Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

A vegetable that deserves your consideration

By Dick Hirsch

So there I was, defending the Brussels sprout against the attack of a small but vocal group of dedicated anti-vegites. I don’t see that as my role in society, and yet I usually root for the underdog, and the Brussels sprout is clearly one of the underdogs from the garden.

I have never understood why so many people refuse to allow the sprout to live the relatively blissful existence of a normal vegetable, but they won’t. They criticize its appearance, its aroma when subjected to boiling, its density, and its taste, among other things. Even worse, they all seem determined to make disparaging remarks about those who eat the sprouts.

As a gender, men have always had the reputation for being very selective---the operative word is picky---in matters involving vegetables. They view with suspicion anything green that is slightly off the popular menu screen. But with sprouts, it isn’t only men. Many women, too, are unwilling to give this lovely little treat a break. I’ve watched them in the supermarket, where the sprouts are always relegated to a very small display area on the vegetable counter, compared to carrots or potatoes. Most of the shoppers, both women and men, march right past them with no consideration.

I suppose it is a matter of taste, and, as you know, there is no explaining taste. Even as I mount a strong defense of Brussels sprouts, I know in my heart that my efforts, no matter how passionate, will change none of the narrow minds in my audience. I am defending the sprout as a matter of personal dedication, much as someone might oppose construction of a casino. The sprout deserves at least a chance to be tasted.

Even chefs discriminate against the sprout. Rarely, if ever, will you see a sprout offered in a restaurant. It’s a shame, since a dozen average size sprouts---more than I have ever eaten at one sitting---accounts for a measly 55 calories. But chefs must be aware of the likes and dislikes of their customers, so they refrain from cooking unpopular items. Sadly, the sprout obviously falls into that category.

I can actually remember my introduction to Brussels sprouts. I was about 12 years old, and, until that dinner, my vegetable selection was definitely limited and very average, with emphasis on peas and carrots, green beans, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce and celery, with an irregular serving of beets, asparagus, cauliflower or squash. On occasions, certainly around St. Patrick’s Day, we had cabbage, so when my mother introduced Brussels sprouts I immediately saw the resemblance. I was probably uncertain at first, but, then as now, my curiosity outweighed my skepticism. I helped myself.

“They’re like little cabbages,” my mother explained.

Since her purchase of the sprouts was definitely experimental, she must have been very pleased with my response:

“They’re good,” I said.

And they are. Conveniently sized, they lend themselves to a variety of treatments, most often boiling, steaming or roasting. The national vegetable of Belgium, the sprout has a number of positives that are always disregarded by critics. For example, a cup contains 810 units of vitamin A, 423 milligrams of potassium, 112 milligrams of phosphorus and traces of thiamin, riboflavin and ascorbic acid.

It was just a few years ago that I saw how the sprouts are grown. In the market, they are either packed in a pint-size container or else dumped in a mound on a pile of ice. At the farm they grow on a stalk, the huskiest stalk in the whole field, with nature providing space for small, infant sprouts near the top of the plant, and burly, golf ball size sprouts near the bottom. Most mature plants are about 18 inches high with stalks that are at least an inch and a half thick at the bottom. They have to be cut using a chain saw. I’ve never seen a field of mature Brussels sprouts, but they tell me it is a sight to behold.

As I reflect on my years of vegetable eating, I cannot account for my universal affection for things green. My upbringing, as I have mentioned, was very average, with peas and string beans placed in the dominant positions. Seldom do I eat those anymore, unless they’re the only choice. My taste now includes broccoli, parsnips, zucchini, cucumber, mushrooms, peppers and okra, among others. I’m not boasting, but, with this as encouragement, if you are ever given an opportunity to try a Brussels sprout, I hope you will give it a chance.



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