Is there a more polarizing vegetable than Brussels sprouts? To some, they have a nutty sweetness that makes them as irresistible as candy. To others, they are inarguably and repulsively bitter.
As Thanksgiving approaches, the great Brussels sprouts debate threatens to disrupt dinner table conversations across the country. In my own household, my husband is in the I-love-Brussels-sprouts camp. My sister, who visits every year over the holiday, is firmly with team I-hate-them.
There is actually a scientific reason for this divide. Brussels sprouts contain chemical compounds with bitter flavors that serve the evolutionary purpose of repelling hungry birds and bugs. Some people have taste buds that are genetically programmed to taste the same bitterness that birds taste. Others have taste buds that don't register this particular flavor at all.
According to food science expert Harold McGee, it takes a dual cooking approach to neutralize the flavor to which she is so sensitive. One of the compounds in Brussels sprouts diminishes when they are subjected to a quick burst of high heat. The other dissipates during slower cooking.
All in the method
Proper seasoning can also make a difference. Combining Brussels sprouts with something salty, sweet or sour can offset their bitterness and bring balance to a dish. Tossing sautéed Brussels sprouts with bacon has a miraculous effect. Roasting the sprouts at a high heat with just a little bit of sugar to encourage caramelization is another strategy. Treating them like cabbage -- shredding them and dressing them with an acidic ingredient like lemon juice or vinegar -- will also blunt Brussels sprouts' harsh edge.
The following recipes use McGee's cooking advice. In the first, the Brussels sprouts are halved and then sautéed over high heat, partially taming them. Then they are spread on a piece of puff pastry and roasted in the oven for a longer period of time, to complete the process.
Sugars form as the outer leaves of the sprouts caramelize, adding needed sweetness. A little bit of balsamic vinegar gives the sprouts a gently tart glaze. And Gruyère cheese blanketing them adds an essential salty element.
For the second recipe, the sprouts are roasted at a high heat for a long stretch before being simmered with cream and mushrooms.