Monday, December 7, 2009

Brussels sprouts

So, I'm just starting this and I'm not exactly sure where it's going. For now, my idea is to pick an ingredient or family of ingredients each week and explore the best places to buy them and fun, interesting and simple ways to use them.

This week I've chosen cabbage. Or, more precisely, the cabbage family, whose members include broccoli, bok choy, napa cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and others, not to mention of course the purple and green varieties that you find in every supermarket. Most members of the cabbage family are in season in Quebec right now, so the options are many.

Last night, for my first venture into cabbage, I picked brussels sprouts. An easy choice since I cook with them all the time.

Good brussels sprouts are pretty easy to find. I went to the Atwater Market, and hit up Les fermes Michaca, a farmstand that sells all (or mostly all) certified organic produce. Their sprouts were also the best looking in the market, so all the better. For $8.05, I had 650g of brussels sprouts to work with. Maybe a little expensive but oh so tasty and worth every penny.

The recipe couldn't be simpler. I bought four strips of bacon from my favourite Atwater butcher (Boucherie Claude & Henri: $10.95/kilo, supplied by Quebec Smoked Meat in Pointe St-Charles) and sliced it (the short way) into pieces about 1 cm wide. I then took my brussels sprouts and, taking a page from Jacques Pépin, sliced them like so:

I then fried up the bacon pieces until they were just starting to be brown and crispy. At that point I added the sliced brussels sprouts (only about half of what I bought -- say 300-400g) and sautéd them until they were starting to get crisp and brown around the edges. For vegetarians or vegans, drop the bacon and just put a tablespoon of olive oil into the pan, let it get really hot, and toss the brussels sprouts in with salt and pepper to taste. I also love to throw minced garlic in with the sprouts. Mmm. So easy. So delicious. Tomorrow, I'm going to try deep-frying the brussels sprouts we didn't use last night. I'll let you know how it goes.

I was a bit more adventurous with the rest of the menu. Also from Claude & Henri, I bought a 3-kilo fat duck (supplied by Elevage Périgord in St-Louis de Gonzague) and roasted it. Plenty of meat to feed three hungry boys, and damn was it delicious. Normally I'm not for eating too much meat, but every once in a while roasting up a big bird is irresistible. It was the first time I had roasted a duck, and the only thing that really went wrong was that the skin didn't get quite crispy enough because I didn't do a proper "sizzle" (i.e. doing the first or last 10-20 minutes of the roasting at a much higher temperature: say 450 instead of 350). I made a stock from the duck's neck and kidneys, some carrots and a bay leaf, and then blended it with a few tablespoons of cherry butter to make a really delicious cherry gravy. For a starch, I bought some organic local parsnips and garlic from Michaca, steamed them into submission, and then puréed them with duck fat, butter and milk. Unfortunately they came out a little gummy; I'm not sure why. Next time I'll try cooking them more before I mash them. Texture issues aside though, I highly recommend using parsnips. They are a wonderful winter vegetable, and in my opinion underrated and underused.

Another interesting thing I learned: why people seem to love to hate brussels sprouts. When I was a kid, every children's book used them as an example of vegetables kids hate. I never understood why, because I've always loved them, but it's apparently because of the sulfurous odour they give off when overcooked. All too often, people take brussels sprouts and steam the crap out of them (asparagus, too). That's why I prefer to sauté -- it brings out all the flavour, and it's much easier to avoid overcooking.

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