Opinions on Brussels sprouts resemble the opinions we now find in the current state of American politics: 100% polarized. Think about it. When have you ever seen someone ambivalently shrug at the mere mention of these small green critters? People either love them or hate them, and never the two shall meet. I don’t understand it, personally, as I have yet to meet a vegetable I have not liked. Brussels sprouts just happen to be one of my many favorites. But loads of people out there beg to differ, and they are pretty darn vocal about it.
Pulitzer Prize-winning American author and columnist Dave Barry had this to say about them: “We kids feared many things in those days – werewolves, dentists, North Koreans, Sunday School – but they all paled in comparison with Brussels sprouts.” Yikes.
Others, like political satirist and journalist P. J. O’Rourke, felt down-right contempt: “A fruit is a vegetable with looks and money. Plus, if you let fruit rot, it turns into wine, something Brussels sprouts never do.”
Brussels sprouts didn’t fare much better in my marriage…initially. Erik, who is one of the most open-minded people I’ve ever met, was pretty categorical on the subject. “Let’s just pretend they don’t exist.”
I took it as a personal challenge. Clearly.
As it turns out, he just had never eaten well-prepared Brussels sprouts. They had always been shoved on his plate, plain and boiled and with that bitter, hard core still attached. Generally, they had also been overcooked and mushy or under-cooked and crispy hard. No wonder, right? Once I helped my cause by attending to those rudimentary details, I set out to make them irresistible. It didn’t take long to create a winning formula, in the guise of bacon, roasted chestnuts and Parmigiano Reggiano. I mean, how can you not like anything with enough bacon, roasted chestnuts and Parmigiano Reggiano on it?
And who better to bring that point home to me than my dad, the realist.
“Hey, dad, guess what?” I asked one day when he and my mom were visiting and we were cleaning mussels together. Not even bothering to wait for a reply, I added, perhaps a bit smugly: “Remember how Erik didn’t use to eat Brussels sprouts? Well, he likes them now.” (I know, it’s not Jon Stewart-worthy material, but in my family these are the conversations that bind us together.)
“Really? And how did you accomplish that?” He was too polite to mention how our pesky little green friends had been the only thing Erik had politely declined, despite being prepared by my mom’s loving hands, on his first visit to their house.
“Oh, I made them just with some pancetta, Parmesan and roasted chestnuts.”
He looked at me and his eyes twinkled as they narrowed ever so slightly. “Hmmm. You bet he likes them like THAT. Seems a bit like cheating to me.”
I guess I knew I was, cheating I mean. Deep down inside, I did. But I just really wanted Erik to like Brussels sprouts. What’s a girl to do? But, it has bugged me. I mean, I could make Brussels sprouts pop without the help of heavy hitters like bacon…right?
Once again, I took it as a personal challenge. Clearly.
This recipe was one of my first attempts. I got the idea of adding the red pepper because of this paste rub that I make for baby-back ribs. I make extra and freeze it in little containers. Then, when I’m rushed for time and want to jazz up some steamed broccoli or green beans, I add a little of the rub to a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and sautee it all for a few minutes on high heat in a skillet. Delicious! So why not Brussels sprouts, I reasoned.
And I could roast them together, to simplify things. So I had the slightly bitterness in the Brussels sprouts, the salty from the sea salt and the sweet from the red peppers. Something was missing. I somehow needed to round out the flavor, I thought, which is how I came up with a balsamic vinegar reduction, which would lend some tartness to the mix.
While it tasted delicious, it looked a tad uninspiring on the plate. Then, I remembered that I still had feta cheese made from goat’s milk in my fridge and decided that its ivory white would add just the perfect touch of brightness, along with some creaminess, to the dish. The radicchio is all show, though I ate that too and it went really well with everything.
making brussels sprouts with red pepper & balsamic glaze
Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and preheat it to 425ºF.
Clean 2 pounds of Brussels sprouts by removing the outer leaves and trimming their hard, bitter bottom. If the sprouts are large, cut them in half lengthwise, otherwise leave small Brussels sprouts whole.
In a medium bowl, toss the prepped Brussels sprouts, 3 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 tablespoons of water, and sea salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste.
Mix until all the sprouts are coated and transfer them to a rimmed baking sheet. If they are cut in half, arrange them so the cut sides are facing down. Cover the baking sheet tightly with aluminum foil and place in the oven, lowering the temperature to 400ºF. Roast for 10 minutes. This essentially steams the sprouts without needing to dirty a steamer, which is pretty nifty.
In the meantime, simmer 1 cup Balsamic Vinegar of Modena in a small sauce pan over medium-high heat until it reduces by half, about 10 minutes. It should be thick and syrupy. You should be able to see a streak when you run a spoon against the bottom of the pan. Set aside to cool.
Also in the meantime, chop 1 red bell pepper into ¾ of an inch cubes and place them in a bowl with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and just a little sea salt and fresh cracked pepper. Mix well.
Take the tray out of the oven and remove the foil. Add the red pepper cubes, return the tray to the oven. Make sure that each pepper piece lies flat on the baking tray. (I was still integrating the peppers when I took this shot.)
Continue to cook, uncovered, until the Brussels sprouts are well browned and the red pepper tender and slightly charred on the sides, about an additional 10-15 minutes or so. Remove from the oven and transfer them to a bowl. Toss with just enough balsamic vinegar reduction to properly season them. (Use any leftover reduction for future salads.) Add sea salt and pepper to taste. Mix well and serve. Optional: arrange on a serving platter with a ¼ cup of goat-milk feta cheese and several radicchio leaves for dramatic effect. Makes 6 servings.