Are you planning a feast of some sort this Saturday? I know I am. Roast turkey (I contemplated goose for a day or two); dressing with homemade pork sausage and apples; Mike's fantastic, rich, and rustic mashed potatoes; braised pearl onions; roasted carrots & parsnips; the essential cranberry sauce with tangerines, almonds, and star anise; and the ugly duckling of the holiday feast: sautéed Brussels sprouts with bacon & herbs.
I had never eaten a Brussels sprout until a year or two ago. My mother had grown up hating them, so she never made them at home, and while I spent college tentatively trying new foods and cuisines, I wasn't quite ready for institutionally-prepared, boiled-and-buttered sprouts, however good my school's food might have been.
Finally, finally, I spent one winter Saturday wandering through the farmers' market, looking for inspiration. There they were: little miniature cabbages, so cute and unoffending, so green and bright among the root vegetables and butternuts, so lonely and unwanted. I grabbed a few—their bad rap renewed my tentative streak—and went home to my internet and my trusty, dog-eared, and stained copy of Chez Panisse Vegetables.
It was love at first bite. Why on earth does everyone malign the poor, defenseless Brussels sprout? When cooked properly, they are nutty, sweet, and not at all stinky like their reputation suggests, and they are now a regular winter guest in our home. I've tried them hashed (delicious tossed with hot pasta) and whole, and you can't go wrong roasting the halves in a hot oven until caramelized around the edges—adults and children alike will be filching them off the platter like candy.
My new favorite way to prepare sprouts, discovered this November, is with bacon. It may be unoriginal, and it may counteract the various health benefits—but try it and you may be converted. The sprouts are sautéed in some of the rendered fat just until hot, after which point a splash of white wine and stock are added to deglaze the pan. As the sprouts finish cooking, the sauce coats them in a silky emulsion of smoky bacon, herbs, and wine—the flavor is bright and springy, fending off the winter blues, making you raise your eyebrows and reach for more with each bite.
If you're afraid of Brussels sprouts, if you've been trained to think of them as little ping pong balls of evil, please, take a deep breath, drink a glass of wine, and try them with bacon.
Sautéed Brussels Sprouts with Bacon
Adapted from a few recipes in Chez Panisse Vegetables
If you don't like bacon or don't eat it, add a couple tablespoons of olive oil to replace the lost fat. This recipe will double (or even triple, I suppose) easily, but you want the sprouts in a single layer if possible so that they will cook evenly.
About 1 pound fresh Brussels sprouts (chose smaller heads with compact leaves)
1 tablespoon butter
2-3 ounces uncured bacon (about 2-3 slices for most)
½ small onion or one shallot, chopped (optional)
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
salt & pepper
splash white wine
2-4 tablespoons mild stock or water
Peel off the tough, blemished outer layers of each sprout, revealing clean, bright heads. Trim the root end of each sprout and cut in half or quarters; if the size varies, cut smaller specimens in half only.
Meanwhile, heat the butter a large pot over medium-high heat. Cut the bacon into lardons about ½ inch thick and add to the pot. Cook, stirring once or twice, until just beginning to brown (note: if your bacon renders a huge amount of fat, you may want to remove a small amount before proceeding). If desired, add the onion or shallot and stir to combine.
Add the sprouts, thyme, and bay leaf and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring regularly, until the sprouts are hot and just beginning to wilt and brown, 3-4 minutes. Add a splash of white wine and stir well to deglaze. Add two or three tablespoons stock, partially cover, and let cook until the sprouts are tender throughout, about 5-10 minutes more. If the mixture is dry, add a bit more stock. Serve hot.
Serves about 4 as a side dish at a normal meal; at a feast with many dishes, would probably serve 8 easly