About fifteen years ago, after moving to Santa Cruz in the Monterey Bay where there were acres upon acres of Brussels sprouts, I decided to surprise my family at the holidays with a ‘new’ vegetable. We never had them when I was growing up and my husband introduced me to them one fall long ago. I thought the small cabbage like vegetable was charming and delicious, with a hint of heat and funky sweetness. In the Monterey Bay, Brussels sprouts were sold at farmer’s markets and mounds of freshly trimmed, tight little ones were stocked at local independent markets. Surely my parents, siblings, nieces and nephews would be as charmed as I.
I bought about 5 pounds of the sprouts and drove them to Southern California. They were destined to be simply boiled and tossed with lots of brown butter to sweeten and enrich them. I envisioned prepping them with my sisters and nieces in my mom’s kitchen, telling jokes, catching up and gossiping. I was going to bring food novelty to our holiday feast.
What happened was surprising to me: My family looked at the bag of sprouts and asked what they were. I proudly announced, “Brussels sprouts! They’re locally grown where I now live! They’re part of many traditional American holiday menus!”
My mom looked at them suspiciously. My sister Tasha, with eyes bulging with slight fright, unequivocally said, “I don’t like them.”
Someone else said, “Uh, they’re farty.” My nieces and nephews hadn’t seen them before and were watching us adults with awkward curiosity.
What was wrong with my family and Brussels sprouts? Why did they pronounce the green orbs dead on arrival?
“We ate them in the camp. A lot of them,” my sister Linh said. She was referring to Camp Pendelton, the Marine base that served as a refugee resettlement facility for first-wave immigrants like my family.
“They were canned and awful smelling and tasting,” my mom added.
Oh. I obviously forgot that food memory. I was six when we left Vietnam in 1975, too young to remember all of the trauma associated with fleeing for your life and being displaced. I was unaware that the sprouts had left such a bad impression on my family. Though we eat lots of funky, stinky foods, my parents and siblings had written Brussel sprouts. Being the youngest and filled with naivete, I had embraced them.
Luckily for me, my family was willing to give Brussels sprouts another try that night. I got my nieces to help me prep. At the table, everyone ate some sprouts out of courtesy to me. (They've indulged me since I started cooking and experimenting long ago.) Not all the sprouts got eaten that night. There was a fair amount of leftovers.
I realized that year that Brussels sprouts would have to be a vegetable that I kept to myself. At home. In Santa Cruz.
Whenever Thanksgiving comes around, I feel thankful for many things, one of which is the Brussels sprout. My family does not and that's the beauty of living in America.
Here’s how I’m making Brussels sprouts right now. It’s super simple and fast. Because I have lots of banh mi pickles in the fridge, I splash some of the pickling brine into the wok at the end to add a tangy finish. See the substitute if you don’t have any pickles around. The only one that I wouldn’t do this with is the garnet-colored brine from the citrusy red cabbage pickle. That would turn the sprouts a funny color. But maybe you're okay with that?
If you like Brussels sprouts, what’s your favorite way to make them? At the end of this post are links to three more Brussels sprouts recipes.
Wok-Seared Brussels Sprouts with Garlic
Yield: 4 servings as a side dish
- 12 ounces (360 g) Brussels sprouts
- 1/2 teaspoon dark or regular soy sauce
- Canola oil
- 2 to 3 tablespoons banh mi pickle brine, or stir together 1 tablespoons distilled white vinegar 1 tablespoon water and 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
Remove any loose leaves from each Brussels sprout. Aim for a tight, firm finish little orb. Trim the ends and halve each one. Set aside.
- Bring a lightly salted pot of water to a boil. Drop in the sprouts and after the water returns to a boil, cook for 1-2 minutes, until bright green and firm tender. Drain, briefly run under cold water and drain well. You can prep the sprouts up to a day in advance and keep them refrigerated. Return to room temperature before finishing.
- Toss the sprouts in the soy sauce and sprinkle on some salt , to taste. Heat a large wok or non-stick skillet over high heat. Swirl in some oil then add the garlic. When aromatic, add the Brussels sprouts, quickly spreading them out. Let them sear, cut side down for 30 to 60 seconds, then stir and flip. Keep cooking like that to heat through and sear the cut side to a rich brown color.
- When satisfied, splash in the brine. Let cook until the liquid has evaporated. Off heat, taste and add salt as needed. Serve hot or warm.
Here are 3 more ways to celebrate the mighty little Brussels sprout:
- Brussels sprouts with Chinese sausage (left)
- Shaved Brussels sprouts salad with Japanese togarashi (right, top)
- Brussels sprouts with cracklings and fish sauce (right, bottom)