What's Up With Brussels Sprouts? Are They Really From Brussels?

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One of the stranger sights to appear in October in area farmers' markets are brussels sprouts still on the stalk.

Brussels sprouts look like tiny cabbages. That's because they are tiny cabbages. A similar farm product was cultivated by the Romans, but the modern version didn't appear until the 13th century in Belgium. So, yes, they really are from Brussels.

The first sprouts (which the French call "petite cabbages") came to this continent with French settlers to Louisiana around 1800. The plant really took root in California in the 1920s, when they were extensively farmed on the Central California coast south of San Francisco, constituting something of a food fad in those days. Somewhat surprisingly, Long Island has historically been another major center of cultivation.

In the farmers market at Union Square, you can get them rolling around individually, or you can get them still firmly adhered to the stalks they grew on. While the latter version may come in handy as a weapon, does the stalk serve any other purpose? In other words, can you eat it?

The answer is: Not really. The stalks are extremely woody, so you're better off buying the ones that roll around, which tend to be slightly cheaper, pound for pound.

Many people hate brussels sprouts. That's because they've only eaten them overcooked. When overcooked, the vegetable releases various sulfurous compounds, making them stink. The trick to cooking--whether baking, sauteeing, or boiling--is to make them all the same size before you begin. That means peel some of the leaves off the larger ones. My favorite cooking method is to render some guanciale (cured hog jowl) in a non-stick fry pan at low temp, then add an equal amount of olive or peanut oil to raise the smoke point of the fat. Then I sautee the brussels sprouts at medium flame with the lid on, frying and steaming simultaneously. From time to time, I lift the lid, take one out, and bite into it to see if it's done.

The brussels sprouts in the picture are from the John D. Madura Farm in Pine Island (Orange County), New York, at the Union Square Farmers Market on Monday.



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