Like cilantro, a diner’s opinion of Brussels sprouts can prove binary.
When a diner tells me they love them, the adoration is heaping. When an eater hates them, there aren’t enough words to capture the loathing I hear.
The optimist in me says anyone can be turned from a long-held food aversion.
The pragmatist in me says that’s not gonna happen.
Yet here I am trying to convert haters to Team Brussels Sprouts.
I recently discovered two versions of sprouts that take a “taming the funk” approach that might just work for haters. (Stop shaking your head.)
“It’s a great vegetable, but it takes the right kind of cooking and the right kind of sauce,” said Han.
“Frying is perfect way to bring out the sweetness,” said Han of her tempura fried sprouts that are on the appetizer menu at TheKoi and Sushi Ari.
“When you roast Brussels sprouts, it’s a familiar taste. When you deep fry it, I think its sweetness is intensified,” she explained.
Step 2 in sweetening the flavor profile is a complicated sauce with complementary sweet tones that push the flavor into a more palatable territory, said Han.
Robert Mario DeLaura, chef and operator of Gig Harbor’s excellent dinner-only destination Gertie and the Giant Octopus, also is a fan of coaxing the sweeter side of sprouts. He does that by deconstructing them.
He scoops out the sprouts and focuses his appetizer dish on the wispy leaves.
“The inside is where it’s more bitter,” he said.
DeLaura went on:
“I like cabbage, but for me Brussels sprouts are more the bitter side and not a lot of people like Brussels sprouts for that reason. We focus on the sweeter side of the vegetable for lack of a better term. We separate the leaves out and cook them in a saute pan to break down the fibers.”
After they’re sauteed, they get a final cook that caramelizes the vegetable’s natural sugars.
“On the initial pan sear, we look for a popcorn style,” said DeLaura. “We want the edges to get charred, but it’s almost like a burned popcorn-seed aroma. It’s funny how it smells like that, but to me, char is a flavor that adds a lot of depth.”
OK, sprouts haters. Here’s a closer look at Han’s and DeLaura’s versions of Brussels sprouts, plus a half dozen others to try for those who already are firmly on Team Sprouts.
The dish: Tempura Fried Brussels Sprouts, $6
Where: Sushi Ari, 209 39th Ave SW, Puyallup; 253-446-2900; sushiari.com
Also: TheKoi, 1552 Commerce St., Tacoma; 253-272-0996; thekoitacoma.com
Tempura-fried Brussels sprouts at Sushi Ari and TheKoi start with a puffy batter.
“To make the tempura batter more fluffy and crunchy, we use soda water instead of regular water,” said Han. The batter carries a mild sweetness. Deep frying softens and sweetens the vegetable.
The final level of sweet comes from the sauce, which is actually three separate house-made sauces Han blends. The first is the house soy-mustard sauce with rice wine vinegar. The second is the house unagi sauce served with eel dishes. The third is an elaborate house poke sauce made with 20 different ingredients.
After the sprouts are tempura battered and fried, they’re tossed in that sticky glaze that carries a tangy and subtle sweetness mixed with a deep, satisfying salty flavor.
The dish: Sauteed Brussels Sprouts, $11
Where: Gertie and the Giant Octopus, 4747 Point Fosdick Dr. NW; 253-649-0921
After DeLaura chills the broken-down, scooped sprouts, as described above, he cooks them to order until they have just the lightest bit of char on the edges and that “burned popcorn” smell. The next step is to intensify the sweetness with a trio of fat-heavy, luscious ingredients.
“We lightly saute them with the (pancetta) bacon, deglaze with sherry and the cream. At the very end, before it goes to the table, we microplane the manchego to top,” he said.
The dish arrives with an excellent texture on those barely charred leaves. The crispy layers are threaded with smoky pancetta and a sweet-and-boozy seesaw of cream, sherry and cheese.
ROASTED, CRISPY, BITTER, RAW
These are for committed Brussels sprouts fans.
The dish: Lacinato kale and Brussels sprouts salad, $10.50 small, $13.99 large
Where: Crockett’s Public House, 118 E. Stewart Ave., Puyallup; 253-466-3075; crockettspublichouse.com
Shaun Brobak, owner of downtown Puyallup’s Crockett’s Public House, says his kitchen staff shaves the sprouts thinly to tame their bitter quality. The raw sprouts are pared with lacinato kale and tossed with a lemon-herb vinaigrette. Sweet pops of blueberries intensify the lemony vinaigrette. The salad is finished with slivered almonds, chicken and salami, and topped with a fluffy cloud of shaved Pecorino. It’s the best salad I’ve had so far this year.
The dish: Brussels sprouts and bacon pizza, $12
Where: The Carlson Block, 531 Church St., Wilkeson; 360-761-7593; carlsonblock.com
A wood-fired oven, a tasty naturally fermented dough and deconstructed Brussels sprouts create one of the best pizzas in East Pierce County. Head all the way out to the Carlson Block in Wilkeson for the pizza from Chef Ian Galbraith, who runs the restaurant with wife, Ashley. Roasted, shaved sprouts, bacon, truffle oil, a tweak of garlic and shallots, and mozzarella top a thin crust that carries a nice chewy tug of resistance.
The dish: Crispy Brussels sprouts, $6
Where: Matador, 721 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-627-7100; matadorrestaurants.com
Crispy fried Brussels sprouts pair sticky caramelized sprouts with the bright-and-zippy combination of lime and cotija cheese. It’s on the current specials sheet at downtown Tacoma’s Matador. I practically ate the whole pan myself.
The dish: Crispy Brussel sprouts, $12
Where: El Gaucho, 2119 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-272-1510; elgaucho.com
The side dish of sprouts arrived exquisitely roasted and glazed in a white balsamic vinaigrette sweetened with honey at downtown Tacoma’s El Gaucho, a high-end steakhouse. Daly’s bacon pushed the flavor smoky. Chef Jesus Boites changed the presentation recently, swapping the vinaigrette for a balsamic reduction/beurre blanc and pancetta for the Daly’s bacon.
The dish: Brussels sprouts side, $3
Where: Lunchbox Laboratory, 4901 Point Fosdick Drive NW, Gig Harbor; 253-432-4061; lunchboxlaboratory.com
I love a restaurant that lets me swap sprouts for carb-heavy fries. At Lunchbox Laboratory in Gig Harbor, the sprouts get a heavy application of canola oil, are fried into sweet submission and tossed in a bacon vinaigrette.