Brussels sprouts behave beautifully if you follow these rules: Buy them small and superfresh (no minor feat). Do not overcook them (stay near the stove). Do not undercook them (taste often). If you ignore these rules, what sprout-haters say about the vegetable will be true. More about this later.
The origins of Brussels sprouts are lost in the mist—the coastal atmosphere in which they flourish. Although “it is assumed that” they developed around Brussels and it is often stated that they “probably first appeared in the 13th century,” proof is lacking. E. L. Sturtevant wrote, in Sturtevant’s Edible Plants of the World (edited by U. P. Hedrick), “Authors have stated that brussels sprouts [note that he does not commit himself to a capital B, which would denote the city] have been grown from time immemorial about Brussels, in Belgium; but if this be so, it is strange that they escaped the notice of the early botanists, who would have certainly noticed a common plant of such striking appearance.” Reliable 20th-century botanical texts date the development of Brussels sprouts from the late 18th century and the early 19th century.
When I sent the query “why Brussels?” to Brassica wise men worldwide, the most logical response came from Peter Crisp (director of Innovar Plant Breeding in Norfolk, England), as often happens. He stressed the significance of local varietal names and the fact that Chou de Bruxelles Ordinaire and Chou de Bruxelles Nain (Ordinary—called Tall—Brussels Cabbage and Dwarf Brussels Cabbage) were the primary varieties available in France and Britain at the end of the 19th century: “It is worth pointing out that suburban market garden industries were extremely well developed around the major European cities during the 18th and 19th centuries and many of the major vegetable types owe their origins (and names) to these industries—hence ‘Paris market carrots,’ ‘Early London cauliflowers,’ ‘Hamburg parsley,’ and so on.”
The evolution of Brussels sprouts in the United States is also misty. Because Thomas Jefferson cultivated everything before almost anyone else, it is likely that his notation about planting the vegetable, in his garden book of 1812, was among the first in the country. For a century, Brussels sprouts were the province of home gardens. Somewhere between 1909 and 1919, depending upon which California farmer is remembering, Brussels sprouts were undertaken as a commercial crop by Italian artichoke growers in San Mateo County. Why? The cool mist of the northern California coast and the vegetable’s success in Europe were the reasons given by six farmers who were there at the beginning.
Production acreage quickly stretched south to Monterey County, and the combined strip now produces 98 percent of the Brussels sprouts in the United States. (New York State grows the remaining 2 percent.) A substantial quantity is imported from Belgium, Mexico, and Guatemala, and a minuscule quantity from other countries, notably the Netherlands. The vast majority of all Brussels sprouts in the United States are frozen. Only 15 to 20 percent end up at fresh markets. Most of these are rejects that are too large to meet the standard for frozen Brussels sprouts: ¾ inch to 1⅜ inches in diameter. A small amount is reportedly picked by hand for farmers’ markets and restaurants.
Surprisingly, the cultivars grown today are said to be superior in taste to those grown earlier. In the 1960s “one-harvest” varieties that could be mechanically cut were developed, and these did little to please the taste buds, according to growers who remember them. “In the 1960s, we began working with all these hybrids that matured so well and were so much easier to harvest,” said one old-timer. “The Japanese perfected crosses for looks and harvesting uniformity—all that mattered for frozen food. But they were bitter, and everyone was turned off.” The first hopeful note for the sprouts sounded when “as fresh vegetables made a comeback, development became more refined and the Dutch seeds took over. The current hybrids are mild and sweet and please folks who like sprouts.”
There are also purply red Brussels sprouts, or Rubine by name, always small or miniature, which flit in and out of distribution. I have not cooked enough of them to report knowledgeably. My limited experience is this: Steamed, they turn deep indigo-violet (not green); boiled, they turn purple-splotched dark to light green; braised in liquid with some acid and fat, they are maroon-green and are most flavorful. Their flavor is not deep or complex, merely pleasant and earthy, and lacking sweetness. The cores are thick and somewhat fibrous and mealy. When being prepared, they bleed blue (onto hands, other vegetables, and plates), so plan accordingly. When marinated in vinaigrette, they become glossy show-stoppers and their flavor rounds out nicely. Deep-fuchsia with green details, they offer spectacular possibilities for presentation.
Where does this leave a person who wants to buy fresh Brussels sprouts for dinner? On shaky ground. Asked about the taste of the different types he was growing, one California farmer shot back: “Taste? We’re not here to eat them. We grow them.” In two rounds of samplings, three Dutch sprouts (obtained through restaurant distributors) were peerless on all counts. The California sprouts purchased at a local market in New York were agreeable, if overgrown. The small, tight buds sent from a friendly West Coast farmer were wonderfully juicy, sweet, sprightly, and assertive. Samples from south of the border were consistently large and leathery.
My hope is that consumers will pay attention and demand improvements in fresh Brussels sprouts. That hope is based on the changes I’ve seen in artichokes over the last few years. Growers who once sold only giants have responded to chefs and connoisseurs who want small fresh artichokes and different varieties—now more widely available. Since these are the same people who grow Brussels sprouts, perhaps they will heed the aficionados who pay a premium for the rosebud gems that are available only from Belgium and Holland. Or perhaps the sad reality is that they cannot afford to produce such sprouts, given the cost of land and labor in California—and without government support.
Readers who fancy Brussels sprouts should cast their votes at the grocery store, by paying for quality or complaining about the lack thereof; otherwise, there is a good chance that the fresh vegetable will disappear from the marketplace.