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The Vegetable of Winter
Buttered up or stirred up, Brussels sprouts offer riches in a miserly season
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As members of the cabbage family, Brussels sprouts have a slightly bitter edge that can be softened when tossed with sweet-leaning cooked chestnuts.
I WISH I COULD say that "Once at dusk, hurtling through Belgium on a train, I saw miniature forests of Brussels sprouts: knobby 4-foot-tall stalks sticking awkwardly out of the ground like old men's legs with clenched green fists clinging to them." But only Irena Chalmers could have said that, which she did in "The Great Food Almanac." I've never been to Belgium.

I can, however, say that I used to buy Brussels sprouts still on the stalk from a farm in Skagit Valley. And there, on the wide alluvial plain that reaches from the foothills of the Cascades to the northernmost shores of Puget Sound, the sprouts stood on their stalks like harbingers of winter or some atavistic reminder of the old world rising on the edge of the new. I used to watch for them through the fall, dutifully buying broccoli and cabbage until at last the Brussels sprouts were ready.

Brussels sprouts are playful and surprising, and in the narrow world of winter produce, there are few surprises. The vegetable kingdom can seem downright miserly in winter. Most of us resort to out-of-season imports from warmer climates: Florida corn, California lettuce or frozen peas and green beans; otherwise, we dutifully eat our rutabagas and wait for a better season. Oh sure, there are kales and cabbages, carrots and beets, but these things are around all the time. Brussels sprouts belong to winter (just try to find a good one in the summer!), and their peculiarity makes them interesting.

A lot of people — OK, most people — dismiss these minuscule specimens from the cabbage family outright, but serious cooks and serious eaters are passionate about them. Julia Child calls them "One of our great winter vegetables."

Braised Chestnuts and Brussels Sprouts
Some chefs, Charlie Trotter and Alfred Portale among them, like to coax off the individual leaves, blanch them in salted water and serve them tossed with other vegetables or forest mushrooms. Freed from their heads, the little leaves are new and mysterious. In "Chez Panisse Vegetables," Alice Waters tosses the individual leaves with orrechiette pasta (little ear-shaped noodles), roughly the same size and shape as the leaves, and sauces them with olive oil, red pepper flakes and garlic — sumptuous.

But traditionally, the heads are kept intact. Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, more familiarly known as M.F.K., liked to boil them briefly in salted water then roast them with butter, giving them "a good shake now and then . . . they become glistening like little nuts with delicate soft centers." I've used her method many times and always with happy results.

James Beard liked them tossed with hot bacon fat and onions. I think they are especially nice if the onions are pearl onions left whole to be found tucked between the little heads on the plate, and bits of crispy bacon are crumbled over the top.

But if there were only one way to cook Brussels sprouts, it would have to be the way they are cooked in Brussels. Left whole, they're cooked in salted water until barely tender, then tossed with peeled, cooked chestnuts. The technique shows up in half a dozen books on my shelf, but too often the recipe is deceptively simple.

"Cook them in a lot of salted water until they are barely tender," writes Irena Chalmers, "drain them and add a handful of hot chestnuts." That handful of hot chestnuts is the tricky part. Allow yourself a half an hour to peel the little devils or, if you must, use canned chestnuts; if you can find them, they're really not too bad.

Greg Atkinson is chef at IslandWood. He is also author of "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (Sasquatch Books, 1999). Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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