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Brussels Sprouts: More Than Just Little Cabbages

Brussels sprouts can be a hard sell to those who’ve decided they don’t like them, but maybe knowing what good they can do will motivate a new look at a few recipes.

Last August, I was at a farmer’s market in Scotland when I saw that the early Brussels sprouts had arrived. A whoo-hoo moment for me, to say the least. Brussels are one of my all-time favorite crucifers, despite the fact that I’ve had my share of poorly cooked ones. I imagine many of you have had those too, and wondered what the fuss was about. But I’m here to share that these little green gems are not only packed with nutrition you shouldn’t ignore, but flavor that can be coaxed out and enhanced for even the pickiest of palates.

Brussels sprouts were mostly confined to their native Belgium from the 16th century until WWI when they began to spread across Europe. There, you tend to find a more petite, tender version that in the U.S., where most are grown in California. For some reason, we still think bigger is better in America, but for many veggies the opposite holds true. A larger Brussels can be leggy with loose leaves and less flavor, so when you shop, pick the smaller, compact ones from the display. They should be vivid green with no yellow leaves. Aim to buy ones that are uniform in size to ensure even cooking. To prep, cut off the hardest part of the stem without cutting too far into the sprout, and peel off just a few outer leaves as you would with cabbage.

The health benefits of Brussels sprouts are numerous. Outside of supporting your digestive, cardiovascular and cholesterol management needs as cruciferous vegetables, they are vital to the body’s detoxification system, protecting against oxidative damage and managing inflammation. The body needs sulphur to detoxify and Brussels are rich in this element – hence the sometimes funny smell (more on that below). But where Brussels earn their detox stripes is with the high presence of glucosinolates, which activate the body’s enzyme systems to spur the detoxification process. Those same glucosinolates, along with vitamin K, help regulate the body’s inflammatory response which can reduce at least one risk factor for cancer. On the antioxidant front, vitamins C, E and A are all present here along with manganese. Plus, who would have guessed, Brussels are high in Omega-3 fatty acids – fully one-third of the recommended daily intake in 100 calories’ worth.

So what, you say, if they still smell nasty and taste funny? That pungent smell is usually a result of overcooking which can also make them unpalatable. Both situations can be avoided, and luckily, just now, the holiday magazines are chock full of great preparation ideas.

Of course, the easiest way to cook is steaming. This, if not overdone, preserves the nutrients at their maximum. Steaming time depends on size and can be checked with a sharp paring knife – just don’t wait so long that they become too soft. If small, they can be left whole (you can cut a tiny slit in the core end to help the sprout absorb steam), but larger sprouts can be halved. You can drizzle with a little butter or olive oil and salt and pepper. Easy as toast.

My personal favorite prep method is roasting. Cut sprouts in half, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper and place on a baking sheet in a 400 degree oven for about 20 minutes. The edges will brown and crisp while the insides cook to just underdone. You can also julienne (ribbon) cut the sprouts and pan sauté in olive oil and seasonings.

There are hundreds of ways to dress up sprouts. Caramelized shallots, crispy pancetta, roasted red grapes, feta cheese, vinaigrettes and other dressings. So, before you dismiss these seasonal beauties, try experimenting a little before the holidays to find a version or two you can embrace – and enjoy the taste and health benefits of these little Belgian beauties.

Mary Porter is a nutrition educator, counselor and cook living in the Fort Hunt area. You can email her at mary@betterplate.com

Louisa Snyman April 28, 2013 at 06:36 PM
Thanks for sharing your intimate knowledge of B-sprouts with us, the uninformed. I shall eat these little green angels starting today, delighting in their nutritious quality forevermore. Much appreciated. Louisa,SouthAfrica

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