Brussels sprouts come from a class of green vegetable underdogs. They’re like the odd-ball relative—smelly, bland and disrespected until someone who can see the underlying potential steps up.
Instead of boiling Brussels sprouts to a gray death like their parents once did, chefs are breaking out some new moves. They’re blanching and shocking. Roasting to caramelize. Deep frying. Shaving into a salad. Tossing with cured meat. Or loading with infused butter, combining elements of sweet, salty and a bright splash of acidity.
It’s working. The price-stable vegetable is driving revenue and building devotees who see the dish as a reason to return to the restaurant. Cabbage’s cousin is officially cool.
The steamed Brussels sprouts with anchovy butter are a seasonal staple at R+D Kitchen in Yountville, Calif. and Executive Chef Sheamus Feeley brings them back each year. “I can sell upward of 40 or 50 orders a day between fall and winter,” he says. “There are some people who come in specifically to eat that dish.”
"Before everyone started going Brussels sprouts crazy, it was very seasonally driven in fall. Now, the demand is so high that they’re growing them year-round."
— Executive Chef Elise Wiggins of Panzano in Denver
At some restaurants, the vegetable is sprouting up on menus all year long. At Denver Italian restaurant Panzano, Chef Elise Wiggins can barely keep them in stock. After introducing her fried Brussels sprouts with apple cider reduction, pistachios, rosemary salt and sliced green apple ($12) in 2009, customers were up in arms when the dish left the menu. “Before everyone started going Brussels sprouts crazy, it was very seasonally driven in fall,” she says. “Now, the demand is so high that they’re growing them year-round.”
At nearly 300 orders weekly, Wiggins’ Brussels sprouts have eclipsed other items as the top appetizer, including calamari. “Any time you do vegetables, your profit margin can be really high,” Wiggins says. “I think vegetables keep things light and people will end up eating more.”
The charred Brussels sprouts with pearl onions ($8) have sold so well over the past five years at Delicatessen in NYC that Chef-partner Michael Ferraro serves them year-round. “My restaurant in peak season does about 7,500 covers per week, and sales on Brussels sprouts may be 5 to 7 percent of total sales,” he says. “We go through maybe three cases of Brussels sprouts a week—to only be served as a side dish.”
Just Add Bacon
The industry joke about being able to sell any dish by adding bacon also applies to Brussels sprouts. They mingle with bacon and grapes ($6) at La Condesa in Austin, Texas, while Charleston, S.C., restaurant Butcher & Bee serves them with bacon, apples, and peanuts ($6).
But with all the converts, chefs are taking the next steps with the vegetable.
At Cook and Brown Public House in Providence, R.I., Chef-owner Nemo Bolin prepares it three ways in one dish. The Brussels sprouts are quartered and blanched along with the outer leaves. Some are also roasted before the vegetable is tossed with toasted farro, manchego cheese, shaved acorn squash and aged vinegar.
“This way you get three variations, both texturally and flavor-wise, of the sprout itself,” Bolin says. “The nutty characteristics of the toasted farro, manchego and squash all pair nicely with the sprouts. The aged vinegar lifts everything up and brings some much needed acidity.”
The New Broccoli
Don’t be surprised if you blink and Brussels sprouts becomes as standard as broccoli.
Demand aside, the price and quality remain constant year-round, which can be a huge selling point for both the chef and the customer. “I don’t serve sides of other products, such as asparagus and tomatoes, when they’re out of season because the price jumps too much and the quality goes down,” Ferraro says. “Not the case with Brussels sprouts.”
Customers have finally come full circle with Brussels sprouts, Wiggins says. “People will come in and say they don’t like them because of the way their mom made them,” she says. “A friend will convince them to try them, and they’re hooked.”
There’s More Than One Way To Cook Brussels Sprout
Brussels sprouts’ versatility has helped the vegetable shed its unpopular past:
Boiling or steaming Brussels sprouts is acceptable, but be sure to blanch and shock them (to retain their bright green color) and then reheat at service. Toss with duck fat herb butter, brown butter or an anchovy butter like at R+D Kitchen in Yountville, Calif.
The mantra “everything taste better fried” applies to Brussels sprouts, whether just the leaves or the whole vegetable. Lavender Lake in Brooklyn, N.Y., serves them fried with a sweet lemon aioli ($6) while Miami’s Sakaya Kitchen has built a cult following for ginger-fried Brussels sprouts ($6).
Roasts with the Most
Roasting or sauteing Brussels sprouts to char or caramelize brings out their sweet, earthy side. Etch in Nashville, Tenn., serves them charred with schmaltz butter ($5 and $7) while Ajax Tavern in Aspen, Colo., opts for sweeter counterparts like pomegranate, molasses and chestnuts ($8).
A Close Shave
Other restaurants are treating the Brussels sprout like its gargantuan relative, the cabbage, by shaving into a slaw or salad. It’s the star green at Salty Sow in Austin, Texas, served with candied almonds, dried cranberries and Parmigiano-Reggiano ($8). At Denver’s Kachina Southwestern Grill, Brussels sprouts sub for cabbage as the slaw topper for The Pueblo tacos served with achiote pork, tomatillo salsa and jalapeño jack cheese ($5).