Monday, February 22nd, 2010
My experience with brussels sprouts is a bit like my experience with people – first impressions are not always the last impressions. It happens more often than I’d like to admit that just as I feel I’ve gotten someone all figured out, I am suddenly and swiftly smacked smartly across the cheek by an enlightening discovery, thereby unveiling my certain capacity for fallible judgment. While such a discovery may be disheartening, at its best, it illuminates unseen beauty and merit, and in an instant, what had been previously rejected becomes tangible, relatable, and intensely desirable. Brussels sprouts and I have just this kind of personal history.
My childhood first impressions of these adorable rolly polly wild cabbages need little embellishment, as they are shared by many a child far and wide yet today. Mushy. Slimy. Stinky. Growing up, my mother did not make brussels sprouts (that I remember), but somehow I had enough knowledge of and endearment to their notorious reputation to fondly refer to them as “brussels brains.”
However, during college, shortly after my mother married my stepfather and long after my judgement of the petite little cerebrals at hand was firmly set in place, my stepfather prepared for me some fresh brussels sprouts. Really? Are you sure these are brussels sprouts? I thought brussels sprouts were BAD. How can this be? Brussels brains cannot actually be GOOD.
The thing is, I had never had fresh brussels sprouts, cooked right. If you’ve never had brussels sprouts, please try them this way. First. And do not overcook them. The reason brussels sprouts have gotten such a bad rap is two fold. One is the fact that eighty plus percent of brussels sprouts sold in the U.S. are frozen. I have no problem with many frozen vegetables, however, brussels sprouts are one where it is difficult to recover the pleasingly firm texture and delicate nutty flavor once frozen and defrosted. Secondly, brussels sprouts contain sinigrin, an amazing health agent, however, when overcooked, disintegrates into a mustard oil that smells (and tastes?!) like sulphur.
Oven roasting is a beautiful way to prepare brussels sprouts, creating a slightly crisp outer leaf while retaining a firm texture throughout, thereby banishing for good all slimy “brussels brains” childhood impressions. I like to cut my sprouts in half so I can get more seasoning over more surface area, and in this preparation, the the olive oil gives strong compliments to the nutty sprout flavor alongside generous sprinklings of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. But what takes this simple recipe over the top, is just as simple itself. Drizzle each portion with fresh squeezes of lemon juice and you have a side dish or light lunch that sings fresh, tangy, salty, earthy, nutty, and not easily forgotten.
Roasted brussels sprouts with olive oil and fresh lemon
3/4 lb. (12 ounces) brussels sprouts*
1 tablespoon olive oil*
1/4 teaspoon of fine sea salt
several cracks of freshly ground black pepper
1/4 – 1/3 fresh lemon cut into slices or juiced (to taste)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove outer leaves and bases and cut each sprout in half. Swirl sprouts in a tepid water bath to wash and remove any embedded dirt. Remove and pat to dry. Put sprouts in a medium bowl and toss to coat with olive oil, sea salt, and pepper to taste. Line a baking dish with aluminum foil and spread sprouts out evenly in dish. Bake for 13-16 minutes, depending on the size of the sprouts. Sneak a sprout out to test for doneness – I prefer most veggies rather firm, so you may wish a longer cooking time, just remember, sprouts are ruined by overcooking, so keep watch! During the last minute or two of baking, if you desire some browned and crispy edges, you may wish to turn the broiler on. Place sprouts either in a serving bowl and drizzle with lemon juice, or serve in individual dishes with a nice lemon wedge alongside (this is how I do it, thus it is difficult for me to say exactly how much lemon, but I know I use at least 1/4 of a medium lemon for this amount of sprouts). This makes about three side dish servings, one large, or two smaller light meal portions – may be scaled as desired.
* Smaller, younger sprouts tend to be more tender and have a more delicate flavor.
* You can taste the flavor of the olive oil so pick your favorite – a light, buttery and not overbearing variety would be perfect.
Friday, January 15th, 2010
Whenever I try something new and it turns out wonderful, whether in the kitchen or elsewhere, I find myself in complete confusion as to why I had either a.) not known about it sooner, b.) not tried it sooner, or c.) let my “fear of the unknown” issues get the best of me. Oven dried tomatoes definitely fall into category A. Where have you been, you amazing, delectable – able to resurrect even the saddest out of season tomatoes to glorious vibrancy – all the winters of my life? But before I wax on any more poetically about my newfound perfect savory winter treat, I must back up for a moment and tell you a tale about resolutions, working out, and the irony of how I stumbled upon this wonderful discovery.
I’ve never done new year’s resolutions. Making resolutions feels like a recipe for failure, for which perfectionists and OCD types like myself have an innate strong distaste. I’ve always tried to work on new and old goals throughout the year, so new year’s resolutions seem like a carryover of what wasn’t accomplished in December, or the fall, or 2009 – or maybe the last decade. Besides, I tend to like challenges better anyhow.
Perhaps simply a matter of semantics, but a challenge feels like something I am competing against myself to conquer, rather than a resolution, which feels so insipid, flatline, and mocking to my internal personal interpreter. Resolutions tend to remind me of one of Albert Ellis’ infamous therapy quotations – “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself.” Good mental health is certainly promoted when we shed a few “shoulds” in our lives. But I have digressed. This is really a story about how I started going to the gym last fall to work on getting back into shape after having my son, J.
You see, I have made no new year’s resolutions in this regard, but am still plodding along faithfully showing up at my local YMCA three times a week to move my arms and legs semi-rythmically in mouse wheel fashion beside several dozen other homo sapiens on the modern contraption known as an elliptical machine. I hate it. Except for the one thing that makes it bearable – Ina Garten, the Food Network and my white earbuds that connect me to the 12 x 12 screen attached to the machine.
So there I am, every other day, faithfully showing up to burn my minimum of 300 calories (I know, hardly a brownie’s worth of a workout), eating up all of Ina’s tips on how to cook everything in the oven, make simple dinners, and most recently, these fabulous oven dried tomatoes. And since Ina comes on at 5:00, right before I go home to make dinner, hunger pains are a regular side effect. But we don’t have cable at home, and if Barefoot Contessa with Ina Garten is what it takes to get me motivated to go get on the mouse wheel, so be it – just don’t work out behind me if you think it might have the opposite effect on you.
I know these tomatoes in their original form in these pictures look lovely and perfect, but actually they were your typical winter tomatoes – orangey red, strangely mealy textured, and lackluster in flavor. But after sitting patiently in a 200 degree oven for a couple of hours, drizzled in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sea salt, freshly ground pepper, and a sprinkle of sugar, it’s like these poor, bedraggled winter tomatoes suddenly found themselves. They emerged bright, tangy, a little juicy, and overall just plain amazing. I could not believe it. I feel like its my own personal little discovery and now I can have delicious tomatoes in the winter for the first time ever. Woohoo!
You can pair the tomatoes with any number of items – a caprese salad (as Ina did), use on top or in a quiche, make a regular old sandwich or grilled cheese amazing, sit on top of chicken or fish, or add to a pasta – as I did.
Oven dried tomatoes
Inspired by Ina Garten.
5-6 Roma or plum tomatoes, sliced into 1/3 inch circles, seeds removed
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1.5 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
few cracks of freshly ground black pepper
1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees F.
2. Place sliced and seeded tomatoes onto a baking sheet or pan covered in aluminum foil being careful to leave space between each slice.
3. Drizzle olive oil and balsamic vinegar over tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt, sugar, and few cracks of freshly ground black pepper.
4. Bake for two to two and a half hours. The tomatoes will still be moist, but have concentrated flavor. You may leave them in the oven longer if you would like them to be less moist, and eventually (after many hours) I imagine they would completely dry and be tasty in a different way, though I have not tried it this way. These tomatoes may be added to salads, pasta, sandwiches, quiches, sauces, fish, chicken, dips, cheese, or eaten just as is. My batch did not last long enough to test out in the fridge, but I hear they store well for a good length of time.
*For a simple caprese salad, alternate oven dried tomatoes with slices of fresh mozzarella, top with a drizzle of olive oil, balsamic vinegar (if desired), a dash of sea salt, and sliced fresh basil leaves.