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May 1999 Issue
FLASH: Brussels Sprouts Can be Eaten by Humans!
by Michael Fick
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Bioflavinoids. Antioxidants. Phytochemicals. Indoles. Cancer-fighters. Vitamins. Minerals. Fiber. Low-fat. Healthy. Green. Vegetables. Food fights. Crying. No dessert. Run an internet search on those terms and you'll obtain a long list of stuff many of us refused to eat as kids: Spinach. Broccoli. Turnips. Lima beans. Sweet peas. Collards. Cabbage. Asparagus.

If we hadn't owned an omnivorous dog when I was a kid, I'd never have gotten any dessert after the time I forgot to empty the peas from my pockets before Mom did the laundry. (That was after she moved the flower pots out of the kitchen, and after my little brother caught me adding to his spinach pile. Poor guy got no pie until he stopped believing I'd hide my turnips in his bed if he told.) I learned to hate those convex mirrors in the kitchen ceiling corners!

This stuff went way beyond "rabbit food"; only caca verde described the list accurately.

But as we learned more (and grew up), the list dwindled. Fresh green beans and baby limas were quite good if fresh and cooked with plenty of hamhocks and butter. When I discovered that Le Sueur canned peas were not as mushy as their big soggy, mealy cousins, sweet peas dropped off the list.

Then I discovered how delicious fresh baby spinach leaves can be as a salad or nuked for just seconds until it barely wilts. Either way, with a dash of honey mustard sauce and some walnuts, it's quite good. At last ... hot greens with more crunch than sog and no overpowering taste or smell.

But broccoli? That smelly, soggy, slimy, formless mess that cooks used to boil into oblivion? No way. I was pushing 40 before someone served me fresh broccoli steamed or nuked until hot -- not cooked; merely hot -- and I realized that the stuff actually had some flavor and crunch and didn't have to stink.

Those of us blessed/cursed with a strong sense of taste and smell will never accidentally drink sour milk, but neither can we enjoy buttermilk, strong cheese, liver, nor any wine or liqueurs because of their overwhelming impact on our palate. We gag on anything cruciferous. That's too bad, because cruciferous vegetables are extremely healthy.

But healthy or not, what's the worst-smelling, foulest-tasting, most repulsive stuff (I'm being polite here) on the face of the earth? What food's vile, sulfurous stench drives many of us to the pig farm for a breath of fresh air?

All together now: BRUSSELS SPROUTS!

I became good friends with the pig farmer in the next town as a kid, and until last week I preferred cigarette smoke over Brussels sprouts in my home. (Notice their apropos initials, which I'll use from here on for brevity.) But last week I discovered that BS can actually be eaten by humans whose sense of smell is intact. Why? How? Because they don't have to be cooked until Satan himself rises out of their sulfur-laden depths to assault our gag reflexes and olfactory glands.

For you fellow BS-phobes, here's the secret: cook them no longer than five minutes, six if you like living on the edge, because at 7.0 minutes they set off a sulfur bomb your farm dog would leave home over. And cook them uncovered so their acidic steam can dissipate.

We tried a BS recipe Russ Parsons published in the L.A. Times, because he promised to alleviate the stench (that's my word; he politely discussed it in terms of chlorophyll, pheophytin, and acid). My wife actually likes them, so she cooked them while I left the house (and took the dog for its protection). We borrowed a canary from the coal mine for Kay's safety; she was to fire a flare if the canary was still alive when the BS were done.

When the flare went up, I approached the house, verified that the canary was still singing, opened a car window, and kicked Spot out to see if he survived. He sniffed a few choice spots around the lawn, the diaper bin, and the sneakers my 15-year-old threw out because he couldn't stand them anymore, then ventured into the kitchen. I think Spot wanted to make sure he got one last whiff of all the good smells in life before cauterizing his nasal turbinades forever on the BS vapors.

Good dog!

The BS smelled OK, so I tossed one to Spot as a safety measure. He lived, so I cautiously popped an extra-small sprout into my mouth. It almost tasted like food rather than industrial chemicals. A second, less fearful, bite, and my eyebrows shot up. Soon I had actually eaten my first BS in 30 years, and liked them. They were delicious!

Why go through all this? There are thousands of different important micronutrients in produce, and each food -- even the same variety from different gardens -- has its own unique benefits. Diets high in BS (and broccoli and cabbage) correlate very strongly with low rates of many kinds of cancer, especially stomach and colon. The mechanisms of BS's cancer prevention chemicals are emerging from laboratories, and they appear to be twice as effective as those of their nearest competitor, cabbage. BS compounds seem to immunize laboratory animals against aflatoxin, a common strong carcinogen found in grain molds, including peanut butter.

The amazing flavor and substantive texture of this BS dish were bonuses. Why, they didn't even stink!

Here's Russ's recipe for BS & Bacon:

  • 2 pounds young, small BS.
  • 3 strips of bacon.
  • 1/2 cup red wine vinegar.
  • Salt.
  • 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts.
Trim any wilted or overly dark outer leaves and any dried-out bases from the sprouts. Cut a centimeter-deep X in each base. Steam them over rapidly boiling water for five minutes, maybe six if not yet tender. Timing is crucial if you can smell a dead skunk in July: at seven minutes they turn into devil-spawned hydrogen sulfide  pod grenades. Blanch them in cool water and cut into quarters lengthwise.

While they steam, slice the bacon into thin strips, fry it over medium-low heat until crisp, pour off the grease if you want this to be a healthy dish, turn the heat to high and add the wine vinegar, saute until the vinegar loses its raw smell (wouldn't want this mess to stink, would we?) ... about three minutes. Reduce the heat, add the sprouts, saute until hot again (no longer!), season with salt and some more vinegar if desired, add the nuts, and serve.

You now have a delicious, very healthy dish with an excellent mix of major and micro-nutrients. I can't wait to try such extra ingredients as chile peppers, pinion nuts, spices, and/or a garnish of fresh tomatoes or salsa. I might even try fresh BS when they come in season, not the frozen ones we used. The 'Net is full of BS recipes, but be afraid -- be VERY afraid -- to cook any of them for more than six minutes. You might summon Beelzebub himself into your kitchen and drive Spot out forever!



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