Pairing Brussels sprouts with bacon is hardly a new idea, but the combination has taken off on menus, online recipes and food TV. Given the ongoing worship of all things bacon, I suppose this was inevitable. But the pairing has gotten popular enough to necessitate a reminder that it's possible to eat Brussels sprouts without bacon, as well.
Those green brassica balls go effortlessly and deliciously, for example, in that most vegetarian of dishes, the leafy salad. But however you prepare them, most successful Brussels sprout dishes begin by cutting the sprouts in half.
Cutting Brussels sprouts in half multiplies the ratio of surface area to volume, which is key when it comes to holding sauce. The many layers of tightly wrapped leaves exposed by a halved sprout can hold a surprising amount of flavoring. This is crucial, because Brussels sprouts have a strong flavor of their own, and the more sauce you can balance against them, the better.
Raw Brussels sprouts are too strong for most palates, so they generally need to be cooked before you toss them in a pan or salad bowl. My two favorite ways of cooking Brussels sprouts are roasting and steaming. Roasting gives them a weathered taste and feel. The dry heat cultivates extra flavor as the outer leaves develop a brown crisp. Steaming sprouts preserves a certain clean, bright innocence in them, the better to deflower with ranch dressing or a light mix of olive oil, salt and vinegar.
In the oven, I roast my cut sprouts at 350 degrees, sprinkled with olive oil and tossed with carrot coins or slices of winter squash. Stir often and cook for about half an hour or until they show the first signs of browning.
Steamed, they only need five to 10 minutes, depending on the sprouts' thickness, until they soften all the way through.
Whether you steam or roast is entirely dependent on the final dish in mind. For salad, the rough, rich flavors of roasted Brussels sprouts add bold contrast to the leafy greens.
In a salad with Brussels sprouts, I go for sturdy greens like romaine lettuce or endive, and a dressing of equal parts olive oil, cider vinegar and soy sauce. Some or all of the cider vinegar can be replaced by balsamic, if you prefer.
One snazzy way to liven up a winter salad is with seasonal fruit. Chunks of orange or grapefruit add nice acidic sweetness to a Brussels sprouts salad, as do pomegranate seeds.
If more people knew how to cook these tight wads of bitter leaves, maybe Brussels sprouts wouldn't be such a symbol of vegetable hatred. Just remember, with Brussels sprouts, good cooking starts with slicing and sauce.