In the Green

Saturday, March 19, 2011

   I owe you a superfood. After those glorious tufts of sugar and cream cheese, it really is only fair.

   And I have the perfect one- just imagine: a killer of cancer cells, champion of fiber and flavor, the perfect hero amidst this week of green tinged, root vegetable and shameless fermented grain celebration!

   I give you... the brussel sprout.

   Ok, so perhaps my fervor for the cabbage family is a little on the less than ordinary side, but my love affair with these crinkled heads of tastiness began years ago and will continue for many to come. Today, I want to spread a little of that joy with the world.

   Cabbage has a pretty bad rap, and I feel bad about that. The first time I brought a bag of those shiny headed green beauties into my home as a teenager, grinning with anticipation for the roasted sweetness I was about to bestow upon my family, my own parents recoiled in horror. "When did you start eating brussels sprouts?!" My dad asked, memories of the over boiled, graying and limp vegetable his mother used to force on him dancing in his head.  What can I say? Some kids bring a penchant for pot and inappropriate dates home from college; I brought home brussels sprouts.

   Although impenetrable in appearance, with the right treatment a brussel sprout has an infinite, nutty sweetness and the potential for amazing color and texture. When I first discovered brussels sprouts I exclusively roasted them, burnished and sweet with plenty of olive oil and sea salt. Even today it is one of my favorite ways to eat these little goodies- but over Christmas this year my new brother in law showed me what a true master can do with the lowly brussel sprout. He braised them. Oh, how I cowered in the shadow of his genius.

   The cabbage family- Brassica- is flush with nutrients our bodies crave. They have vitamins A and C in excess and the green ones use their attractive hue to showcase their hidden treasure trove of folic acid. However, I think all of those things are pretty small potatoes compared to the fact that multiple studies have showed that the cabbage family kills cancer cells. That potentially unpleasant sulphorous taste actually comes from several sulphur containing chemicals that are very harsh on cancer cells. A molecule called sinigrin, when exposed to pre canceous cells in the lining of our gut, encourages those dangerous cells to die. And, in a classic one two punch, cabbages of all shapes and sizes have another molecule within them that prompts healthy cells to repair their DNA, further reducing the likelihood of cancer developing.

   But really, all jokes and nerdy science aside, this humble miniaturized cabbage truly embodies what I find so amazing about plants. They have immense healing power and the potential to be a part of some of the most scrumptious meals one can imagine. Whenever I am feeling out of sorts and unhealthy, a big plate of vegetables never fails to calm my mind and my body. They have an almost ephemeral ability to bring us back to ourselves, more grounded and whole than before; go ahead and taste for yourselves.

Braised Brussels Sprouts
Courtesy of my brother in law

 1/2 medium onion cut in half root end to tip, sliced thinly cross wise
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon butter
1.5 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1.5 pounds brussesls sprouts, rinsed and sliced in half through the root bottom (if the bottom looks shriveled and brown you may first want to slice that part off, it will depend on how fresh they are)
1.5 to 2 cups high quality vegetable broth (not Swanson, it isn't thick enough)

   In a heavy bottomed skillet over low heat, warm the butter and olive oil. Add the onion and cook slowly until softened (you don't want them to brown just yet). Add the garlic and stir until slightly softened and fragrant. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Next, add the brussesls sprouts and increase the heat to medium low. Sprinkle the sprouts with salt and freshly ground pepper. Allow the brussels sprouts to cook so that the sides begin to brown and they let off a delicious, nutty fragrance. Stir occasionally during this step to allow as many of them to get brown spots as possible. When most of them are browned a little and it appears that the onions also are browned, add the broth. Add enough to come just to the tops of the brussels sprouts, you don't want them completely submerged. Adjust the heat to get a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally,  until the broth has made a thick gravy and the sprouts are tender. The gravy should cling to the sprouts and pool only slightly in the bottom of the skillet. Taste and add more salt if needed.
   Enjoy as a side or a starter.

Note: this recipe diverges slightly from traditional braises in that the skillet is not covered during the simmering phase. This is because you want to encourage the broth to reduce in order to make the sweet, thick gravy that is so key to this dish. 

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