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Seasons

Fear and loathing at the dinner table

(Michele McDonald/Globe Staff/file 2004)
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November 14, 2007

For most children, Brussels sprouts, along with beets and turnips, fall in the category of "disgusting vegetables." At least that was the case for me.

There were two problems with my childhood sprouts. The first was that my mother didn't know how to cook them. (Sorry, Mom!) She tossed them whole in unsalted water and cooked them until they were officially limp - a death sentence for a vegetable with great flavor. The result was a mushy, bitter disaster that I was forced to mop up if I wanted a lick of dessert. We didn't have a dog and I never missed dessert, so you can imagine why I loathed Brussels sprouts for so many years.

Problem number two (this may have been out of my mother's control): Most sprouts come from California. The smallest, which are more tender, and nuttier and sweeter, than their larger counterparts, were usually shipped to frozen-food companies. The rejected sprouts, the larger ones, were sent fresh to supermarkets.

Today, both large and small, and green and red Brussels sprouts are available year-round. But if you don't want your child to suffer the same gustatory fate I did, buy smaller sprouts (about 1-inch in diameter) from late fall to early winter at a farmers' market, where they may be sold still attached to their large stalk. Choose heavy sprouts with tight buds and no yellow leaves.

Once home, don't store them in the fridge for too long. They may not look like they're deteriorating, but the flavor starts fading right after they're harvested. Clean the sprouts in a bowl of lukewarm water.

At the stove, there are several things to keep in mind. Brussels sprouts need salt and overcooking ruins them. For quick sautes, core the sprouts (as you would a tomato) and separate the leaves one by one. Thinly slice the inseparable leaves in the center. If you do not have an unpaid intern to help you separate the leaves, do something simpler. Halve them through the core and slice them thinly. Saute in oil with garlic, salt, and pepper.

For braising and boiling, trim the sprout bases; small rounds can be boiled whole in salted water; larger ones should be halved or quartered. In "Lidia's Family Table," Lidia Bastianich pairs lemon sauce with sauteed sprout leaves. Serve them as a side dish on the Thanksgiving table, or toss with short pasta, such as fusilli, and some of the pasta cooking water. Refrigerate leftover lemon sauce or freeze it to serve with other "disgusting" vegetables. - JILL SANTOPIETRO

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