Anyone who’s puzzled over the popularity of Brussels sprouts can blame bacon.
Chefs agree that bacon was behind any number of food trends over the past few years, when restaurants around the country clamored to add anything with pork fat to their menus. Inexpensive and visually impressive, Brussels sprouts provided the perfect backdrop.
“Bacon makes Brussels sprouts better, and Brussels sprouts make bacon better; they’re good friends,” says Ashland restaurateur Tom Beam.
But Brussels sprouts are indisputably a better mealtime option all on their own. High in vitamins C and K, the tiny cabbages also are packed with antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. Consuming fiber-rich Brussels sprouts helps to maintain healthy blood sugar levels, reduce inflammation and ward off cancer.
Resistance to Brussels sprouts remains high in some circles, however, despite chefs’ best efforts. The key to delicious Brussels sprouts dishes, they say, is pairing them with proven flavor profiles and, above all, don’t overcook them.
“Of course, no one wants an overboiled, soggy Brussels sprout,” says Kristen Lyon, chef-owner of Jefferson Farm Kitchen in Jacksonville.
“If they start to smell, you’re doing it wrong,” says Beam.
For odorless preparation and presentation, chefs like Lyon incorporate raw Brussels sprouts into recipes. Either separate the leaves, or thinly slice them — julienne or chiffonade — for a salad. A more tender texture can be achieved by massaging the leaves with salt and lemon juice or vinegar, in the manner of handling raw kale or collard greens, recently popular in Caesar-style salads.
“You could do a Cobb with Brussels sprouts leaves,” says Beam. “Put ranch (dressing) on Brussels sprouts; everyone loves ’em.”
At Pie + Vine, Beam coaxes more flavor from individual Brussels sprouts leaves by roasting them, adding a bit of bacon, lemon zest and chili flakes, then finishing them with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a side of poached, fresh pear and ricotta salata cheese. Served warm, the salad is one of four on Pie + Vine’s seasonally rotating menu.
“It’s unbelievable how many we sell,” says Beam, adding that when the salad gives way to summertime vegetables, he’ll get at least 20 complaints from customers who can’t do without it.
Such enthusiasm over Brussels sprouts wasn’t always the case, says Beam. It usually takes at least a few months for a new restaurant dish to gain a following. When he first put Brussels sprouts on his wintertime menus six years ago, they were a tough sell, although plant-based diets are more widespread among customers who live in Ashland.
“Sometimes, we have to convince people,” says Lyon.
“My generation missed out on Brussels sprouts,” adds Beam. “Kids are eating ’em now.”
Younger and older diners alike gobble up the sprouts at Beam’s Sesame Asian Kitchen, which deep-fries them and dusts them with red miso powder, which the chef likens to the effect of nutritional yeast on popcorn. Next up, he says, is dehydrating Brussels sprouts leaves in the manner of kale for crispy “chips.”
Other straightforward methods include pan-searing to caramelize the sprouts, then bathing them in a little broth, covering and braising, says Lyon. While pan-searing allows for a little more control over the cooking, roasting at high heat concentrates the flavors, says Lyon. She simmers Brussels sprouts in Indian-style curries and mingles them with root vegetables in shepherd’s pie.
“You could go spicy,” she says. “You could go sweet and savory. They’re very versatile”