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WICHE: I can make anyone love Brussels sprouts

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Brussels sprouts need a PR makeover, because no one seems to like them.

By Jeneen Wiche

Brussels sprouts need a PR makeover, because no one seems to like them.

Old varieties have been greatly improved from those forced on you as a child. Equally, cooking methods probably can stand some updating from the warm, mushy, bitter Barbie-doll-sized cabbage.

Don’t boil them to death, but instead try instead some quick roasting underneath the broiler.

Today we can thank breeding programs for developing a number of improved varieties of Brussels sprouts that are sweet and nutty in flavor.

Today there are about 70 million pounds of Brussels sprouts grown in the U.S., so perhaps more people are realizing how tasty the vegetable can be.

I have grown many late crops of Brussels sprouts but, truth be told, never with much success. Each year I vow to give it up, but as I write, Bubbles is germinating in the seed-starting tray.

I like Bubbles because it is a vigorous, early maturing plant that tolerates a bit of heat (and with a reputation for high yields). It also has that sweet nutty flavor that wins people over.

There are several other varieties that are popular for home gardeners:

§       Dutch Treat Hybrid has a particularly sweet flavor, but it takes 130 days to mature.

§       Jade Cross has lighter blue-green sprouts and takes about 80 days to mature.

§       Oliver takes 90 days to mature and is considered easy to grow in less than ideal climates.

§       Trafalgar is an English-bred Brussels sprout that takes about 130 days to mature and is considered the best for extended harvest into the winter months, but I suspect that’s if you are a Brussels sprout living and growing in England.

I bring up the days to maturity issue because this is where it becomes difficult. The Brussels sprout likes the weather cool, but to mature in our gardens, it has to make it through a Kentuckiana summer.

This is where I ultimately fail, I suppose – too hot for the sprout to do much except feed aphids that rapidly multiply in that same heat. I still can’t yet give up.

Brussels sprouts likely got their moniker because the harvestable “sprouts” appear along the stem of the plant. They are grown very much like other cole crops, including broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage.

Around here we probably won’t have a long enough cool season to have an early crop, so we are better off setting out our plants in early or mid-summer for a late-fall crop (which is part of the problem).

A garden plot that has good drainage and rich soil is a must for Brussels sprouts, so work in organic material before planting and side-dress with additional compost when the plants are about a foot tall.

Cool, moist conditions are preferred, and if we can get a patch going, they can persist into winter to about 20 degrees.

Keep them well-watered and be on alert for insects. This is the downside to growing Brussels sprouts; it seems that there are several insect problems that can thwart our efforts.

Watch for cabbageworms, flea beetles, aphids and cut worms early on after transplants are set out. You can use row covers, neem oil or pyrethrum botanicals to control some of the pests.

So, if you make it to the harvesting stage, you pick the sprouts when they have formed a tight and firm ball. Remove the lower leaf and then snap off the sprout.

Those sprouts that are forming along the stalk, above the first ones that are harvested, will continue to mature.

When you are ready to prepare some for the table, it is easy and delicious: turn the broiler on high, sprinkle an aluminum baking sheet with some kosher salt, quarter the sprouts and toss in a little olive oil, pepper and garlic, spread them on the sheet and broil until the edges begin to brown.