In Defence of Brussels Sprouts

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? 

They’re green. 

They’re slimy. 

They’re mouldy. 

They’re horrible. 

They’re putrid. 

They’re foul. 

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

Salt

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

Salt

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:

  1. Steamed until tender (but not squishy), doused in lemon juice, salt and olive oil.
  2. Fried whole in butter with a bit of chilli or harissa.
  3. Halved, fried with garlic in oil or butter.
  4. Halved, topped with grated parmesan, then roasted in the oven.
  5. Shredded/sliced, then scrambled with eggs and ras al hanout spice blend.
  6. Ottolenghified.

The Ubiquity of Oat Biscuits

It was recently Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand, which was brought to my attention by a surge in the number of Instagram posts prominently featuring oat biscuits. Anzac biscuits are eggless oat biscuits that were historically made by the wives of Australian and New Zealander (what’s the adjective?) soldiers fighting in World War I. This little nugget of commonwealth history, naturally, got me to thinking about oats – a staple ingredient in porridge, biscuits, and even some beer – and just how multitudinous the variety of oat biscuits we humans have available to us is. Everyone from self-proclaimed (and who am I to argue) domestic goddess Nigella Lawson, to Ottolenghi and Mary Berry, from Milk Bar (a symbol of American decadence), to Martha Stewart has a recipe for some sort of oat biscuit. Queen Elizabeth II is also apparently partial to an oat biscuit for breakfast, and a version is also an ol’ faithful from my mom’s side of the family (more on that later). 

Oats have been cultivated all over Europe for thousands of years, but from the 17th century, they became a symbol of Scotland. Barley production in the country declined fairly rapidly to make way for the more versatile and longer-lasting oat – the derided staple grain of the barley-and-wheat-eating Englanders’ inferior neighbours. Samuel Johnson, in a disparaging entry in his 1755 dictionary, defined oats as ‘a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’ from which ‘tolerable good bread’ can be made.

The entry on oats in Samuel Johnson’s catchily-titled ‘A dictionary of the English language: in which the words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers to which are prefixed, history of the language, and an English grammar: in two volumes.’

Scots must have taken their version of an oat biscuit (called an oatcake) with them to newly-expropriated North America. The first documented recipe for an oat biscuit in the USA (where oatmeal cookies are now the country’s fifth favourite cookie) appeared in 1896, in a voluminous recipe compendium compiled by the rather unfortunately named Fannie Farmer. The recipe appears on page 406 (!!) of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, and does not contain raisins – a fact highlighted by a few American oatmeal cookie fanatics who despair at the unfair classification of this biscuit as a health food. Raisins were only introduced to oatmeal biscuit recipes almost a decade later on the packaging of Quaker Oats, a leading American brand of oat-y products. 

Fannie Farmer’s 1896 recipe for oatmeal cookies.

As a child, one of the biscuits in my English gran’s biscuit repertoire most favoured by me and my cousins was what we called Quaker Oats Biscuits. I understood this to mean that these were oat biscuits originally made by Quakers. This made sense: my gran was from England, Quakers were from England (according to a novel I’d read), oat biscuits seemed decidedly English in their homely deliciousness, and I was only familiar with South African Jungle Oats (not American Quaker Oats). It took me 25 years to figure out my mistake. So here’s my gran’s recipe for Quaker Oats Biscuits, which involve neither Quakers nor Quaker Oats, but are nevertheless an important addition to the plethora of other oat biscuit recipes floating around the interwebs and elsewhere. The only amendments I’ve made to the original recipe is the use of butter over margarine, a slight reduction in the amount of sugar, and the addition of a bit of salt.

1 cup flour

1 cup oats (Jungle Oats, Quaker Oats, rolled oats, etc.)

½ tsp salt

¾ cup sugar (brown or white)

125g unsalted butter

1 tbsp golden syrup (or honey)

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda, dissolved in 1 tbsp hot water

Preheat the oven to 180C. Combine the flour, oats, salt, and sugar in a mixing bowl. Melt the butter with the syrup in a saucepan over a low heat. Once the butter has melted completely, pour it into the dry ingredients along with the bicarb and water mixture. Stir everything together until well-combined – there should be no visible flour, and all the oats should be slightly moistened. Set aside to cool for a couple of minutes while you line two or three baking sheets with baking paper. Scoop out about a heaped tablespoon of mixture, roll it into a ball with your hands, then set it down on a baking tray and flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. Keep going with the rest of the mixture, until you have transformed it all into lovely little pats of buttery, oaty deliciousness. Make sure to leave a good few centimetres between each biscuit. Bake for 12-14 minutes until deep golden.

Note: the photographs in this post were taken by Kabir Dhupelia.

Cardamom, Orange and White Chocolate Biscuits

There are some memes floating about on the internet that I take as a personal affront – just Google ‘cardamom meme’ to see what I’m talking about. Offending memes usually depict someone in pain with a caption indicating that the anguish has been caused by biting into a sneaky cardamom pod. This apparently irksome experience is actually one I have always sought out. There is little containing cardamom I wouldn’t eat (I am sure this will become ever more evident the further into this blogging business I go). In fact, I challenge anyone reading this to test my willingness to eat something cardamom-centric.

Cardamom is native to southern India, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years. The spice is the seed pod of a large bush festooned with delicate white, deep pink, and yellow flowers. Introduced to Europe around 1300 BCE, cardamom was used by Ancient Greeks and Romans medicinally and in perfumes, but never quite achieved as illustrious a role in their cuisine as it did in India. In Scandinavia, however, cardamom quickly became a baking staple after it was allegedly brought there by Vikings returning from the Siege of Constantinople. Before the early 20th century, India led the cultivation of cardamom, but after a German plantation owner introduced the spice to South America, Guatemala quickly took over as the world’s biggest producer. Guatemalan cardamom still constitutes the greatest percentage of world production to this day, seemingly much to the chagrin of India’s cultivators (according to this very salty article in the Times of India).

The recipe below is an ode to one of my favourite sweet cardamom combinations: cardamom, white chocolate, and orange. These biscuits taste like all the best bits of an Indian sweet, with an extra dose of citrusy brightness from the orange zest. They are ridiculously easy to make as the use of a food processor eliminates the need for softened butter. I chose to go with circles of about 5cm in diameter, but this dough holds its shape beautifully when baking so the sky is the limit. I also topped mine with gold-leaf to be FancyTM, but this adds literally nothing to the overall taste. It is also worth noting that the yield of this recipe is extremely high. Like, you will have a heck of a lot of biscuits at the end. You’re welcome.

For the biscuits:

380g flour

½ tsp salt (leave this out if you use salted butter)

2 tsp baking powder

150g granulated sugar

½ Tbsp ground cardamom

Finely grated zest of 1 orange

225g butter, cubed

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla extract

For the dipping chocolate:

300g white chocolate

½ tsp ground cardamom

To garnish:

Orange zest

Finely chopped pecans or pistachios

Sprinkles, or other decoration of choice

Combine the flour, salt, baking powder, sugar, cardamom, and zest in a food processor or large mixing bowl (if using an electric hand mixer). Add the butter and pulse until it becomes very well incorporated and looks like compact beach sand. This will take longer if you are not using a food processor, but persevere because it’ll be worth it in the end. Crack in the egg and pour in the vanilla, then pulse until it holds together. Tip the dough out onto a piece of greaseproof paper and gather all the straggly crumbly bits together. Cut the mass in half, then roll out each piece between two sheets of greaseproof paper until your desired thickness (I went with about 0.5cm). Slide the two flattened pieces of dough onto baking sheets and put them in the freezer for 15 minutes. Meanwhile heat the oven to 180C. Once the slabs of dough are frozen, cut out your shapes of choice and place on a lined baking sheet, with about 5cm between them. You can re-roll and cut the scraps quite easily. Freeze for 5 minutes before baking – this is important as it helps the biscuits maintain their shape. Bake for about 12-15 minutes (depending on the thickness) until they are golden and smell glorious. 

Once the biscuits are completely cool, prepare the chocolate for dipping: melt the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl set over a pot of simmering water, then stir in the ground cardamom. Remove from the heat and apply to the cooled biscuits in whatever way you please (dunk, drizzle, submerge, line, gild, enrobe, slather etc.), then decorate with chopped nuts, more orange zest, and sprinkles. Wait an hour or two for the chocolate to set before eating.

Enjoy!