Here I go generalizing, but as I see it we humans fall pretty nicely into two groups. There are the thrill-seekers, those go-as-they-please vagabonds of earth, who like change, adventure, newness. Others are content with routine and find comfort in habit – making the bed, the walk to work, eating the same bowl of salad 6 nights running - because it’s delicious (the salad, life) so why change?
I’m one of those boring habitual people. Unsurprisingly, as I came here today to declare my love for brussels sprouts, I realized I had already done so last winter, as I probably do every year. The story goes that brussels sprouts usually appear first at Thanksgiving dinner, boiled on my Gran’s table. She without fail overcooks them, and they turn a distinctive shade of puce (but are delicious nonetheless). They keep appearing, stowaways in my grocery basket, until mid-December or so when their season ends. Boiling is just fine, and I’ve made Molly’s cream-braised variety to a collective sigh of appreciation, but most of the time, habitually, I roast. You’ll find me tucked into the couch, bowl in my lap, munching happily.
And that’s the thing.
One of my most-loved poets, Mary Oliver, wrote my most-loved poem, The Summer Day. I find myself reciting her lines over in my head lately, again and again. I’ve always liked the poem, how it vaults the everyday to the extraordinary, how she writes of being idle and blessed and without answers. And at the end, how she asks me what I will do, with my wild and precious life.
It’s nice to romanticize my faults and poke gentle fun, couch shortcomings in pretty words, but the truth is: sometimes I worry. I worry that my aversion to change, my love of stability and this simple, contended life holds me back from everything else. In introspective times, I wonder if years of gentle contentedness lead to great unhappiness. I see people glaze-eyed and anywhere-but-here in the streets, and I fear the day that I don’t greet the squirrels and breath sweet air deep and feel joy in the constant, my ordinary life.
Then I think that I might jump. Higher, toward something else. And what then?
I tend to wax poetic about vegetables, much to the laughter of my family and friends. I can’t help it – vegetables excite me. Most of the time people understand well enough: it’s easy to get excited over a ripe summer tomato, or a silky roasted squash, or some snappy green beans.
Then there are Brussels sprouts.
Many people shudder and recoil – ‘but they stink!’ my little sister tells me emphatically. What is it about these knobby, bulbous little things that scare people so? Perhaps the ill preparation of Thanksgiving dinners past, where they sat, sad and overcooked, playing second fiddle to the sweet potato casserole? Or maybe it’s the scary out-of-season specimens that sit untouched in the grocery store, the size of children’s fists and tasting of murky water. Such misrepresentation.
Boy, do I ever love Brussels sprouts. Part of the brassica family, they first were recorded in Europe in the late 1500s. The humble little orb is one of the few vegetables that endures through the cold winter months, gracing our plates with green in the cold of December, when lettuce is hydroponic and spinach is imported from far away. They taste of health – both sweet and savoury, full of fibre, vitamins C and D and folate.
When buying them, look for sprouts no larger than a small walnut, which are sweeter and younger, and remove any yellowed or bruised leaves (I usually just pluck off the first layer). They are pretty hardy, so can be stored in the crisper for a week or so before they turn.
My favourite preparation renders delicious, slightly nutty sprouts. Any unpleasant smell is due to overcooking the sprouts, which releases sulphur compounds, so I shy away from boiling. Instead, I slice the trimmed, clean sprouts in half, toss with sea salt, coarse black pepper, and enough olive oil to coat. I grate over a little fresh nutmeg (not too much, but it does something magical to them!) and roast on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper for about 12 minutes at 350 degrees F, tossing halfway. The finished sprouts should be crisped golden at the edges, tender in the middle, and smell toasty and savoury. They’re great right out of the oven, at room temperature, or straight from the fridge for lunch the next day.
Tell me, do you love ‘em or hate ‘em? How do you prepare your little cabbages? If you aren’t a fan, please roast some up fresh from the market for me … and say they aren’t heavenly.