioxidant system.
Brussels sprout caponata
Courtesy Agrodolce Restaurant
3 tbsp canola oil
1 lb Brussels sprouts, quartered
1 red onion, julienned
½ cup golden raisins
3 tbsp capers, chopped
3 tbsp pine nuts, toasted
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
salt and fresh black pepper to taste
Method: In a large, heavy bottom pan, heat canola oil over medium high heat. Add Brussels sprouts in a single layer and cook until slightly caramelized, stirring once. Add red onion and capers and cook until onion is translucent. Add golden raisins, pine nuts and sugar, then deglaze with red wine vinegar. Adjust seasoning with salt and black pepper.