Is there a more polarizing vegetable than Brussels sprouts? To some, they have a nutty sweetness that makes them as irresistible as candy. To others, they are inarguably and repulsively bitter.
As Thanksgiving approaches, the great Brussels sprouts debate threatens to disrupt dinner table conversations across the country. In my own household, my husband is in the I-love-Brussels-sprouts camp. My sister, who flies up from Washington every year to spend the holiday with us, is firmly with team I-hate-them.
There is actually a scientific reason for this divide. Brussels sprouts contain chemical compounds with bitter flavors that serve the evolutionary purpose of repelling hungry birds and bugs. Some people have taste buds that are genetically programmed to taste the same bitterness that birds taste. Others have taste buds that don't register this particular flavor at all. With genetics against him, what can my husband do to win my sister over to his side? According to food science expert Harold McGee, it takes a dual cooking approach to neutralize the flavor to which she is so sensitive. One of the compounds in Brussels sprouts diminishes when they are subjected to a quick burst of high heat. The other dissipates during slower cooking.
Proper seasoning also can make a difference. Combining Brussels sprouts with something salty, sweet or sour can offset their bitterness and bring balance to a dish. Tossing sauteed Brussels sprouts with bacon has a miraculous effect. Roasting the sprouts at a high heat with just a little sugar to encourage caramelization is another strategy. Treating them like cabbage -- shredding them and dressing them with an acidic ingredient like lemon juice or vinegar -- also will blunt Brussels sprouts' harsh edge.
The following recipe uses McGee's cooking advice. The Brussels sprouts are halved and then sauteed over high heat, partially taming them. Then they are spread on a piece of puff pastry and roasted in the oven for a longer period of time, to complete the process. Sugars form as the outer leaves of the sprouts caramelize, adding needed sweetness. A little bit of balsamic vinegar gives the sprouts a gently tart glaze. And Gruyère cheese blanketing them adds an essential salty element. We will see what my sister says when she comes for dinner in a few weeks.
GRUYÈRE AND BRUSSELS SPROUTS TART
1 (14-ounce) sheet puff pastry, defrosted in the refrigerator overnight
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 leek, white and light green parts, sliced thin
10 ounces Brussels sprouts, halved
Ground black pepper
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
4 ounces shredded Gruyère cheese
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Unfold the puff pastry and place in middle of baking sheet. Prick all over with a fork. Cover with plastic and place in freezer.
2. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Heat olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add leek and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add Brussels sprouts, salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are spotty brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add balsamic vinegar and continue to cook, stirring, until most of the liquid has cooked off (this will take less than 30 seconds). Scrape into a bowl, stir in thyme and set aside to cool.
3. Remove puff pastry from freezer, and spread cooled Brussels sprouts mixture over it, leaving a one-inch border all around. Sprinkle the cheese over the Brussels sprouts. Brush edge of dough with egg. Bake until the pastry is golden and cheese is browned and bubbling, about 20 minutes. Cool slightly and serve warm or let come to room temperature before serving. Makes 4 to 6 servings.