Brussels sprouts even (my) mother could love
I’ve been thinking about my mother, and how she evolved from a feed-four-kids-and-a-picky-husband cook to a downright adventurous – and highly skilled – one over the course of her life.
The signs were there early: She was still in her 20s when, as a young military wife, she hauled 5-year-old me and my 3-year-old brother off Itazuke Air Force base and the neighboring Japanese town, Fukuoka, to explore a world that must have been downright alien to a girl who was reared by her grandmother on a north Texas dirt farm in the Great Depression. But explore she did, every mom-and-pop restaurant she could find, leafing through her Japanese-English dictionary and pointing to to order interesting-looking dishes, even when she wasn’t sure what they contained. And anything she sampled, we clamored to sample, too.
Thus it was that before I started school, I was gobbling raw fish and pickled daikon and wasabi and hot pink ginger and savory noodle soups and just about anything else put in front of me – while at home we adhered to a comfortably predictable routine of meat loaf, mashed potatoes, southern fried chicken and frozen fish sticks on Fridays.
In those days (the mid 1950s), military commissaries stocked a limited range of fresh vegetables – carrots, green beans, occasional fresh peas or exotic cauliflower – and my mother treated them all pretty much the way her grandmother had: Boiling them to into submission, usually with a hunk of salt pork. Little wonder I was no great fan of vegetables, since they all turned out more or less the same, faded, mushy and tasting of nothing much beyond salt. Pretty much like canned vegetables, come to think of it.
At Thanksgiving, her repertoire expanded to include items not normally part of our menu, but demanded by the Better Homes & Gardens holiday sections, which substituted for the traditions mom had not grown up with. Among them, Brussels sprouts – cooked the same predictable way. She made them every year, and every year none of us – including her or my dad – did more than shove them around on the plate. Personally, I thought they were the grossest things I’d ever tasted, and didn’t understand why I should waste valuable capacity better spent on perfectly good turkey and yams and pecan pie.
And that’s pretty much how I felt about Brussels sprouts all my life. Until several years back, when the oven-roasted vegetables boom hit, and I came across a recipe for sprouts roasted with pine nuts. And went “hmmmm…”
It turns out that roasted Brussels sprouts have almost nothing in common with the watery, limp, bitter-fetal-cabbage sprouts of my childhood. They’re nutty, toasty, sweet and crisp around the edges, and (to my tastes) absolutely delicious.
Now, I’m not the kind of cook who, faced with a dinner guest’s food aversion, says “Oh, but if you just try my take on (whatever-it-is), I know you’ll love them. Here, have just one bite…” I think that’s rude. But I can tell you this: I’ve put these sprouts on the table in front of some real sprout-haters – including my beloved – and some of them have not only tasted the dish of their own free will, but later confessed having bought Brussels sprouts to roast for themselves.
I suspect everyone reading this knows about oven-roasted vegetables. But a sprout aversion has kept you from trying this one, give it a second thought. If worst comes to worst, what the heck: It’s just one more dish of uneaten Brussels sprouts, which is kind of a holiday tradition of its own.
Nutty Roasted Brussels Sprouts
- Fresh Brussels sprouts (if you can find a local source, buy them on the stalk; they stay fresher that way) at least 6-8 per person
- Pine nuts (or coarsely chopped pecans, filberts or blanched almonds)
- Olive oil
- Balsamic vinegar
- Sea salt
Preheat oven to 350F. Rinse the sprouts well, pull off any wilted or bruised outer leaves. Cut small ones in half, larger ones in quarters. Place in a bowl with chopped nuts (about a tablespoon per serving. Drizzle with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar and toss to coat. Spread out on a baking sheet, sprinkle very lightly with sea salt and roast for 20-25 minutes; midway through the roasting, turn sprouts over. They’re done when they’re tender but not limp, with caramelized bits on the cut surfaces.
I usually serve them right away, hot, but if you’re making a big Thanksgiving dinner you can set the roasted sprouts aside, get on with the turkey, etc., and return them to the oven for perhaps five minutes while you carve the bird.