(Brassica oleracea convar. fruticosa var. gemmifera— Family Cruciferae [Brassicaceae])
Brussels sprouts resemble miniature heads of cabbage, but are actually buds that grow in the angle between the leaf bases and the stem.
Depending on the variety of plant, the plant
can grow to three feet in height and produce sprouts almost two inches in diameter. Their colour ranges from light green through to dark green and red.
This vegetable was first recorded as a spontaneous eruption from a cabbage plant found in the Brussels region of Belgium around 1750, but it did not reach England and France until 1800, or North America until Thomas Jefferson planted some in 1812.
However, this “Brussels” version may not have been the first occurrence as a plant described as Brassica capitata polycephalos (meaning a many-headed brassica with knob-like heads) was illustrated in D’Alechaps’s Historia Generalis Plantarum in 1587.
Today, they are widely grown in the US, Britain, France, and Holland.
Brussels sprouts are an excellent source of vitamins A (beta carotene), B, C, E, calcium, potassium, and of course, sulfur, since it is a brassica vegetable. They are also high in carbohydrates, dietary fiber and 26% of the calories come from incomplete proteins. The vitamin A comes from the carotenes masked by the chlorophyll. Therefore, the darker the colour, the higher the carotene content.
Puffy, soft, pale sprouts that are turning yellow or have wilted leaves should be avoided as they are past their prime; and their nutrient content will have diminished substantially. However, storing them in the fridge will not affect their vitamin content, including the highly sensitive Vitamin C, and can be kept for several weeks in the refrigerator.
The sprouts are best after the first frost when quickly steamed, boiled, or stir-fried. They can be served alone or with a sauce, but they are not suitable for eating raw.
Caution: Like other leaf vegetables, brussels sprouts contain Vitamin K, which can reduce the effectiveness of anticoagulant medications, causing the patient to require a larger dose in order to produce the same results.
Sprouts are divided into early, mid-season, and late varieties. Many gardeners plant all three types, ensuring a longer harvest season.
The older open-pollinated varieties taste better, but it is usually the F1 hybrids that are the better buy because they produce uniform buttons all the way up the stem, thus remaining in good condition for a longer period of time.
Sprouts grow best on a three or four year rotation following legume plantings since they leave the soil rich in nitrogen. Planting them among onions helps them benefit from the root residues and firm soil. When the season is over, the tops can be cooked like cabbage.
Some popular varieties include the following:
Citidel is a mid season variety that produces dark green sprouts.
is a red variety whose colour disappears when boiled, so steaming is a better method of cooking them to maintain the colour.
is a very early variety producing sprouts with a good flavour.
Peer Gynt is an early to mid-season variety producing medium-sized sprouts; but the lower buttons tend not to open if mature ones are left on the plant, so they must be harvested regularly.
Rampart is a late variety, but tends to become bitter late in the season.
is a red variety often used as an ornamental border, but producing small crops of tasty sprouts. They are purple only on the outside; but, inside, they are an attractive green.
During preparation, they can stain the hands blue, as well as anything else they touch. When steamed, the red turns to a deep indigo-violet.
When boiled, they turn a purple-blotched dark to light green, when braised in some fat and acid, they become a maroon-green and the most flavourful.
When marinated in a vinaigrette, their colour becomes a glossy deep fuchsia with green details. Their flavour is not deep or complex, but rather pleasant and earthy lacking sweetness.
The cores can be thick and somewhat mealy. Red Brussels sprouts are found infrequently, and are of no commercial importance as they provide only about 30% of the yield of the green ones.
Widgeon is a mid-season variety producing moderately-sized sprouts.