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Secrets of the sprouts

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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When asked why he ordered Brussels sprouts for lunch every day, Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie replied, "I cannot resist ordering them. The words are so lovely to say."

"But he's an old dead guy," said my wife, Laurie, who loves Brussels sprouts. "People expect him to eat Brussels sprouts. You need a quote from, like, Gwen Stefani."


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No can do. But when Kristen Bell, the star of the teen TV series "Veronica Mars," was named one of PETA's sexiest vegetarians, she declared, "I always loved my Brussels sprouts." 

Barrie and Bell may be the only two celebrities ever to publicly admit an affection for the little sprouts, and Barrie, you'll notice, didn't actually say he liked them. So this week's question is: Why don't Brussels sprouts get any respect?

[%image sprouts float=right width=400 caption="Fresh Brussels sprouts, still on the stalk." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/mschowe"]

I'm going on record: I also love my Brussels sprouts. (Although I'll never be named one of PETA's sexiest vegetarians.) Unfortunately, food writers get no awards for loving the sprouts. It's almost expected. 

"I wait all year for Brussels sprouts," writes Molly Wizenberg, author of the blog Orangette and the forthcoming book Orangette: The Stories My Kitchen Tells Me. "Many pine away patiently for October's first pumpkins or November's puckery cranberries, but I hang my hopes on a fresh fall Brussels sprout."

There are, I think, three things that drive people away from Brussels sprouts. I can solve all of them, and then you too can be a hot TV star or dead author.

# Brussels sprouts have an unappealing look, like little alien heads, and tend to overcook when cooked whole. So don't cook them whole. Halve small ones and shred large ones crosswise.
# They require a lot of prep. You have to slice the dried bit off the stem end and remove any old leaves. Combine this with the halving or shredding I'm requiring you do to, and you'll spend half an hour on a side dish. Forget it. I'll explain the solution to this in a minute.
# Despite their indestructible nugget-like appearance, Brussels sprouts are both seasonal and perishable. Fresh sprouts are best in the winter. Look for local ones at a farmers' market. Buy them on the stalk if possible; they'll stay fresher and require less prep, and popping them off the stalk with a knife is kind of fun. And cook them the day you buy them; they start to develop a funky taste after just a couple days in the fridge. (This is also true of cauliflower, I've noticed.)

At this point, I hope you're saying, "Okay, I didn't really like these things anyway, and now he tells me I have to hunt for them next January and wrestle them off a stalk? Screw this."

[%image sprouts-2 float=left width=200 caption="Sprouts and bacon, a match made in panfried heaven." credit="Photo courtesy Matthew Amster-Burton"]

Well, I lied. You don't have to do those things. You can just look for sprouts in (I've always wanted to say this) your grocer's freezer case. Like most frozen vegetables, frozen sprouts are cheaper and more convenient than fresh. Unlike most frozen vegetables, they almost always taste better. The courage to overcome my fresh-is-best prejudice came after I read a column by Mark Bittman in the New York Times_ a couple of years ago:

bq. At a meal last fall at Citronelle, the great Washington restaurant, I was served a delicious plate of Brussels sprouts. When I asked the chef, Michel Richard, where they were from, he said without hesitation, "The freezer."

I bought my first bag of frozen sprouts that day and my freezer hasn't been without them since. I even made an unlikely convert: my daughter, Iris, who was then two, made a dinner of almost nothing but Brussels sprouts one night. (Don't worry — now that she's three, she doesn't like them anymore. Balance is restored in the universe.)

Our house brand of sprouts is Safeway Select Petite. If you can find petite, buy them; they're small enough that you can halve the larger ones and leave the smaller ones whole. But non-petite are also tasty and usually cheaper — although we're talking maybe 75 cents cheaper.

I like to bust out the sprouts at least once a week. Gwen Stefani, if you're reading, let me know what you think.

p(bio). [ "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

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