I don’t need much encouragement to cook brassicas. That family of cruciferous veggies packs a serious nutritional punch, and busy cooks like me need all the short cuts to nutrition we can get.
But even though I cook things like kale, broccoli and cauliflower on a regular basis, it doesn’t mean I don’t need a little help digging out of my rut now and then. I rarely reach beyond the leafy greens into collards territory, and I’m kind of a one-hit wonder when it comes to bok choy.
But lucky for me I have smart food friends who turn me on to new methods and ideas — and lucky for us all, they turn their culinary prowess into fantastic cookbooks. Case in point: “Brassicas” by Laura Russell.
I met Laura years ago when I worked at The Oregonian and we became fast friends. She has both an impeccable palate and no patience for junk food, making her the perfect person to write this book. It’s packed with recipes for handling all sorts of brassicas — from the ones you think you know everything about (broccoli) to the ones you don’t (kohlrabi). I have to admit, I didn’t even know watercress and arugula were cruciferous until I read her book.
If the essays on the cancer fighting powers of these vegetables don’t persuade you to get more of them on your dinner plate, the recipes will. They are all, blessedly, easy enough to execute on any given weeknight, but they’re also inventive enough to keep things interesting.
Her recipe for charred brussels sprouts with fig glaze is a prime example. I’ve done the whole bacon-and-brussels thing before (it’s a classic combo) but I never thought to add a spoonful of fig jam. It’s a simple way to elevate the ordinary in just one easy step. Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and this dish definitely has a spot on my menu.
Charred Brussels Sprouts with Pancetta and Fig Glaze
From “Brassicas: Cooking the World’s Healthiest Vegetables” by Laura B. Russell (Ten Speed Press, 2014)
Nothing tastes better with Brussels sprouts than cured pork, which is why I unapologetically offer you recipes that flavor sprouts with both pancetta and bacon. Here, the salty pancetta plays well with the sweetness from the fig jam, and you can finish the dish with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar to add a tangy note (see variations). I found fig jam near the grocery store’s cheese counter (not in the jams and jellies aisle), but you could also try apricot or peach jam instead. You may want to add a touch more jam than I suggest, but strive for a subtle sweetness rather than a cloying, sticky mess.
3 tablespoons olive oil (divided)
3 to 4 ounces pancetta, diced
1 1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved (or quartered if large) through the stem end (about 6 cups)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons fig jam
1 tablespoon water
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
In a large (12 inches or wider) frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes, until crisp. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pancetta to a small bowl. Return the pan to medium-high heat and add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Add the Brussels sprouts, keeping them in a single layer as much as possible. Having a few extra sprouts is fine, but if they are mounded in a pile, they will not brown or cook evenly. If necessary, use a larger pan, cook them in two batches, or pull out the extra for another use. Stir in the salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, until the Brussels sprouts are tender and well browned—even charred in spots. If the sprouts are browning too quickly, lower the heat to medium.
Add the fig jam and the water and stir until the jam melts and coats the Brussels sprouts. Add the reserved pancetta and the pepper and stir to combine. Taste and add additional salt or pepper if needed. Serve warm.
For a sweet, salty, tangy version, add a drizzle (a teaspoon or less) of balsamic vinegar at the end. Aged balsamic is an especially good choice. Although I prefer pancetta here (I like its unsmoked rich pork flavor), you can use bacon in its place.