It’s kind of remarkable that the much maligned sprout persists in its non-negotiable place on the Christmas lunch table.
Their role remains a standing joke: everyone hates sprouts, don’t they? And if they don’t, they must be a peculiarity, a bit weird: my uncle, who loved sprouts, once ate them with his Christmas pudding, to the screaming glee and horror of all the children at the table.
But, the sprout has an important role to play: amidst the spiced bread sauce, the naturally sweet carrots and parsnips, the goosefat-laden potatoes and pigs in blankets, there isn’t anything else that really cuts through. We need the natural bitterness of the sprout in this rich, sweet, spiced meal; and cooked properly, it bears no resemblance to the soggy, sulpherous veg that so many of us remember from childhood with absolutely no fondness.
This is my favourite way to cook most vegetables, actually – carrots, cabbage, kale, broccoli – but it’s particularly good for sprouts. The high heat and fast cooking means that the veg becomes dark and caramelised, and the residual steam trapped by the lid cooks them through.
Use a timer for this method, even if it’s just one on your phone: we all know that overcooking sprouts is the ultimate festive crime, but it doesn’t stop most of us doing it year on year.
Some people are (literally) genetically wired to dislike sprouts, so to make the whole process a little more painless for them, I’ve given three recipes below to entice your whole Christmas table into reaching for the sprouts: bacon and balsamic onion sprouts, blue cheese and pecan, and lemon and extra virgin olive oil. Each of these use the same basic cooking method, and are then simply tossed with the accompaniment. Hopefully these recipes will provide enough options for all the family to enjoy Brussel sprouts this Christmas – but try them as they come too, cooked fast and hot, until they’re dark and delicious.
Makes: Enough for 4 – but the recipes easily double, triple, or more!
Takes: 5 minutes
Bakes: No time at all
For the bacon and balsamic onion
1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 onion, sliced
2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon dark muscovado sugar
200g lardons, or streaky bacon snipped into small pieces
1. Place the lardons in a cold, dry pan. Cook over a medium to high heat until the fat has rendered and the lardons are golden and crispy; pour out of the pan and set to one side.
2. Reduce the heat to very low and add the slices of onion, the balsamic vinegar and muscovado sugar. Cook until the onions are completely soft and sticky, stirring occasionally.
3. When the sprouts are ready, toss with the lardons and onions and serve immediately.
For the blue cheese and pecans
100g blue cheese
1. Place a dry pan over a medium heat, and add the pecans. Shuffling the pecans regularly, cook the pecans until they are just beginning to colour and they smell nutty: be vigilant, nuts burn very quickly! Allow to cool, then chop roughly.
2. When the sprouts are ready, toss through the chopped pecans, and crumble blue cheese over the top. Serve immediately.
For the extra virgin olive oil and lemon
1-2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1. When the sprouts are ready, zest a lemon using a very fine grater or microplane straight over the sprouts. Squeeze the lemon juice directly onto the sprouts, catching any pips, and add the olive oil. Toss the sprouts within this mixture, and serve immediately.
For the sprouts
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
A good grinding of back pepper
1. Peel off the very outer leaves of the sprouts – these will probably be loose – and trim off the roughest bit of the base. Halve the sprouts.
2. Find a large pan for which you have a tight fitting lid. Heat the oil in the in the pan until it is shimmering and smoking. Tumble the sprouts into the pan, clamp the lid on, and set your timer for 2 minutes.
3. When your timer goes off, throw in the salt and butter, replace the lid and – carefully! – shake the pan whilst holding the lid. Place another timer for 2 minutes. Once the two minutes are up, test the sprouts using a sharp knife: the tip of the knife should slide in easily to the tender, cooked sprout.
4. Add a generous ginding of black pepper and decant into your serving vessel.