Brussels (Bruxelles in French) is home to the European Union, the remarkable La Grande-Place (a UNESCO World Heritage site), and the no less intriguing and very amusing Manneken Pis...one of the world's earliest well known "small men". He pre-dated another famous smaller French gentleman by about 600 years (Napoleon). Small, but aggressive, Napoleon was a bold contender in a small package. He was permantently exiled after his loss at the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium.
Brussels is an elegant, reserved and understated younger sister to Paris. No less welcoming than the Gaulic capital, she is coy about her petite figure, regardless of her oversized affect on the world.
Belgium is known, and has been over centuries, for chocolate. While major strides have been made in the United States to better appreciate and understand this gourmet extragavance, it is the adherence of old world manufacturing techniques, made in small batches, that delivers such gastronomic delight.
Delicate. Complex. Warm. And very lively. Truly an adult taste. I might be describing a confection from Leonidas. Or a singularly monumental taste of Neuhaus. Or perhaps the quirky Belgian love of french fries and mayonaisse.
But I am not. I am describing Brussels Sprouts.
Cultivated in what is now Belgium since the 13th century, this vegetable is grown in cooler climates from autumn to spring. If you can buy them on the stock they will stay fresh for several days. Cooking the sprouts too long brings upon a bitter taste. A bit like the "Napoleon of Cabbage" (they hail from the same family roots), brussels sprouts are loaded with excellent sources of vitamin A, C and dietary fiber. An alter ego that is laughably small, yet a culinary force that must be paid attention to. Cooked correctly they are delicious and there is no need to exile them from your kitchen.
The word "vegetable" comes from the old French root “vegetābilis” and latin stem “vegetare” which means “to enliven”. A previous trip to Belgium gave us the opportunity to stay at the boutique Brussels Welcome Hotel. Upon entry of the modest exterior the place immediately transformed us from old to new, and back, with a lively display of rooms set in exotic themes from around the world. Strolling through the ancient and reserved capital, a player by design or circumstance in many of the empires over the last 10 centuries, I thought of the the clever English poet Andrew Marvel who authored “To his Coy Mistress” and wrote:
“Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide…
…My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.”
My vegetative soul has shown me that brussels sprouts, unlike gourmet chocolate, do not take themselves seriously. They’ve been around much too long to worry about their place in the world. Reserved and understated. Yet bold and enlivening when they need to be. A pleasantly coy alternative with a deceptively delicious story to tell.
Recipe for Brussels Sprouts
with Dijon Mustard Thyme Butter
1 lb brussels sprouts, halved with outer leaves removed
1/4 lb (one stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 T Dijon mustard
1 shallot finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 T fresh thyme leaves, chopped
salt and pepper
Bring a 3 quart sauce pan of water to a boil. When boiling, add salt and then brussels sprouts. Cook for 7 to 8 minutes at a low boil.
While the brussels sprouts are cooking, make the butter by combining all the ingredients in a small bowl.
Drain the brussels sprouts and then add back into the warm saucepan. Add the mustard thyme butter, coating the sprouts well. Season with salt and cracked black pepper and serve.
This recipe was adopted from Deborah Madison's "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone".