You don't know Brussels sprouts . . . . . . And won't until you've tried them perfectly fresh and as small as marbles and prepared in imaginative ways by some of the area's best chefs.

Posted: November 13, 2003

So many small children pass through tiny Bacchus Market in Fitler Square that owner Tracey Wolfson has become something of an expert on feeding Brussels sprouts to kids.

Her principal strategy is not to lie, per se, but simply to communicate another version of the truth: "Just tell them sprouts are 'baby cabbages.' "

I know more than a few grown-ups who could benefit from rethinking their view of Brussels sprouts, too. But who can blame anyone who was traumatized early on by a bowl of those infamously odoriferous golf balls overcooked to a dull green and ripe with sulfur?

Let me say now: That was sprout abuse!

Give your loved ones little sprouts. Tiny, pixie, cute ones. Marble-sized nuggets of tightly coiled leaves so sweet and nutty and oh-so-delicately bitter that they need only a gentle cooking at most.

Boil them whole for no more than 10 minutes in salted water (8 minutes if you slice them in half). Shave them into shreds and stir-fry for a minute. Or do as farmers do - if you're daring - and just pop a small one into your mouth.

"Ours are so sweet, I get kids to come into the barn and eat them raw," said Ruth Linton, whose farm, Highland Orchards in Wilmington, sells sprouts at the farmers markets at Fitler Square and Clark Park, 43d Street and Baltimore Avenue. (Other farmers markets and Whole Foods stores have them, too.) "And 8-year-olds are the great disbelievers."

One obstacle may be a matter of perception. Most people know sprouts in their frumpy supermarket guise, trimmed down and stuffed into plastic-wrapped pint cups. (If you must use them, choose small ones and remove some outer leaves, which tend to be bitter.)

But few have encountered a Brussels sprout in its wilder state, clinging amid rows of other sprouts to a club-shaped stalk topped with plumes of broad green leaves. One stalk can grow several feet tall, making sprouts a vegetable of imposing majesty.

Some sources say Brussels sprouts were first bred in Belgium, as early as the 13th century, to look like perfectly formed cabbages (see, Wolfson wasn't fibbing). But food historian Waverly Root contends that their origin is a mystery.

Either way, they became common in France and England in the late 18th century and, soon after, in North America, courtesy of Thomas Jefferson.

After what seems like a centuries-long purgatory of bad publicity ever since, the image of Brussels sprouts is undergoing a modest rehabilitation on Philadelphia's restaurant scene. For chefs on the lookout for rustic flavors bred from locally grown, largely forgotten produce, they have become the darling green indeed. And November is the month when Brussels sprouts shine.

At Vetri, on Spruce Street, they are among the most requested items on the antipasti platter. Rubbed with garlic and caramelized quickly in olive oil and butter, then splashed with the woody tang of sherry vinegar, "they taste like popcorn," chef Marc Vetri said.

On Walnut Street, at Susanna Foo, the leaves are separated and scattered like peppery green flower petals atop sauteed nuggets of filet mignon and scallops.

At Penne, at the Inn at Penn in University City, Brussels sprouts anchor one of the most appealing fall pastas I've eaten. A nest of whole-wheat fettuccine is tossed in garlicky butter with fried pancetta and tiny cubes of potato.

Earlier this year at Bella, near Rittenhouse Square, Brussels sprout leaves were served as a munchie, deep-fried to a golden-brown crunch and dusted with salt.

I've also enjoyed Brussels sprouts at home plain; steamed and tossed with butter, bread crumbs, and a squeeze of lemon; or glazed with a little walnut oil as a perfect tonic to their gentle bitterness.

Of course, there may be someone at your table still reluctant to give in. In that case, consider the sprouts casserole that Wolfson and her chef, Jerry Mayall, sell at Bacchus. The halved green orbs are submerged in an indulgent pool of Gruyre cream scented with caraway, caramelized onions and bacon.

It's as sure to please as Brussels sprouts can be - and that's the truth.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

Vetri's Sherry-Charred Brussels Sprouts

Makes 4 side-dish servings

20 Brussels sprouts

1 clove garlic

1 tablespoon butter

1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

Salt and pepper to taste

2 to 3 tablespoons sherry vinegar, divided

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Cut the Brussels sprouts in half. Rub the flat side of each with the garlic.

3. Heat the butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a nonstick, oven-safe skillet. Add sprouts, flat side down, and char them over high heat until dark brown, about 4 to 5 minutes.

4. Turn sprouts over and season with the salt, pepper and 2 tablespoons of the sherry vinegar. Cook for 1 minute.

5. Place skillet in oven. Bake until sprouts are tender, about 1 to 2 minutes.

6. Season with remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar, if desired. Serve hot immediately or, prepared up to 6 hours in advance, at room temperature.

Per serving: 115 calories, 3 grams protein, 9 grams carbohydrates,

2 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 55 milligrams sodium, 4 grams fiber.

Bacchus Market's Brussels Sprouts With Gruyre and Bacon

Makes 8 servings

2 pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed and cut in half

Salt

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves

1/4 teaspoon caraway seeds

Pepper

About 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1/2 small onion, finely diced

6 slices bacon

1/2 shallot, chopped

1 1/2 cups dry white wine, such as sauvignon blanc

2 1/4 cups half-and-half

8 ounces Gruyre cheese, grated (about 2 cups)

1 tablespoon flour

1. Boil the sprouts in a large pot of salted water until tender, about 8 minutes. Drain; refresh sprouts in cold water to stop the cooking and drain again.

2. Toss sprouts with the thyme, caraway seeds, and salt and pepper to taste; set aside.

3. Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the onions and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until browned. Add half of the onions to the sprouts and set remaining onions aside.

4. In the same skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat until crisp; drain and chop. Add half to the sprout mixture; set the rest aside.

5. Put shallots and wine in a small saucepan and reduce over high heat until barely any liquid remains. Add the half-and-half; bring to a simmer. Toss the cheese with the flour; whisk it into the hot half-and-half and simmer for 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

6. Add half-and-half mixture to sprouts. Spoon mixture into an oven-safe 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Scatter remaining onions and bacon on top. (Dish can be made to this point up to a day in advance.)

7. Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven until browned and bubbly, about 15 minutes.

Per serving: 332 calories, 16 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, 60 milligrams cholesterol, 300 milligrams sodium, 5 grams fiber.

Brussels Sprouts With Walnut Oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 1/2 tablespoons walnut oil

2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

2 tablespoons thinly sliced chives

1 pound small Brussels sprouts

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Put the butter, walnut oil, parsley and chives in a serving bowl; set aside.

2. Trim the ends from the Brussels sprouts. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the sprouts and cook until just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain; return sprouts to pot. Reduce heat to low and cook sprouts briefly, shaking the pot, until any water has evaporated.

3. Transfer sprouts to the serving bowl and season well with salt and pepper. Toss until butter melts and seasonings evenly coat the sprouts.

- From Fresh From the Farmers' Market, by Janet Goldberg

(Chronicle Books, $19.95 softcover)

Per serving: 122 calories, 4 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 6 grams fat, 8 milligrams cholesterol, 175 milligrams sodium, 5 grams fiber.

|
|
|
|
|