Marian Morash, in The Victory Garden Cookbook (Knopf, 1982), gives a perfect (and poetic) description of Brussels sprouts. The tiny “cabbages,” she says, “develop along a thick 20- to 22-inch-high stalk that grows straight up from the ground. The sprouts start at the bottom and circle around the stalk, interrupted occasionally by great fanning leaves which top off the plant as an umbrella of protection for the rosettes below.”
This plant didn’t always exist. The original wild cabbage species, Brassica oleracea, is apparently native to the Mediterranean seaboard (although others disagree), and according to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking (Scribner, 1984), head cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kohlrabi, kale and broccoli are all varieties of this one remarkable plant species. He adds that they were “apparently developed in northern Europe in about the 5th century, although the first clear record of its existence is from 1587.”
Benjamin Watson, author of Taylor’s Guide to Heirloom Vegetables (Houghton Mifflin, 1996), differs slightly, saying, “the Brussels sprout was first cultivated around the 14th century in the vicinity of Brussels, Belgium, from kalelike forms of wild cabbage.”
Bert Greene, of Greene on Greens (Workman, 1984), has still another notion: “No one knows for certain how or when the Brussels sprout first came to Brussels, but most certainly it is a vegetable that flourishes best in Belgium’s particularly rich and loamy soil.” In fact, he says, “Sprouts have been a source of Flemish national pride for over eight centuries.”
They didn’t make much of an impression in England or America until the early 1800s, and it wasn’t until 1820 that it was officially “recognized by the king of Belgium’s seedsmen as that country’s official green.” Sprouts, agrees McGee, became “a popular vegetable in Europe only after World War I.”
As is the case when chasing history, however, Greene reports that much earlier the “Romans called these tender buttons bullata gemmifera (diamond-makers) because consumption was rumored to enhance a diner’s mental agility … Roman chefs imported them from the seacoasts of western Europe, where they grew wild.”
Whatever their history, Brussels sprouts make good eating today, especially in November when they’re still crisp and tender even if covered with snow.
Simple Brussels Sprouts
Trim and wash 1 pound of brussels sprouts. Steam or blanch them until they’re barely tender. Then halve each sprout lengthwise.
In a large frying pan, melt 6 Tbsp. butter (or olive or sunflower seed oil). Add the sprouts and toss them gently until they’re hot.
Add the juice of half a freshly-squeezed lemon; sea salt to taste and freshly-ground black pepper. Toss and serve as a side dish or toss with pasta.
Steamed or blanched sprouts are also fine when marinated in a vinaigrette and served cold.
Note that sprouts are best when cooked quickly. Before cooking, cut out the core at the stem end and separate the leaves. All they’ll need then is a quick wilting in butter or oil.
For more information about growing Brussel’s sprouts, please see our feature story, “Heading Brassicas,” in the June-August 2008 issue of The MOF&G. The article is posted at https://www.mofga.org/Publications/MaineOrganicFarmerGardener/Summer2008/Brassicas/tabid/949/Default.aspx.