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Brussels sprouts pack nutritional punch

Oct. 28, 2010

By Dianne Lamb

It’s time to enjoy Brussels sprouts, the vegetable that has often gotten a bad rap from kids and adults. This vegetable looks like a small cabbage. In fact, Brussels sprouts belong to the same botanical family as cabbage (Brassica oleracea).

Although the word “Brussels” might make you think that these small heads originated in Belgium, it is believed that Brussels sprouts were grown in northern Europe in the 1200s (based on oral tradition). However, the first written description of this vegetable did not appear until the late 1500s.

Brussels sprouts spread and became popular in France and England, making their way to the Americas with the early settlers. There are references to this vegetable growing in Louisiana in the early 1800s as a result of French settlements.

Brussels sprouts can be grown in Vermont and northern New England. In fact, frost enhances their flavor. Brussels sprouts grow on a stalk with the leaves of the plant on the top. The small heads (sprouts) completely surround the stalk and are harvested from the bottom of the stalk when the leaves begin to turn yellow. The sprouts should be firm, green, compact and about 1 inch in diameter when picked.

Brussels sprouts are a cruciferous vegetable, meaning that the blossom on the plant resembles a cross. Other cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kale. All of these cruciferous vegetables contain compounds that help to keep the human body healthy by reducing the risk of many diseases.

Brussels sprouts are a nutrient-dense food. One cup of cooked Brussels sprouts has 61 calories, 4 grams protein, 14 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams dietary fiber, 495 milligrams potassium, 33 milligrams sodium, less than 1 gram of fat and no cholesterol. In addition, they are high in vitamin C (97 milligrams, which is more than the daily recommended allowance), folate, carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin.

You can buy this vegetable fresh at farmers’ markets or supermarkets. The small heads may be prepackaged in pint containers, loose (allowing you to pick the ones you want) or on the stem, letting you cut them off the plant. Brussels sprouts also can be found in the frozen vegetable section at the supermarket.

If you don’t eat them, it may be that you tried them as a kid and were turned off because they were overcooked, odiferous and very strong flavored. Brussels sprouts need to be cooked until just tender. Overcooking releases the sulfur compounds in the vegetable, creating a foul smell.

Fresh Brussels sprouts need to be refrigerated. Left at room temperature, the outer leaves of the sprouts will turn yellow. When cooking, try to cook sprouts of equal size, so they will cook uniformly. Avoid puffy or mushy ones. The outer leaves are the most nutritious part, so do not remove unless they are yellowed or wilted.

When ready to use, wash the Brussels sprouts well in lukewarm water to remove any debris (soil or insects). Rinse in fresh water. Trim the stem end, but try not to cut flush with the bottom of the sprout as the outer leaves are apt to fall off. Some people score the base of the sprout with an “X” to help the heat penetrate the core of the sprout, so it cooks as quickly as the leaves.

Brussels sprouts can be steamed by bringing 1 inch of water to a boil in the bottom of a pan. Place a colander or collapsible basket in the pan. Add the sprouts and cover. Reduce heat and steam for 5 to 7 minutes or until just tender.

This vegetable also can be cooked in a microwave oven. Wash, trim and make an “X” on the bottom of the stem. Place sprouts in a 1 1/2-quart covered dish. Add 1/4 cup water. Microwave 1 pound (4 cups) for 4 to 8 minutes on high power until just tender. Stir once during cooking.

Brussels sprouts usually are too strong-flavored and chewy to eat raw, especially if they have been stored for awhile. They can be blanched in boiling water or steamed, then drained and quickly dunked in ice water to stop the cooking. Thoroughly drain again. These blanched sprouts can be marinated or used as crudités with a dip.

Or roast in the oven, add to stews, stir-fry or use in soup. Some herbs and spices that go well with Brussels sprouts include basil, caraway, dill, mustard, sage, thyme, curry, nutmeg, garlic, cumin, marjoram and savory.

Other quick ways to use Brussels sprouts include:

> Lightly steam or blanch whole sprouts for grilled shish kebabs;

> Toss cooked sprouts with vinaigrette or salad dressing. Serve as a side dish or salad.

Dianne Lamb is the Extension nutrition and food specialist at the University of Vermont.

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