Brussels sprouts (Brassica oleracea; Gemmifera group) look and taste like tiny cabbages, with a diameter of about 1 inch (2.54 cm). Known to the French as choux de Bruxelles, they are hugely popular in Great Britain, where consumption far exceeds that of the United States. The exact origins of this vegetable are unknown, but history places the vegetable in Brussels, Belgium, sometime in the 16th century. Thomas Jefferson is credited with introducing them to the United States, bringing the plant to Virginia from Paris in 1821.
This plant is extremely cold hardy and can even survive a first frost. Some fans of this vegetable feel that a brush with cold even helps to develop its flavor. It is easy to grow in the home garden, and the growing season is relatively long. Instead of forming a large single head, as their cabbage cousin does, Brussels sprouts form all along a tall stem. Approximately 20 to 40 sprouts will grow on a stem that may reach a height of 3 feet (0.9 m).
Brussels sprouts are a great source of vitamins A, C, and K. They contain iron, fiber, potassium, and B vitamins, too. In addition, these sprouts also contain folate, protein, and the antioxidant beta-carotene. They are available fresh and frozen, year-round.
Considering their status as a nutritional powerhouse, it’s unfortunate that this vegetable has something of a bad reputation. Cooked properly, they have a surprisingly delicate flavor, almost nutty and lightly sweet. The texture of one that has been correctly prepared should be fork tender. Improperly cooked, which is to say overcooked, they release foul-smelling gases and have an unpleasant mushy texture.
The traditional way to prepare Brussels sprouts involves washing them and removing any loose or yellowed outer leaves. The small heads should be compact; free from holes, which may indicate the presence of insects; and uniform in size to ensure even cooking. The stem end is trimmed, and a cross may be cut into the stem, if desired. Very large sprouts may be cut in half before cooking.
Brussels sprouts may be boiled or steamed, just until tender, or roasted in a hot oven. Roasting results in delicious, tender, sweet vegetable with crispy outer leaves. To cook them this way, chefs can simply clean them as described above, cut them in half, and place them in a large bowl. They should be drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, then tossed well to coat. The cook can spread the sprouts in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast in a 425°F (220°C) oven for about 15 to 20 minutes, until well browned and tender. The sprouts should be turned once, halfway through cooking.