Cooking from the Garden: Brussels Sprouts

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Cooking from the Garden: Brussels Sprouts

For most of my life I couldn’t stomach the taste of Brussels sprouts despite my love for all other brassicas – from broccoli to kale to cabbage to cauliflower. 

Lucky for me, my mom didn’t care for them either, so they never made it into our dinner rotations or our garden. My dad, however, does apparently like them. It wasn’t until I studied biology in college that I learned that my distaste for Brussels sprouts might be because of my genes – inherited from one of my parents. Over the years geneticists have discovered that some of us carry a gene that allows us to taste a specific bitterness in some cole crops while still enjoying others.

Now, in my adult years, I wonder if my distaste really stemmed from being served over-cooked, poorly flavored Brussels sprouts. Prepared right – seasoned lightly, cooked until just done but not soggy, these cute little bundles offer a bright flavor and healthy, fresh, green goodness even during winter. Of course, if you simply can’t stand the taste, it may be that you really do carry that genetic flavor-sensor marker.

Want to grow Brussels in your garden?

Brussels sprouts are a cool season crop that can withstand the heat of some summers, which is good because they take a long time to mature from seed to harvest. So, be sure to allocate space and time to bring this crop to the table. Planted in late winter/early spring, you may expect to harvest your crop in autumn. Planted in autumn – if the winter is relatively mild – you may be harvesting by spring. Different climates and different varieties may have shorter or longer growing requirements, but do expect a minimum of three to four months before you’ll be eating from these plants. And, ideally, your sprouts will grow through at least one mild freeze before you bring them to the table. A brief chill brings out more of the sweetness in this crop.

Like other brassicas, Brussels sprouts attract pests like cabbage butterfly and aphids. Covering the crop with horticultural fleece can help deter the butterflies from laying their brood on your plants. If you do see small green caterpillars munching on your sprouts, pinch them out and monitor the crop closely for additional hatches. If aphids appear, rinse the plants with a sturdy stream of water to disperse the insects. Planting onions or chives near your crop may help deter aphids, too. Attracting protein-eating and parasitizing insects like wasps and spiders can also help keep your pest populations lower.

Allow your Brussels sprouts to grow tall. The taller the plant grows, the more opportunity for the tasty sprouts to form in the axils of each leaf. (In other words, an edible sprout forms at each point where a leaf connects to the main stem of the plant. The taller the stem, the more leaves that form, and therefore the more sprouts, too.)

Pruning the top bud

Do I cut off the top bud or not?

Brussels sprouts themselves are fattening buds that form at the base of leaves all along the stem of the plant. The bud that forms at the very top of the plant, however, gets to be bigger than the others and often looks more like a small cabbage. I’ve spoken with several individuals who grow Brussels sprouts, and there appear to be two schools of thought on trimming or not trimming out the top bud to maximize the plant’s overall production of sprouts.

Some veteran veggie gardeners advocate cutting off the larger cabbage-like top form just as the plant begins to form those side buds. The idea here being that you’re editing out the largest bud and potentially removing a growth hormone that might be keeping those tasty side buds from reaching their maximum potential.  Other gardeners suggest that there’s no need to remove that top bud and still get a great crop. So, try it either way. If you do cut out the bigger top bud, eat it!

When to harvest?

Once your plant has developed well-formed side buds that are about an inch or two in size each, you can begin harvesting your crop. Hopefully, the weather has given them a good chill first, but that isn’t a requirement for using this crop.

If you intend to only take a portion of the crop, remove buds closer to the soil line first, working your way upwards over time. Or, harvest out the entire “tree” and remove the axillary buds to eat. Depending on the size and variety of Brussels sprouts you’ve grown, expect to get about a pound or two of edible goodness per tree.

Once your crop is harvested, consider preparing this simple dish that works well as a main course or a hearty side.

Brussels Sprouts, Carrots and Bacon

Brussels Sprouts, Carrots and Bacon
Serves 2-4
½ pound high quality bacon, cut into dice
1 large shallot, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
2 T. Olive oil
1 lb Brussels sprouts, trimmed, cleaned and sliced in half vertically
4-6 large carrots, scrubbed, trimmed and chopped into one inch rounds
1-2 T. Cider or Sherry Vinegar (optional)
freshly ground pepper
Fry bacon in large fire-proof Dutch oven over medium heat. Cook until crisp. Remove from pan to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.
Do not wash out pan. Pour off all but about 1 teaspoon of bacon fat. Add olive oil and warm oils over medium heat, scraping up browned bits.
Add shallot and garlic. Sizzle until garlic looses sharpness. About 1-2 minutes.
Add carrots and stir to coat with oils. Cook for about 4-5 minutes over medium heath until carrots begin to soften.
Add Brussels sprouts and continue to cook. Try to keep a few cut-side down in the pan & allow to brown. Cook only until sprouts begin to soften.
When sprouts are still bright green, slightly browned but not yet mushy, sprinkle with a bit of vinegar (to taste). Toss and allow vinegar to cook off.
Add in bacon. Toss to warm bacon. Add a few grinds of pepper.
Taste & adjust flavor with vinegar, additional salt and pepper.