I was a very deprived child, but did not know until a couple of years ago… My mother never, ever prepared brussels sprouts for us. Okay, so maybe I wasn’t exactly a deprived child, but I can’t help feeling a little slighted that I didn’t get to try my new favorite veggie until a couple of short years ago. If I had only known that I would fall in love with these nutritional powerhouses at first bite I would have started to realize their benefits much sooner. But isn’t hindsight always 20/20?
Brussels sprouts are the notorious vegetables oft referenced in children’s books that every little boy and girl seemed to fear and loathe – broccoli and cabbage’s ugly little stephchild. It’s only natural then that as a child, I thought I had it pretty good never once having an encounter with them. So after the reputation these little guys earned throughout the years, why in the world would I ever want to try them? Well, I read an article several years ago about their health benefits and became intrigued quickly. These mini green cabbages are brimming with vitamin C, antioxidants, fiber, and an important chemical compound called glucosinolates. Glucosinolates ramp up the body’s antioxidant systems, which in turn neutralize and eliminate excess toxins and free radicals floating around our insides that can damage our DNA and potentially even lead to cancer. While glucosinolates can be found across the board in the cruciferous vegetagble family (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage), the highest concentration of this compound is found in brussels sprouts. After learning these facts and tasting brussels for the first time, I was sold. I would be doing my body and palette an injustice not incorporating them into my diet.
There are countless ways to prepare brussels sprouts, but it is best to avoid boiling them. When you use this technique, most of the nutrients pass out of the veggie into the water and you end up losing out on all of the marvelous health benefits. Instead, it is much better to saute, roast, or steam them.
Today, I joined my bitter green friends with pancetta. Pancetta is basically Italian bacon; a cured and spiced piece of pork belly that adds mucho flavor to any dish you join it with. You can find pancetta at the deli counter in your supermarket or your local Italian specialty store. Wherever you choose to purchase it, I advise against buying anything prepackaged or already diced. I’ve cooked with the prepackaged version before and was less than thrilled with freshness and overall taste.
This is a pleasing first-time experience for the brussels sprout virgins out there, so if you haven’t ever tried them or simply gave them up after childhood, I beg you to reconsider.
Brussels Sprouts & Pancetta
1 1/2 lbs. brussels sprouts
1/3 lb. pancetta, diced
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 large clove of garlic, minced
1/4 cup grated pecorino romano cheese
Pinch of sea salt
Fresh ground pepper
Rinse brussels sprouts in a colander under cool water and drain. Remove stems and any discolored or yellow leaves before slicing in half vertically. In a large skillet, saute the pancetta over medium low heat for about 5 minutes until most of the fat has been rendered and the dice is light golden brown. Remove pancetta with a slotted spoon and discard all but 1 tablespoon of the fat. Return the skillet to the heat, add the olive oil and garlic, and saute for 30 seconds. Add the halved sprouts and raise the heat to medium. Cook for approximately 10-minutes or until they are fork tender. They should be bright green and have a nice golden brown crust on the edges. Return the pancetta to the skillet and toss with the sprouts to warm through for one minute. Remove skillet from heat and season sprouts with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with pecorino romano cheese and serve immediately.
A few notes:
- Ask the worker at the deli counter to cut you a couple 1/4-inch thick slices of the pancetta. This will cube nicely and should be plenty.
- It’s easier to cut the pancetta if you stick it in the freezer 20 to 30 minutes before you need it. The cold temperature hardens the fat and consequently it’s a lot easier to get a knife through there.
- Pancetta and cheese are both very salty. I would use a very light hand with the sea salt in this dish, if you choose to use any at all.