In Season: Brussels Sprouts
Living on the California Central Coast, you can literally tell it’s getting close to Thanksgiving with your eyes closed. There are few crops where the post-harvest fields have a fragrance that, well, "carries" as far as Brussels sprouts. Like many row-crop holiday staples (celery, parsley, and green onions to name a few) demand for Brussels sprouts really spikes in in November; first as folks try out new recipes, then again as those same recipes get made on a larger scale for the all-important Thanksgiving meal. Preparations for holiday demand starts way back in June, an eternity in produce time, as thousands of acres from Monterey to San Mateo are planted. Now, roughly 180 days later, depending on weather conditions, the mad scramble to harvest, pack, cool, and transport these holiday treats is on.
Brussels sprouts, like artichokes, absolutely love the foggy and cool summers on the Central California Coast. For a few crazy weeks every year, fresh displays will grow in produce departments from a small afterthought to monster displays holding hundreds of pounds. November is also the time to showcase the unique way this plant grows — the buds sprout along the central stem of the plant, which can grow as tall as 4 feet — so whole stems are harvested and sold with buds intact this time of year. Most are removed from the stem and sold loose or in 1- and 2-pound bags. When selecting, size and stem will tell you everything you need to know; you should always look for consistent-sized buds so they cook evenly. Look for buds with stems that are white with no sign of browning or yellowing leafs, which are indications the product is not fresh.
Brussels sprouts (thought to have originated in Belgium, hence the name) are a member of the Brassica family of plants and like their larger cousin cabbage, suffer from a somewhat unfair olfactory reputation. They have a smell to be sure, but like cabbage, if you buy them fresh and don’t overcook them (or live in an area where millions of pounds are produced like me) that smell is not at all overpowering. Also, like kale (another cousin) Brussels sprouts will get sweeter and more flavorful as the nighttime temperatures in growing areas get cooler. I like roasting them best — I remove any excess stem and loose outer leaves first and wash them thoroughly. I then score the remaining stem — cutting an "X" mark a quarter inch or so deep to help the densest part cook evenly with the rest of the bud. I then toss the Brussels sprouts in olive oil (or pecan oil if you can find it) and spread them out even on a baking sheet; roasting for 15 to 25 minutes (depending on the size of the bud) at 375 degrees or until the outer edges of the leafs start to brown and the bud starts to soften. Remove them from the oven and toss with freshly toasted pecans and dried cherries with a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar to taste and you have a wonderful (and colorful) holiday dish.
— James Parker, global associate perishables coordinator for Whole Foods Market