My now not-so-secret ingredients to make Brussels sprouts or other bitter vegetables quite tasty.
The mystery of memory, scent and taste
This morning, as I ascend the stairs, I encounter a scent at once delightful and curious. Delightful because of the wondrous aroma. Curious because none of the supposed ingredients are currently in play at our house. What wafts my way seems to be a delicious blend of Chanel Number 5 and bacon. To my male olfactory receptors, this is clearly what heaven will smell like. The combination evokes both hunger and romance, a savory/sweet blend that brings to mind Christmastime, dinner parties and awakening ravenous after arriving home from abroad. And yet, my wife has not applied the suspected perfume nor have we cooked any bacon lately.
The phantom scent, while welcome, reminds me that when smell and memory collide, the results frequently defy logic.
Scents are famous for triggering memories, even if we don’t understand why or can’t pin down the direct connection. The same applies, to a lesser degree, to tastes. But with tastes, I’ve found that not only can they evoke memories, they can also spark new ideas.
Take, for example, our food tour of Seattle’s International District. There I encountered a taste — the sweet, delicate and clean flavor of the salad dressing/dipping sauce used for our lunch. Later investigation revealed the contents to be fish sauce, scallions, ginger and sugar. Hmmm. Sugar.
In that one taste, I had the beginnings of a plan. A dream really. A nutritionist’s nirvana: Make palatable the very vegetables that so many people hate to eat.
Can you actually make Brussels sprouts taste delicious?
It started with broccoli. As a kid I always wondered how something could be good for you that, when cooked, smelled like the substance you clean off your shoe. And not just broccoli. All the cruciferous vegetables: cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts. Let’s face it. They stink. They are also an acquired taste (bitterness does not come naturally to the human palette).
So how do you get around the smell and the bitterness?
For the smell, simply don’t overcook them. Al dente means “no stinky” in my kitchen. The longer most cruciferous veggies cook, the more they smell like a frat house bathroom. Don’t overcook them.
But what about that bitter taste? That’s where my fish sauce and sugar moment kicked in.
Why try and simply overpower the bitter taste of broccoli by drenching it with a cheese sauce as so many parents do when there’s a more elegant approach: Offset bitter with sweet.
If you want a simple one step way to make Brussels sprouts taste better, here’s your solution in a bottle. And if you don’t have a Trader Joe’s nearby, you have my heartfelt condolences…
To do this, get a bottle of General Tso’s sauce (Orange Chicken sauce will do and even Hoisin sauce works in a pinch). Trader Joe’s has their “General Tsao’s Sauce” and many supermarkets and Asian food stores carry the other two. Add about a tablespoon per two person serving to Brussels sprouts as you stir fry them or mix in before serving if you steam, boil or roast them. Viola! No bitterness! And if you need pointers on various ways to cook Brussels sprouts, check out this helpful article.
The secret formula to make Brussels sprouts taste delicious
The success of this simple approach led me to experiment with other recipes. Here’s one that has become my favorite. Assuming you like spicy foods, even the most cruciferous hater out there may think differently about Brussels sprouts after trying this approach. It combines a subtle sweetness with more punch than the above options. The proportions are mere estimates:
- 1 tablespoon Caribbean jerk sauce
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
This is meant to be a light additive, not a heavy sauce. The amount listed is enough to cover (or rather, infuse) a serving for four. I cut the Brussels sprouts into slices or quarters (they cook faster this way, so remember, don’t overcook) and, for the final touch, I add the piece de resistance: some crunchy bacon bits.
The slightly sweet, spicy and flavorful combination does something amazing to the Brussels sprouts: It makes them something you actually want to eat.
And of course, the bacon helps. Bacon always helps (unless you’re a vegetarian).
Wearing Chanel No. 5 while you cook, however, is optional.