Photo courtesy of Cornell University
One Neck, Extra Heads
Productive, nutritious, and geeky, Brussels sprouts look like a science-show demonstration that cabbage (Brassica oleracea) is willing to morph any way gardeners choose. The wild parent looks wild; it has a tall stout stalk and lots of leaves. Over centuries (the Romans had cabbage) we dwarfed the stalk and kept the leaves to make head cabbage. Shrinking the stalk to a ball and fusing it with the leaves gave us kohlrabi. Enlarging the flower, broccoli. Priority to the leaves, kale. And Brussels sprouts? We tinkered with the buds (the “sprouts” in “Brussels sprouts”). Picture the wild parent, but with a small head cabbage, instead of a bud, in the axil of every leaf.
Brussels sprouts need four months or longer to mature (it’s a big plant) and the sprouts taste best when they grow in cool climates, one reason they are a major crop along the coast of northern California and in countries of northern Europe, such as Belgium, whose capital is Brussels.
In warm climates sow the seeds as late as possible," says Steve Bontadelli, a California grower. "Count backward from the harvest date." So if your variety needs 120 days to mature and Autumn turns cold in, say, in mid-November, count back to about early August. You can also choose a variety that matures in fewer days to avoid the heat of late summer. Also in warm weather coddle the plant with mulch, some shade, and regular watering.
Because the plants are in the garden a long time they also need help with pests. The best safeguard (effective, non-toxic) is to cover them early with floating row cover, the wispy fabric sold at garden centers, and leave it in place until harvest.
Those little head cabbages on the stem are nutritious and strongly flavored. That suits me but some people don’t like the flavor. Chances are they’ve never had a good sprout, sweetened by cold, cooked fresh from the garden, handled gently (bruising sprouts releases a chemical with a strong taste of sulfur) and cooked lightly (overcooking brings out the sulfur too). I steam sprouts until they’re slightly undercooked. Maybe it’s just me but I think a little miso makes a good combination with sprouts. What’s your choice of condiment, sauce or cooking method?
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