Each month our chefs in the Curve create dishes containing the ‘seasonal fruit or vegetable’ of the month, this month we will be celebrating Brussels sprouts and chestnuts!
Like Marmite, Brussels sprouts are a somewhat divisive food, although most people who claim to hate them have probably been scarred by encounters with horrible overcooked monstrosities in their formative years.
When prepared with a little care, sprouts are a wonderfully satisfying vegetable with a delicious, fresh, green flavour and just the right amount of crunch. They can be served simply as a side vegetable (perhaps with some chopped chestnuts or a sprinkling of sesame seeds), added to casseroles or sliced and stir-fried (try them with beef and oyster sauce).
Some sources trace sprouts back to ancient China whilst others claim they originated much later and were grown in the area around Brussels in the thirteenth century. It is known that they were not introduced to France and England until late in the eighteenth century.
Today they are eaten in N. America and Australia but remain a much more common sight on dining tables in N. Europe, and Britain in particular.
Brussels sprouts belong to the Gemmifera group of the cabbage family (Brassica oleracea). The sprouts grow as head buds around a central stem.
Look for firm, compact sprouts with green unwithered leaves. The base end discolours quickly after harvesting and will often be slightly yellow-brown but should not be dark. Fresh sprouts have no odour or a delicate smell. Those sold on the stalk are likely to stay in better condition for longer. Choose small, evenly-sized sprouts for ease of cooking.
Sprouts should be kept cool at all times and eaten before the leaves discolour or they develop a strong smell.
Soak in lukewarm water for 10 minutes to draw out any insects in the leaves, then rinse under running water. Trim the ends but not right up to the base or the leaves will fall off during cooking. Remove any tired looking outer leaves. Some recommend cutting crosses in the bases but this seems unnecessary.
Simmer uncovered in an equal volume of salted water (alternatively steam or slice and stir-fry). Overcooked and undercooked sprouts are unpleasant so it’s important to check for doneness by inserting a knife tip into the stem end and removing the sprouts when they’re just tender (typically between 6 and 12 minutes when simmering; the off-putting sulphurous cabbagey smell is a sign of overcooking). Drain, return to the hot pan and shake for a few seconds to remove excess water. Serve immediately (the flavour suffers if sprouts are kept warm for long).
Take a look at our chef’s recipe for Brussels sprouts with bacon, leek and caraway.
Food for thought
An 80g serving of sprouts contains four times more vitamin C than an orange, and a cup of cooked Brussels sprouts contains only about 60 calories.
Chestnuts trees have grown across China and Japan since ancient times. The Greeks brought them to Europe from Asia Minor and later they spread across the continent with the Romans.
For many Europeans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries chestnuts were an important staple food and Italians used them to make polenta before the introduction of maize from the New World.
Many varieties of chestnut tree exist, the common European chestnut being Castanea sativa. The trees take 20 years to fruit but remain productive for centuries.
After picking, chestnuts slowly dry out and shrivel. Choose nuts that are heavy for their size with shiny, smooth shells. Give a squeeze to check that the nut inside is plump and full.
Freshly picked chestnuts start off quite crisp and become more tender and chewy over the following days or weeks before deteriorating to a dry and floury texture. Storage at a cool temperature (e.g. the fridge) slows the ageing process.
Peeling chestnuts is a task to plan for when there’s something good on the radio; attempting the job when you’re in a hurry is likely to result in swearing and a long-standing hatred of a very fine nut.
Cut slits (or crosses) in the shells and part-cook the nuts either by roasting for 15 minutes or boiling for 20 minutes. The shells will now be fairly simple to break open. Removing the brown membrane on the nut is a fiddlier task (easier performed while the nuts are warm) and you will need to break open some nuts to get at the skin in the crevices.
Shelled and peeled, chestnuts can then be cooked according to recipe requirements (for mashing or pureeing they should have the consistency of cooked potatoes – test with a skewer).
It’s a fact………..
Ham from pigs reared on a diet rich in chestnuts is highly valued in many areas of France, Spain, Italy and particularly Corsica where there is an annual chestnut festival in December.
Take a look at our chef’s recipe for Chestnut and pumpkin pie with meringue.