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In season: Brussels sprouts like Mother never made

Really? Brussels sprouts? Those little mushy, stinky, bitter balls of grey-green annoyance that graced my childhood dinner table when the cold months settled in?

Don’t get me wrong. My mom was a fine cook, but her Brussels sprouts were so unappealing that I just assumed the vegetable was a lost cause.

How wrong I was.

While Mom was a source of culinary wisdom, she failed to understand two things about Brussels sprouts. First, unless they are snapping fresh, they are going to taste horrible. And second, as members of the cabbage family with great stores of sulfurous compounds in their tissues, if they are cooked too long and too slow, they will stink.

We are now entering prime Brussels sprouts season. The ultimate prime season occurs in regions where hard frosts turn their starches into sweet sugars, from mid-October in the Mid-Atlantic States and farther north. But here in our mild Mediterranean climate, that doesn’t happen until around Christmas.

And down in coastal Monterey County, where most of our Brussels sprouts come from, it may not happen at all. Fortunately, coastal Monterey County stays pretty cool throughout the late summer and fall, and those cool days and cold nights gently encourage the sprouts toward sweetness.

If you’ve seen Brussels sprouts on the stalk, you’ll have seen small round heads of sprouts slightly smaller than golf balls that cover the stalk from top to bottom. They are sometimes sold this way in farmers markets and better markets from now through early December.

These sprouts on the stalks will give you what you’re looking for. That’s because they are still attached to their mother stalks, taking moisture and sustenance. When you cut them free, they are as fresh as possible and perfect for your culinary efforts.

The problem with sprouts in the markets is that they have been cut and put into small baskets. Look at them. Are the outer leaves dry looking and slightly yellowed? Bad sign. Turn them over and look at the stem side where they were cut. Is it fresh and moist? Most likely that cut stem will be dry and shriveled. Another bad sign. Both of these indicate that the sprouts are old and will end up being the mushy, stinky, bitter, grey-green annoyances of my youth.

You may also be able to find bright green, fresh-looking, tight-headed sprouts with freshly cut stem ends at your market. Hop on them. Because really high quality Brussels sprouts are culinary wonders, delicious, amenable to many ways of preparation.

So what are these strange little cabbage things? If you’ve grown regular cabbages, cutting away the large head from the top of the plant and allowing the root to stay in the ground, you’ll have noticed that the decapitated stalk will start sprouting smaller cabbage heads from the leaf axils - those places where the leaves attach to the stalk.

Our forebears noticed this, too, and started selecting seed from cabbage plants that exhibited this tendency. After goodness knows how long, they had Brussels sprouts. It’s cabbage, but with a puff of leaves at the top of the stalk instead of a head, and lots of little heads arranged along the stalks.

As with a large head of cabbage, quality diminishes as soon as the head starts to open, so make sure your sprouts are tight little balls.

Brussels sprouts are nutrition-packed orbs of goodness, with a lot fiber, potassium, vitamin B6, vitamin C, thiamine and vitamin A. Those sulfur compounds are especially good, as they provide the building blocks for N-acetylcysteine, which in turn the body uses to make glutathione, whose healthy properties ... well, just Google it.

Boil the sprouts for just a minute or two, slice them in half, remove the white core and riffle through the leaves, separating them into individual leaves. Add these leaves to quinoa, amaranth, couscous, noodles or pasta. Or try this recipe.

Sautéed Brussels Sprouts

Serves 2 as a side dish

8 ounces small Brussels sprouts

1/2 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

2 eggs, placed in a bowl and beaten

1 cup panko bread crumbs

1/4 cup olive oil

Boil sprouts until just tender in a pot of boiling water. Drain.

Place sprouts in a paper bag with flour, salt, and pepper. Shake.

Place sprouts in beaten eggs to coat.

Place sprouts in panko to coat.

Heat oil to medium hot in a skillet. Add sprouts. Shake frequently to brown all sides. Turn out onto paper towels to drain, then serve immediately.

The following recipe is from Chef Ari Rosen of Scopa and Campo Fina in Healdsburg.

Best Brussels ?Sprouts Ever

Makes 4 servings as a side

2 pounds Brussels sprouts

1/4 cup olive oil

3 slices pancetta (or bacon) cut into 1/2-inch pieces

9 leaves sage

3 pinches black pepper

1 pinch salt (or to taste)

1-2 tablespoons toasted breadcrumbs (see note below)

1-2 tablespoons grated Parmesan

Remove and throw away all of the dark green outer leaves of the Brussels sprouts. Then cut each sprout into quarters. Heat a pan over medium-high heat with half of the olive oil and pancetta.

Let the pancetta caramelize evenly, moving it around with a wooden spoon. Once all the pancetta is gold, add sage leaves for 30 seconds. Then carefully, with a slotted spoon, remove and put aside the pancetta and sage leaves.

Next, add the quartered Brussels sprouts, the salt and pepper. A lot of the salt flavor should come from the pancetta; if you are using a sweeter bacon, add a little more salt.

After 30 to 60 seconds, move the sprouts around to caramelize all sides. Repeat this every minute for about 5 minutes. Add a drizzle of remaining olive oil every 2 minutes until it’s finished. The goal is to achieve a deep golden brown color on 1 or 2 sides of each sprout without burning them. If you start to char too many sprouts, either lower your heat or move them around more often (especially in the first few minutes of cooking).

After 5 minutes, add back the cooked pancetta and sage to the almost finished sprouts. Cook for another 3 to 4 minutes on medium-low heat to finish cooking them through to the center.

The sprouts at this point should be a deep golden brown. Toss in the toasted breadcrumbs and Parmesan and serve immediately.

To toast breadcrumbs: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Put 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a roasting pan with a half clove of chopped-up garlic and bread crumbs. Put the pan in the oven for six minutes, pulling it out every 2 minutes to stir. Make sure you use a timer.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based garden and food writer who can be reached at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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