Brussels sprouts, long despised by children and boiled to death by their grandmothers, are enjoying a renaissance. In the past few years, the bite-size crucifers have begun appearing on the menus of fancy-pants chefs from Batali on down. Whether you serve them sautéed to caramelized perfection and tossed with a bit of pancetta, like Mario, or boil them to death yourself, here’s what you need to know.
The Brussels sprouts sold in supermarkets in the familiar plastic-covered pint containers are ubiquitous and convenient. The trouble is, they don’t tend to be the best sprouts. Brussels sprouts, like all vegetables, begin to deteriorate as soon as they’re picked. The sprouts sold in plastic-wrapped containers are shipped from far away (most sprouts sold in the United States are grown in California), which means they’ve experienced a fair amount of aging by the time they appear in your produce section. What’s more, sprouts packed on top of each other often get bruised during shipping, and the plastic covering traps heat and water, which can lead to condensation and speed the onset of rot.
Marc Phillips of New Jersey’s Phillips Farms, a popular Greenmarket supplier, recommends buying locally grown sprouts still on the stalk. “They stay fresher longer,” he says. “Just put the stalk in water and it will last for a week or two. Then cut them off as you need them.” Buying loose Brussels sprouts is a good alternative—select similar-size sprouts, so they’ll all cook at the same time. There’s no real difference in taste among the different varieties of Brussels sprouts, but there are differences in shape. Phillips grows three types—Brilliant, Oliver, and Diablo. Brilliants are a little rounder than the others. Different varieties also mature at different times—go with what’s freshest, Phillips says.
Although sprouts can be purchased year-round, they won’t have the sweet, nutty flavor you want until November or December, after the weather gets cold (the cold air concentrates the sugars; California never gets that cold). Look for sprouts that are heavy for their size and dark green, says Phillips. Yellow is an indication of age; black spots are a sign of fungus. Sprouts should also be hard. “Soft Brussels just won’t have the flavor,” Phillips says.
Where to Buy
Phillips Farm, Maxwell’s Farm, and Ray or Sue Dare (Union Square Greenmarket) sell fresh Brussels sprouts on the stalk (about $3.50 per stalk). Whole Foods (various locations) and the Manhattan Fruit Exchange in Chelsea Market (75 Ninth Ave.; 212-989-2444) also have good selections of sprouts (about $1.50 per pound).