Putting the spotlight back on one-time Central Coast star
Photography by Angela Aurelio
Recipes by Tony Baker
My first experience with Brussels sprouts was straight out of the can when I was a kid. The gray, stinky mush turned me off for many decades until about five years ago, when I had a delicious Brussels sprouts and bacon experience at Thanksgiving dinner. Ever since I’ve been enjoying them and experimenting with various preparation styles. The only thing I don’t love about them is that it’s hard to find them grown organically.
The plant that was bred to be the Brussels sprouts we know today probably originated in Ancient Rome. It wasn’t until the 13th century that they were grown in Belgium, and, hence, were named for the county’s capital. Interestingly, the word Brussels came from the Dutch word “Broeksel” meaning “home in the marsh,” and marshes provide a very similar environment to where they now grow on the Central Coast, near ocean inlets, or sloughs.
Sulfurous little Brussels sprouts made their debut in our area in the 1920s when newly arrived Italian farmers began planting them along with artichokes. By 1940 the acreage was significant, and today several thousand are grown in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. The tall stalks yield dense buds that resemble minicabbages that thrive in the cool, coastal fog and have a slightly bitter taste that can sweeten when frosty temperatures hit.
In fact, the area is so well suited to Brussels sprouts that up until 1993 there was a Brussels sprouts festival sponsored by the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The festival went on for 12 years before it was uprooted for dwindling attendance. There were Brussels sprouts on pizzas and in ice cream (possibly the entire reason for the demise of the festival) and attendees who couldn’t bear to eat them were encouraged to whack them with golf clubs and hit targets. Since then, a more diverse variety of produce has been planted on the coast, making Brussels sprouts less significant, and their celebration has taken a backseat to that of garlic, strawberries, artichokes and olives, which all have their own festivals in our region.
Still, interest in the flatulence-inducing knobs is rekindling.
For example, a new hip Brussels sprout cross was developed somewhat accidentally by Tozer Seeds, a British vegetable seed company when it crossed Brussels sprouts and kale in its plant breeding program. Crossing one crop with another in the same family is a common practice as breeders look for resistant strains or improvement in seed varieties. When Tozer Seeds started this process, its aim was to try to boost dwindling sprout sales in the United Kingdom by developing a more exciting Brussels sprout, perhaps one with more frills and a purple color. But the company had no idea how popular kale would become in the United States when they started the breeding program 15 years ago. As luck would have it, its special cross, cheekily called “kalettes,” was a hit, and Tozar trademarked the name, banking on the success of kale to sell the “new” vegetable to both farmers and consumers. The seed, however, is proprietary and very expensive, ranging between a dime and a quarter per seed, depending on the quantity purchased.
Locally, you may have already spotted the kale-Brussels sprout cross growing as you’ve driven through Moss Landing; area growers and packers that distribute them include Mann Packing, Ocean Mist and Tanimura & Antle. You can find them at markets that emphasize local produce, like Star Market in Salinas and The Wharf Marketplace in Monterey, and on the menu of such restaurants as Montrio Bistro in Monterey. (See p. 20 for photo of kalettes.)
GROWING BRUSSELS SPROUTS
On the Central Coast Brussels sprouts are planted June through October for harvest September through March, with their first pick at about 90 days and four to five more harvests thereafter. Each plant yields about 2–3 pounds or 80–100 sprouts.
For home gardeners, planting the Churchill variety in the fall for early sprouts and Diablo later in the winter is a good combination for continuous harvest, fall through spring.
Brussels are usually rotated with other cool weather-loving crops like artichokes and strawberries. They are in the ground for six long months, which is one reason that pests are typically a problem. Pests tend to hide and lay eggs, or pupae, in the crevices of each sprout, making it difficult to get rid of them. If they are not managed proactively, the crop will be lost.
It is important to keep the soil healthy and the plant fed every couple of weeks in order to keep it strong enough to fight off common pests like cabbage worms and cabbage and green peach aphids. The most devastating pest for local Brussels is the diamondback moth, which does most of its damage in the larval stage, eating through the leaves and leaving only the veins.
Brussels are also susceptible to many types of fungal diseases such as leaf spots, root rots, wilts and mildews, which is why crop rotation and removal of plant debris where pests and fungus can continue to spread are important practices. Slugs and snails also thrive in plant debris; this coupled with overhead sprinkler irrigation can create an infestation of mollusks that will eat through the leaves of the crop, making them unsellable.
One Monterey Bay area farm that despite these challenges still manages to grow and sell CCOF-certified organic Brussels sprouts (and other vegetables) is Rodoni Farms.
Rodoni has been producing Brussels sprouts since 1935 on the Santa Cruz coastline. Patriarch Dante Rodoni was on the cutting edge of innovation when he helped create a machine to sort and grade the Brussels, then later went on to develop the historical “Rodoni Brussels Sprouts Stripper” that mechanically cuts the sprouts from the stalks in the field, saving countless hours of labor. Eight decades later, Rodoni Farms is headed by Dante’s son, Mario, and Mario’s sons, Bill and Dan. Their crops are sold wholesale and direct to restaurants and consumers at the Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets.
HEALTH AND NUTRITION
About three-quarters of Brussels sprouts production is slated for the frozen food aisle, with only about 15% harvested for consuming fresh. But like most vegetables, Brussels sprouts yield the most nutrients when eaten fresh and raw; steaming, sautéing and roasting are second best. Brussels sprouts contain high levels of vitamins C and K, as well as significant amounts of potassium and feel-good B vitamins that give you energy and a sense of well-being. They are high in protein—2 grams for only ½ cup cooked. However, they are missing certain amino acids so the protein is incomplete unless eaten with a serving of whole grains. They also contain tons of fiber and sulforaphane, a phytochemical touted for powerful cancer-fighting properties.
My favorite way to buy Brussels sprouts is on the stalk because they are fresher since they haven’t been removed from the stem, and cheaper since there is less harvest labor involved. When I get them home I simply snap the sprouts from the stalk by hand and put them in a cold bowl of water to chill for 15 minutes to “freshen up.” At that point they can be stored in water in the refrigerator (if you plan to eat them within the next day or two) or prepped for eating by trimming the ends one by one and peeling off the first few layers of leaves (especially important if your Brussels are not organic).
Try shaving the large ones into salads and saving the small ones for roasting. If you prefer to steam or sauté them, be sure to limit the time to no longer than 10 minutes to avoid soggy, overcooked sprouts.
Here are a few of my favorite ways to prepare Brussels sprouts:
Basic Roasted Brussels Sprouts: I prefer cutting the sprouts in half for more surface area so that when I roast them they are more caramelized. If you like them whole, cut an X in the bottom of the stem so they cook evenly. Once the sprouts are washed and cut, toss them in garlic-infused olive oil or melted butter and add sea salt and pepper. Spread them out on a cookie sheet one layer thick and bake at 400° F for about 35 minutes or until they are crisp around the edges. If you like bacon with your sprouts, put it on a separate sheet and bake for about 20 minutes at the same time.
Savory Brussels:Take the roasted sprouts out of the oven and put them in a dish. Add thin slices of anchovy, sautéed shallots, capers, sun-dried tomatoes and the juice of a Meyer lemon. Toss and serve warm.
Candy Cap Brussels: Toss roasted sprouts in crumbled bacon, a splash of apple cider vinegar and sprinkle with finely ground candy cap mushrooms (use maple syrup if you don’t have the ’shrooms). Coat with a drizzle of honey, and sprinkle with toasted pine nuts. Serve warm.
Other delicious Brussels sprout pairings: Parmesan cheese, reduced balsamic vinegar, mustard, brown sugar and pistachios or other nuts chopped small and preferably toasted. Tip: If you are using bacon or butter with your sprout dish, be sure to add a bit of acid in the form of lemon juice or vinegar to cut the richness and add brightness.
Jamie Collins is owner of Serendipity Farms and has been growing organic row crops at the mouth of Carmel Valley since 2001. She distributes her produce through a CSA, u-picks and farmers’ markets.
LOCAL FOODS IN SEASON
December, January and February
Fruits: Apples • Asian Pears • Avocados • Grapefruits • Grapes • Guavas • Kiwis • Kumquats • Lemons • Limes • Mandarins • Oranges Parsnips • Pears • Persimmons • Pomegranates* • Pomelos
Vegetables: Artichokes* • Arugula • Asparagus** • Beets • Bok Choy • Broccoli • Broccoli Raab • Brussels Sprouts • Burdock • Cabbage Cardoons • Carrots • Cauliflower • Celeriac • Celery • Chard • Chicory • Collards • Cress • Dandelion • Endive • Fava Greens • Fennel Garlic • Horseradish • Kale • Kohlrabi • Leeks • Mushrooms • Mustard Greens • Nettles • Onions • Orach • Parsnips • Potatoes • Radishes Rutabagas • Salsify* • Shallots • Spinach • Sprouts • Winter Squash • Sunchokes • Sweet Potatoes • Turnips
Fish: Abalone • Anchovies • Cazebon • Crab, Dungeness • Crab, Rock • Flounder, Starry • Grenadier, Pacific • Herring • Lingcod • Rock Cod, aka Rockfish • Sablefish, aka Black Cod • Sanddabs, Pacific • Sole, Dover, Petrale and Rex • Spot Prawns
* December only ** February only
All fish listed are rated “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. See montereybayaquarium.org/cr/seafoodwatch.aspx for more information.