Brussels sprouts. Much maligned, generally misunderstood, mostly abused through violent boiling till they turn into leaden cabbage bullets. I like sprouts, but even I am starting to draw the line at eating them so plainly cooked. It just seems like a waste of effort when they can be such a fantastic and ready partner to other flavours.
Cooked right (that is to say, at a high heat with some kind of oil coming in somewhere), they bring a whole host of new flavours into the mix – a nuttiness, an unexpected but very welcome savouriness and a brazen bang of mustard that takes you by surprise. They become a bit unruly, but in a really good way, as it means they are well able for other big personalities like smoked pancetta, juniper berries, pepper, strong cheeses, balsamic vinegar, garlic, or best of all, any random ‘mystery box’ combination of the above.
Although it’s not completely essential if you’re having them just fried or roasted as a side dish, I feel that generally they are best cut in half and par-boiled for a (very scant) couple of minutes to tenderise them slightly before whatever delicious treatment you then subject them to. This helps them to soften to the right level – tender with just a little bite still there – and it also means that they soak up any sauce going.
Top tips for any Brussels sprouts recipes: start them in rapidly boiling water that’s already at a rolling boil and lightly salted, and be sure to keep their time in the water as short as possible – no more than three minutes; you are just looking to see their leaves change to a glossy, slightly translucent green – before whatever you do next to them.
CHEESY BRUSSELS SPROUT TARTE TATIN
This deliciously hearty (and cheesy!) tarte tatin recipe brings all of these sprout-enhancing tips to bear – and the results are fantastic. It’s a great recipe for serving at a dinner party, or for a casual weekend lunch with friends – just add a couple of seasonal salads and a nice cold bottle of white.
1 packet bake at home all-butter puff pastry
200g semi-firm cheese of your choosing (scamorza smoked mozzarella, smoked cheddar, reblochon or Gubbeen would all work perfectly, as would taleggio… but it will bring the unruly to almost unmanageably funky levels!)
400g medium size Brussels sprouts, trimmed
3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
Pinch of sugar
1 tablespoon of pink peppercorns
Cut the trimmed sprouts in half across the belly. Par-boil for 3 minutes in lightly salted boiling water. Drain and transfer to a frying pan (ovenproof if you have it but no problem if not). Add the butter, sugar and balsamic vinegar to the pan too with a small splash of water, toss and cook for a few minutes over a medium heat.
If you’re cooking it the whole way through in the same ovenproof frying pan, then place the Brussels sprouts cut side down to cover the entire surface of the pan, tightly packing them so that there are no gaps – as tight as you can, as they will shrink back a bit during cooking (you might need to rearrange them a couple of times!).
If you don’t have an ovenproof frying pan just transfer the sprouts to a baking tray, placing them cut side down in a tight formation. Preheat your oven to 200°c. Finely slice the cheese and set half aside for later. Cover the backs of the sprouts with half the cheese. Then cover the whole lot with the rolled out pastry, tightly enclosing and pressing down to secure so that there are no gaps. If there any bits of pastry overhanging at the edges, cut these off and press these onto the pastry to bolster any weak spots. Put dish into the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the pastry is golden and crisp.
Turn the tart out by placing a large baking tray on top of the dish, hold the baking dish and the tray together tightly (wearing oven gloves), then flip the baking dish over, so that the base of the dish is now at the top. Hold the tray tightly. The tart should (fingers crossed) come away cleanly. Cover the edges of the tart with the remaining slices of cheese, pop back in the oven till the cheese has melted and is turning golden. Cover the cheesy edges with tarragon leaves so that it looks like a wreath. Sprinkle over the pink peppercorns and serve whilst still warm.
This post has been all about sprouts, but I could have given puff pastry the same focus. If I could give one recommendation for your Christmas cooking, it would be to have some good quality puff pastry at the back of your fridge for any and all emergencies.
Surprise guests? Make quick mince pies with the puff pastry and bought mince meat, or rustle up simple cheese twists for serving with drinks (I love Christmas drinks).
Or make a quick tart for lunch by topping the rolled out puff pastry with whatever creamy thing you have in your fridge (crème fraîche/sour cream/cheese/cream cheese) and then top that with whatever vegetable in your fridge seems most ‘directional’ (that is to say, as if you’d been planning to make them this goat’s cheese and butternut squash tart all along. You had, hadn’t you?). Once baked, top it all off with crispy bacon bits or toasted nuts and serve – done.
Surprise guests still there? Root out some leftover stew or bolognese or fish from the freezer and make a quick pie. Then after that you can start dropping the heavy hints that it might be time for them to hit the road (before they drink you out of house and home).