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

Sunday, October 12, 2008

How I learned the truth about Brussels sprouts

By Dick Hirsch

Much of what I know about vegetables I have learned over the years in North Tonawanda, a community not especially well known as a center for agricultural activity.

For example, it was there, in the City Market on Robinson Street, that I learned an astonishing fact about Brussels sprouts. The sprout is a tasty and adorable little cruciferous vegetable, one of my special favorites, but an item shunned by most of my friends and apparently considered undesirable by all the leading restaurateurs in the area.

Here is Fact One about the sprouts: they grow on a fibrous, woody stalk that grows to about three feet high and at the base has a diameter of nearly two inches. Each has to be harvested individually with a chainsaw, and when held aloft, the shaft, covered with mature and budding sprouts, has a majestic quality. It resembles a scepter, carried by a ruler on some ceremonial occasion.

Until that autumn day in North Tonawanda, I had only seen Brussels sprouts in piles at the supermarket or else packaged in those green pint-size containers. Seeing it in au natural elevated it even higher on my list of favorite vegetables.

There has been considerable recent news coverage emphasizing the merits of consuming locally grown produce. What is news about that? We have been going to the market on Saturday mornings for about 30 years, loading up with healthy stuff sold by the men and women who plant, grow and harvest it. A few weeks ago I made my usual trip to the market and they had a band playing in the parking lot, and the place was thronged with shoppers. A band? I never saw a band before, but this was a special Saturday, marking the 100th anniversary of the market. The celebration triggered memories of my market experiences.

It was there I repaired my long-fractured relationship with the beet. I have always liked vegetables; while I have friends who ignore such innocent specimens as tomatoes, asparagus, broccoli, parsnip and eggplant, I like them all. In addition, I relish okra, cabbage, rutabaga, Swiss chard and any other you can name. The sole exception was the beet. For years, I wouldn’t bother with a beet.

There aren’t too many farmers selling beets at the market, but one of them, Don, one day extolled the wonders of his beet crop. I bought a bunch. Eating them resulted in a transforming experience. When I finished, I was ashamed that I had ignored and disparaged beets for so long. Now they are showing up on restaurant menus after a long absence, presented as a beet salad, a trendy dish, served with goat cheese, arugala and walnuts. I order it whenever it is available.

While the beet has been resurrected by certain chefs, the kohlrabi remains unknown and ignored. Many otherwise sophisticated readers have probably never heard of the kohlrabi. I never knew of its existence until I encountered it several years ago at the market.

When you see your first kohlrabi, you are either frightened or curious. It is probably the ugliest vegetable in the entire garden; tough, dense, bulbous and light green, slightly larger than a baseball. Its body is festooned with several long leafy tentacles, hanging in various directions. It is a distant relative of the cabbage and has an eastern European heritage. Most people would ignore such a seemingly loathsome object, but, after learning from the grower its identity, I bought two. When my wife, Lynn, learned of my acquisition, she took it in stride, having previously learned to deal calmly with my occasionally unpredictable behavior at the market. She spoke at some length with the farmer’s wife, who had several suggestions about preparing the kohlrabi. We tried one of her recipes with very positive results and I have since looked forward to having that dish each season when they harvest the kohlrabi patch.

There is a certain wholesomeness that is apparent at the market, and I am not talking just about the vegetables and fruits. I am talking about the people. Some of them are just re-sellers, but in North Tonawanda most of them are growers, and they plant, nurture and pick the crops, fill the baskets, load the trucks and are quick to answer questions with a smile. It’s a difficult way to make a buck, worrying about the weather as well as expenses and marketing. I am glad to be doing business with them.



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