Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star Ledger

Deck the plates with Brussels sprouts

For some, finding Brussels sprouts on their dinner plate is tantamount to finding coal in their stocking. And in a way, they’d be right: Like broccoli, cabbage and kale, Brussels sprouts are a cole crop. (You can stop groaning now.) That being the case, lots of good things come in these small packages: a hefty dose of vitamins C and K, as well as vitamin A, folacin, calcium, and various beneficial phytochemicals.

So why the bad rep? Bad cooking is one reason.

“I hated it as a kid. It smelled bad, it tasted bad,” said Bill Sciarappa, an agricultural agent for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Monmouth County. “When you steam it, it’s worthless. When the outside leaves are caramelized, then it’s fabulous; you’ve got the good mouth-feel.”

“It’s like any food; you’ve got to treat it properly,” said Matt Pozarycki, the executive chef at Circa in High Bridge, who also used to be “a non-Brussels sprouts person.” Now the small plates Pozarycki serves at his restaurant include seared Brussels sprouts braised with onion and pancetta. Separating the leaves from the core “gives a more delicate taste,” he said.

Pozarycki also finds that high heat helps coax the best flavor out of the little cruciferous vegetable. “Make sure that your saute pan is really hot before you put in the oil,” he said. “If the oil’s not dancing around the pan, the pan’s not hot enough.” When the sprouts are in the pan, “don’t touch them,” he continued. “They need to get a nice color.” Once caramelized, they can be finished in a 500-degree oven for about five minutes.

Creativity is the secret to making “so humble an ingredient sing with excitement and not be repetitive,” noted Vitaly and Kimberly Paley in “The Paley’s Place Cookbook” (Ten Speed Press, $35). “We cook them in orange juice with smoked ham hock, with sour cream and horseradish, with whole-grain mustard and butter. We roast them briefly in the oven at a high temperature until they taste smoky and meaty.” Their favorite preparation calls for cooking blanched sprouts with crispy bacon, creme fraiche, and lemon juice. Who would say “Bah, humbug” to that?

Available year-round from California, Brussels sprouts are at their peak from fall through spring and make their annual appearance on the local scene in autumn and early winter.

Commonly sold in shrink-wrapped plastic cups and trays, they increasingly are being marketed on their stalks, which can range from two to three feet in height and bear 20 to 40 sprouts. “It’s a novelty thing. It catches people’s eye,” said Doug Race of Race Farm in Blairstown, who sells his sprouts at the Summit Farmers’ Market and in Union Square in Manhattan.

Another advantage to leaving the sprouts on the stalk is “they stay fresher longer because they have the stalk to hold moisture. It’s like a reservoir for moisture,” explained Greg Donaldson of Donaldson Farms in Mansfield Township.

“The trick with good Brussels sprouts is they shouldn’t be harvested until you have frost. We leave them in the field until we know there’s some real cold weather coming,” he continued. “Cold temperatures tend to convert starch into sugar. I would agree with the world that they tend to taste better after a frost,” said Mel Henninger, a Rutgers University vegetable specialist who is conducting a trial of seven Brussels sprouts varieties. Unseasonable cold snaps last month cut short the local harvesting season in some areas, however.

Conventional wisdom holds that large sprouts are tough and bitter. “I don’t buy it for a minute,” said Bill Maxwell of Maxwell’s Farm in Changewater, who grows about a fifth of an acre of the crop. “The bottoms ones on the stalk are bigger. They can get to tennis ball size,” said Henninger. “The bigger ones are definitely older. But if they’re fresh-picked, I don’t see that there’s going to be a lot of difference. As far as taste is concerned, there’s nothing wrong with them. You can cut and chop them like cabbages.”

Which is precisely what they are, albeit in multiheaded miniature.