Of all the vegetables in existence, there is none so polarising as the brussels sprout. Brussels sprouts look like tiny cabbages, and are in the brassicas family along with (perhaps equally despised) broccoli and cauliflower. They are grown in abundance in the United States, having been brought over from Europe, where they were predominantly grown in Belgium (hence the name, it is thought) and the Netherlands. Despite the seeming demand for brussels sprout production, throughout time they have rather unfairly become a poster-child for detested vegetables and a metaphor for all that is unpleasant in the world. In the movie Infamous (2006) a fictionalised version of Gore Vidal describes Truman Capote’s voice thusly: “To the lucky person who has never heard it, I can only say, imagine what a brussels sprout could sound like if a brussels sprout could talk.” Writer E.B. White, despite his proclivity to sing the praises of truly horrendous things (like mice), said that “the world likes humour, but treats it patronisingly. It decorates its serious artists with laurel, and its wags with brussels sprouts.”
It’s impossible to tell what the cause of the portrayed villainy of the brussels sprout is, but it might have something to do with the vegetable’s illustrious career as an antagonist in children’s literature and TV shows. The British animation The Forgotten Toys contains a character whose entire personality is built around his hatred of brussels sprouts and the lengths he’ll go to avoid eating them. Children’s author Andy Griffiths is also a notorious anti-brussels sprout propagandist, whose book Just Disgusting! contains a lengthy diatribe on the vegetable, which includes the following eloquent piece of verse:
Who wouldn’t hate them?
Apart from that, I love them. No, I don’t. That was just a joke. There’s absolutely NOTHING to love about brussels sprouts. Nothing at all. They’re disgusting.
While tomatoes, onions, lemons and even eel soup all feature as the subject of a complimentary poem or two, there is as yet no ode to the brussels sprout. There is, however, no dearth of poems denouncing the poor lil things.
Brussels sprouts do appear, very infrequently, as central figures in rather outlandish tales. In 2014, for example, in a bizarre bid to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support in 2014, an admirable nutter by the name of Stuart Kettell pushed a brussels sprout up a mountain with his nose. The sprout was chosen by this Sisyphus not because they aren’t good for eating, but because they are easier to roll with one’s nose than a pea. Sprouts took centre stage again when a group of Irish Dominican nuns had their whole harvest of organic brussels sprouts stolen in the dead of night. Sister Julie Newman was certain their prized goods were pilfered to be sold on the black market (who knew?). And in case you were wondering, the world record for most brussels sprouts eaten in a minute is 31.
It is likely that the way brussels sprouts were cooked (and continue to be cooked by some people) contributed to their poor reputation. People were most likely scarred from their encounters with farty overboiled sprouts or devilled brussels sprouts. Below are some truly fab ways to eat brussels sprouts, and I encourage (implore!) you to give them a go and slowly, we can claw back their reputation. Perhaps even start our own smear campaign against an irredeemably ghastly vegetable: iceberg lettuce.
Garlicky balsamic brussels sprouts
600g brussels sprouts, halved lengthways
1½ Tbsp olive oil
4-5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 tsp caraway seeds
5 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium-high heat, then toss in the sprouts. Fry them for about three minutes, moving around occasionally, until they begin to brown in places, then sprinkle in the garlic slices and caraway seeds. Cook, stirring occasionally, for a further five minutes then add in the vinegar. Stir it around and cook for a further 3-5 minutes until tender. Season with salt before serving.
Deep-fried brussels sprouts with tahini
600g brussels sprouts, cut into quarters lengthways
Vegetable oil for deep frying (about 500ml)
3 Tbsp tahini
1 Tbsp lemon juice
4-5 Tbsp water
Heat up the oil until very hot. Fry the sprouts in small batches for 5-6 minutes until the leaves have separated and are a deep golden brown. Once each batch has cooked, remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon and place on a wire rack set over a baking tray (or a plate lined with kitchen towel) and sprinkle liberally with salt. To make the tahini sauce, stir the lemon juice into the tahini until it thickens and becomes stodgy. Mix in the water a tablespoon at a time until it becomes creamy and thick, but still pourable. Serve the sauce either in a bowl on the side for dipping, or drizzled over the crispy sprouts.
Other ways to get your sprout fix:
- Steamed until tender (but not squishy), doused in lemon juice, salt and olive oil.
- Fried whole in butter with a bit of chilli or harissa.
- Halved, fried with garlic in oil or butter.
- Halved, topped with grated parmesan, then roasted in the oven.
- Shredded/sliced, then scrambled with eggs and ras al hanout spice blend.