Last Chance Foods: Invasion of the Brussels Sprouts

Brussels sprouts are everywhere. The John Dory Oyster Bar serves them with mushrooms, pancetta and cheese. Ilili in the Flatiron District takes a Mediterranean spin and adds mint yogurt, fig puree, walnuts and grapes. Brussels sprouts were so popular at Momofuku Noodle Bar that chef David Chang took them off the menu — he didn’t want to dedicate the manpower necessary to keep up with demand.

Looking at New York restaurants these days, it’s hard to believe that the cruciferous winter vegetable ever got a bad rap. But up until the last 15 years or so, Brussels sprouts were often sad, overcooked, bitter little cabbages.

Chef Sara Moulton, whose PBS show Sara’s Weeknight Meals is in its second season, explains that it is all in the preparation. “Everybody overcooks them,” she said, adding that she used to studiously avoid them. “They’re like the smallest member of the culinary dirty diaper family. You know, they’re in the crucifer family and the thing with any crucifer, be it broccoli or cauliflower or cabbage of any kind, if you over cook it, it stinks.” 

Moulton still remembers the dish that made her a Brussels sprouts convert. In 1996, during the early days of the Food Network, she overheard The Two Hot Tamales, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, discussing a quick and easy way of  making sprouts. The recipe involved shredding the Brussels sprouts and sautéing them quickly in olive oil. “Back then it seemed very novel, now I think it’s pretty common,” Moulton said.

Now, Moulton still makes them that way for her own family. “One way to get them to cook through quickly and to not overcook them is to shred them, but shredding them can take time,” she said. So instead, she drops Brussel sprouts into her food processor. A few spins through the shredding disk attachment, and they’re ready for a quick toss in a pan. She often counters the natural bitterness of the sprouts with the addition of ingredients like Balsamic vinegar, pine nuts, walnuts or Parmesan. Shredded Brussels sprouts can even be dressed and eaten as a raw salad.

When selecting Brussels sprouts, Moulton is a fan of buying them on the stalk because it can be a sign of freshness. The stalks are also a novelty because of how strange the look. “I always thought they sort of looked like the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” she said with a chuckle.

Moulton says to look for Brussels that are firm with tightly wrapped leaves. “The good news about Brussels sprouts is that they are a... fall-winter vegetable so that when you buy them at the farmers market, they’ve been sitting in the cold,” she said. “In the summer time, when we buy corn, and it’s been sitting there for hours in the 90-degree heat, it’s deteriorating.”

Once home, Moulton does a minimum of prep work: She just trims the ends and gets rid of the blemished outer leaves. The former Gourmet test kitchen director says that she has no preference on size, but does add that there is one advantage with the larger sprouts. “If they’re bigger, it takes less time to prepare them, so that would be a plus for the bigger ones,” Moulton said. “But, hey, I think they’re all good.”

Below, try Moulton’s recipe for Sautéed Shredded Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta.

Sautéed Shredded Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta
Servings: 6-8

  • 1 1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 ounces pancetta (or bacon), finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano (shaved into strips)

1. Trim the Brussels sprouts and discard any damaged outside leaves.
2. Using a food processor, force the sprouts a few at a time through the chute with the blade in motion. You should have about 8 cups of shredded sprouts.
3. Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring often, until very lightly browned 3-5 minutes. Add the sprouts and cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes.
4. Pour in the vinegar and increase the heat to high. Season with salt and pepper and stir until the vinegar has evaporated. Top with cheese.