Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Undeservedly Underappreciated

I've never understood those who claim they never liked brussel sprouts. I have always had a soft spot for those little green nuggets. I suppose I was always a vegetable fan, though. My parents never had to trick me into eating them, and I never had to hide half-chewed greens in napkins or feed them to an ungrateful dog. (Milk, on the other hand, was an entirely different story - my grandmother soon realized that triggering my competitive side was the only way to get me to down a glass of that stuff...but enough about that.)

It's hard to really dislike something that comes to you bathing in giant pools of butter. And that's always how brussel sprouts were served when I was young. My impression is that most people have memories of overcooked, bland, soft, mushy little things. Such things never taste good, regardless of what they are. Soft, mushy, bland and overcooked anything is going to be a loser in any kid's eyes. Not to mention that when overcooked, brussel sprouts emit sulfur compounds, the smell of which would turn most people off. There may also be no other food on earth that looks so - I don't know - just so good for you, which to most kids equates with gross. It seems I have to take back my earlier statement - I do understand those who claim never to have liked them; I just feel a bit badly that they've lost so much time with such a delicious little vegetable.

My appreciation for the alienesque green sprouts has not died out, not in the least, but it has surely matured. I am no longer satisfied with the little packages of frozen sprouts emerging doused in "butter," piping hot from the microwave (though I do admit that such things are sometimes totally called-for). Nope, now I take 'em roasted, pan-fried, hashed, whatever; as long as they're slightly browned and crispy, and cooked perfectly to ensure that their nutty, complex flavor really shines through, they are truly without equal.

These little guys I found in the Union Square Greenmarket. They just looked so dainty on their stalk, almost elegant. Such a far cry from the bad-smelling, shrunken cabbage heads that have given brussel sprouts their bad name. There was no question - they were coming home with me.

I was unsure how I was going to cook them, though I was pretty sure a simple roasting would pay them the homage they truly deserved. A quick saute in a pan to develop a crispy golden crust, a quick pop in a hot oven and that would be that.

Honestly, though, what is not better with a little bit of bacon?* Add the golden, rich, unctuous liquid of a runny egg yolk (a/k/a egg butter**) to the equation, and all the makings of a homey, rustic, delicious meal were in order.

Pan-Roasted Brussel Sprouts with Bacon and Poached Eggs

There's really not much of a recipe to be shared here, but I will try my best to quantify it. The key, really, is to make sure that the brussel sprouts are browned sufficiently, because that's pure flavor.

Also, choose smaller brussel sprouts, with tight leaves. Larger brussel sprouts tend to have less flavor and be a bit tougher.

If you've purchased your brussel sprouts on the stalk, like I had, simply cut the sprout from the stalk just below the base of the sprout. I found, after realizing how long this was going to take me, that twisting the sprout until it pops off is another good option.

1 1/2 to 2 pounds brussel sprouts (I truly have no idea of the weight of the brussel sprouts I used, though I'd venture to guess it was around this amount)
3 rashers bacon, chopped
1 tablespoon butter (optional)
Salt and Pepper
Parmagianno-Regianno Cheese
4 eggs

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Cut the stem off of the base of the brussel sprout and peel away any tough, outer leaves. Slice each sprout in half.

Cook bacon in an oven-proof skillet over medium heat until browned and crispy.

With a slotted spoon, remove bacon from skillet and place on a plate covered in paper towel to drain. If desired, remove a bit of the rendered bacon fat from the skillet, but keep a good amount in the pan to cook the brussel sprouts. If your pan is a bit dry, melt the tablespoon of butter in the skillet.

Place the brussel sprouts, cut side down, in the skillet. Cook for about 5 minutes over medium heat, until browned. Don't be tempted to move the brussel sprouts around, since they won't brown properly that way. If you're scared they're burning, check just one of them. Place the skillet in the hot oven for about 3-5 minutes. Remove, and return to medium heat, flipping the brussel sprouts with tongs to get a bit of browning on the other side. Return the bacon to the pan, season liberally with salt and pepper, toss around the brussel sprouts and divide among two plates. Grate to taste with cheese.

Meanwhile, heat a large skillet of water to a boil, then reduce it to a simmer. Add a tablespoon of vinegar to the water to help the whites to set. Remember, the fresher your eggs, the better they'll set. Add the eggs, two at a time, gently into the skillet. Cover and allow to cook for about 3-4 minutes, or until the whites are set and the yolks are still runny. With a slotted spoon, remove the poached eggs from the water and place atop a pile of sprouts. Repeat with the other two eggs. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

Make sure to serve with great, crusty bread to sop up all of that deliciousness.

* Answer: Very, very few things.
** That is a technical term, obviously.

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