The other night, I simultaneously burnt and overcooked-to-the-point-of-mushiness what should have been a delicious bowl of brussels sprouts (oh, internet with your myriad distractions). Half out of sheer hunger/tiredness and half out of you-got-yourself-into-this-mess stubbornness, I smothered them in pecorino romano and butter and ate them. I’ll say this: the cheese was good. I’ll also say this: even without the acrid burnt taste they would’ve still conjured up childhood vegetable nightmares. Yep, they were that bad.
These are not those brussels sprouts. But I felt I had to do something to make up for the ones I did such a disservice to. Because brussels sprouts – poor things, they’re so maligned, and undeservedly so – need all the good press they can get. Cooked right, they’re a joy: nutty, almost sweet, tender-crisp. And cut in half they’re the perfect bite size, their little cabbage-leaves soaking up all the butter they can handle (which is a lot).
If you knew me at all as a child you’d know that I was ridiculously picky; the closest I’d get to voluntarily eating vegetables was poking at a few leaves of lettuce in a salad or dipping a carrot stick in miso (try it sometime!). And perhaps because no one in my family liked brussels sprouts except my dad, they appeared on the dinner table only once – maybe twice – a year, at Thanksgiving* and sometimes Christmas dinner, when we’d clear the dining room of all the boxes and junk that had accumulated from non-use (we were a family of kitchen-table eaters), set the table with a hardly-used tablecloth and the special plates we wouldn’t see for the rest of the year, and my dad would repeat his annual campaign to get us all to help him eat the brussels sprouts. We wouldn’t.
Until one year not so long ago, when I returned home for the holidays and my dad did something we brussels-sprouts haters had never heard of: he cooked the brussels sprouts with bacon and almost-caramelised onions. I secretly think he would’ve done this ages ago if he had actually wanted to share the brussels sprouts with the rest of us, because between my brothers and me, they flew off the table. (It might’ve had something to do with bacon’s magical ability to make everything taste Damn Good, but I like to think that’s where my brussels sprout appreciation started…)
Now I can’t wait for brussels sprouts to appear each year and I’ve been eating plenty while they’re in season and cheap. I love them braised or sauteed but I’m just as likely to make a simple snack of them by quickly boiling or steaming them just til fork-tender and eating them with butter, sea salt and cracked pepper. This time I’ve sauteed them with pancetta and shallots, sort of a throwback to that first eye-opening brussels sprouts experience. Thanks Dad.
Funny how we turn into our parents, how we start doing the things we swore we’d never do.** But when I have kids, I won’t be relegating brussels sprouts to a once-yearly cameo.
BRUSSELS SPROUTS WITH TOASTED WALNUTS & PANCETTA (serves 2-3 as a side dish, depending on how much everyone likes brussels sprouts)
Take 10-12 brussels sprouts, trim off the bases and the outer leaves, slice in half vertically. If you’re using particularly big brussels sprouts it may pay to parboil these for a couple of minutes, but I try to pick smaller ones
Dice 1 good-sized shallot (or 2 smallish ones) and saute in butter over medium-low heat until it starts to get soft. Cut up 1-2 slices of pancetta (or bacon) into little pieces and add those to the pan, saute until they start to firm up, then add the brussels sprouts. At this stage I like to add more butter, plenty of it, the more the better. Saute until they’re just starting to brown, but don’t overcook them: when you can just stick a fork through them with little to no resistance, they’re done.
Meanwhile, toast a handful of walnuts (you could just as easily use pine nuts): you can do this in a skillet, or chuck them in a tray under the grill in your oven. Just don’t burn them: keep your nose on alert for that awesome nutty smell. Toss with the brussels sprouts and season with sea salt and cracked black pepper. Grate some parmesan over the top to serve. Eat immediately.
*Yep, I grew up in North America.
**It’s not just my dad I’m turning into (food-wise, anyway). Last month I was in Tokyo searching for this steamed-bun cafe, had forgotten to make myself a little map in my notebook (Tokyo streets are notoriously difficult to navigate if you’re looking for something down a little alleyway – the address alone usually is of no help), and, half-determined to find it and half-enjoying wandering around, spent a couple of hours walking up and down the main street in Kagurazaka. I never found the cafe, though I did find an eerily cosy coffee bar straight out of 1980s Japan, serving drip coffee to rival the likes of Customs or Lamason, and I found a little shop selling the most delicious taiyaki (this one filled with sweet purple yam paste:
But it was my last day in Tokyo, I had only hours left to do all the things I had planned on doing, I hadn’t had breakfast (!! I know), it was raining, my feet were soaking wet, I was tired and hungry and still hadn’t found the cafe I came all the way to Kagurazaka for. And then I found something far better: an unassuming Japanese restaurant serving a few different kinds of teishoku - set meals with rice and miso soup – and something pulled me in, some weird instinct which told me to forget about the steamed-bun cafe. This was what I needed. Before I even sat down I ordered the yakizakana teishoku almost without thinking.
It’s not something I would’ve gotten excited about five or ten years ago when visiting Japan. In fact, I wasn’t even that excited about it this time, except for this gut feeling that I knew I was doing the right thing. And I couldn’t quite pinpoint why, until I thought about what I was eating. Grilled fish with grated daikon, rice and miso soup, some pickled vegetables – exactly the meal my mum would cook for herself when we’d eat Japanese at home (pretty frequently, since Mum grew up in Japan). As a kid I’d stick with the rice and miso soup, turning my nose up at everything else.
I’ve long since started eating fish and tsukemono but I never gave much thought to how much I was turning into my mother until the moment last month when I finished this meal and thought the thought I never thought I’d think: whether I’m hungry, tired or frustrated, there’s nothing that puts me more at ease than a simple meal of rice and miso soup, salted grilled fish, pickled daikon.
I’m sure I’ve heard that exact sentiment from my mum so many times while growing up, and always thought she was nuts: there’s so much food (Japanese or otherwise) that’s way more exciting and comforting (what about the mac and cheese, mum?!). But somehow, in some way, she was totally right all along, and that simple, humdrum meal was the most special of my trip. Thanks Mum.