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On Brussels Sprouts, or, a Reluctant Love Letter

[Brussel sprouts from the market, October 2008.]

I never liked brussels sprouts. There — I’ve set it out plain for anyone to see. Though my brother had been after me for years to at least try them, I mostly turned up my nose and reached for the beets. I heard brussels sprouts were delicious when thinly shaved and drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil, or even sliced and sauteed in a bit of butter, but … no thanks. I kept thinking What kind of a vegetarian am I, that I won’t even give them a chance? — but I truly just wasn’t interested.

This summer, however, something changed. There was a weekend in June when I went to the house in the woods and spent a few days with friends and the dog. It was one of those shining, blue, impossibly lovely stretches of days when the food — every bite — tastes so delicious you can’t help but eat and eat. One night I discussed “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and growing tomatoes in a back yard in Oakland; one day I lounged on the deck with a gin and tonic at noon and then went to McClure’s Beach to scramble over the rocks. We talked apples and the New Yorker and journalism and Olympic swimming and owls and living abroad. We drank tea as time went by much too quickly. And on Sunday night, I ate a brussel sprout.

I know what you’re thinking: she hated it, right? Well, see, that’s the thing: I kind of didn’t. I can’t say I loved that sprout, exactly, but it didn’t cause me to run screaming up the hill to the pond to wash away the taste in my mouth. I ate another one with a splash of mustard and a lot of salt and I liked it just a bit more, and then I kept eating until I was full (I mean, I ate a lot of other things too, including roasted potatoes, peas, and probably also carrots, but it’s those brussels sprouts that were the real revelation).

I’m not going off the deep end here — cauliflower is still pretty much my one and only, except during asparagus season — but I must admit I’m sort of proud of myself for finally giving these (oh so) pretty sprouts a chance. And they were so much better than I imagined! As I started thinking of other ways to fête my new amour, my bff Jessica told me about how she roasts brussels sprouts. (“Nicole, they’re like candy,” she exhorted.) As I will eat nearly any vegetable if it’s doused in olive oil and given a good whirl in the oven, the other night, after picking up a few (just a few!) sprouts at the Divisadero farmers market, I gave it a shot.

[Dinner the other night, October 2008.]

Um, yeah. What took me so long? She’s a smart one, that Jessica (oh, and did I mention? An amazing writer, too.). I should have listened to her ages ago. Roasted on high heat for just 15 minutes or so my sprouts turned a brilliant, bright green — the oven turns them not mushy but perfectly tender and enticing. As each one shed its layers, revealing its sweetly unexpected heart, I started rethinking my previous position. I started saying yes please rather than no thank you.

The thing is, though, what did I know? Sometimes we go unaware — for years, even — of things that are right in front of us. For me, I guess the brussel sprout is my dark horse. Always around, I completely overlooked its true merits. On the few occasions I did pick up a handful at the market, they inevitably lingered in the vegetable drawer until someone (usually my brother) swooped in. Sometimes I even ignored the homely sprout outright. But I’ll tell you this: the brussel sprout is the one who’s been there all along, patiently waiting for you to pay attention. One day, maybe in June (or, you know, October), you’ll sit up straight and take notice — and you’ll be so glad you did.

Oh, dearest you, I shall never forsake you again! I am already planning our next adventures together — perhaps in a cold salad, or even simply lightly steamed and scattered through a plate of roasted potatoes. Now we are sinking into true fall and I am so glad you’re along for the ride — even as I lament the lack of my favorite summer squash and wistfully remember those gorgeous plums, there are good things about this time, too: The air is clean and sweet and blue and soon will hold the smell of wood-fires. I will drink a cranberry margarita on Thanksgiving and my brother will visit twice. Maybe there will be a camping trip in early January. Maybe there will be lots of you, too, if I am very lucky (and crack open the cookbooks).

[View from Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park, September 2008.]

This was a strange summer anyhow: July was full of fog, though there were some bright spots, and I was away so much the last part of August into September I got all turned around. In DC and Baltimore it was hot and humid and raining, but in Maine, atop Cadillac Mountain, the weather slipped into fall and the wind whipped through our clothes somewhat painfully. I came back to San Francisco and ate lots of tomatoes and peaches and went to the beach and it was hot in the way only Indian Summer can be — but the calendar told a different story. On my birthday the sun blazed down and I nearly forgot it was mid-October; oh, Northern California is a funny place (and how I love it).

Still — you see how confusing it was?

Happily, my new amour is helping me out in this in-between time right before the days shorten (so soon, sob!). I just wrote a piece for npr about how pumpkins ease the transition from summer into fall, but I think brussels sprouts might be a worthy companion as well. I shall not lament the lack of decent tomatoes when there is such cool-weather bounty! I shall embrace the time change! I shall look forward to the rainy season, just a little bit!

Well, I’ll certainly try — preferably with a bowl of roasted brussels sprouts drenched in a lemony-tahini sauce. Miam-miam. Perhaps, like me, you’ll also give these little gems a fighting chance.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Lemon-Tahini Dressing

I ate these the other night with some good bread and cheese, and the very last heirloom tomato I’ll probably have the fortune to come across this year.

As many as you like, say about 20
olive oil

1/4 cup tahini
3 Tb. lemon juice
1/2 tsp. salt
2-5 Tb. water

Preheat oven to 400 F. Wash the brussel sprouts and cut them in half. Arrange in a large baking dish and drizzle liberally with olive oil. Salt to taste. Put in the oven and roast for about 15-20 minutes until they get a bit soft, but not too blackened.

Meanwhile, whisk the tahini with the lemon juice and salt. Add a bit of water as you like, so the sauce reaches your desired consistency.

Serve the sprouts generously covered with the sauce, or place it alongside.


  1. Hello my darling Nicole! I really related to this blog. There are so many things that I am craving this time of year, but alas, apples and pumpkins are imported and just not the same. Sigh. However, I am asking for your help with something. One of the many lovely things we have here are dates. And they’ve just been harvested! There are yellow dates, red dates, and brown dates. Who knew?! So I’ve been buying them but I’m starting to run out of options. Do you have any “great date” recipes tucked away in your magic kitchen?? I would be ever so grateful!

  2. omg please remind me to give you this orgasmic recipe for brussels sprouts with shallot-mustard butter. i’m *obsessed* with said homely sprouts. mm. mazel tov.

  3. First of all – so awesome that you were on NPR! I just listened to your piece and, it’s funny, that’s exactly how imagined you voice would sound like. :)

    Glad you got into brussel sprouts! I feel like they are the “meatiest” vegetable – really dense and, I dunno, there’s that (don’t know a better word for it) methane flavor. Everyone says to cook it for a short time but I actually like to braise them in butter, browned shallots, and water in a covered pan for 30 minutes or a little more, so they are really really tender.

    And since you mentioned cauliflower – there’s a recipe in Gourmet this month for risotto with cauliflower and brie. We made it last night and it’s sooooo very good!

  4. I’ve always loved brussel sprouts too. But my husband hates them. One day last year he saw something on tv that some people have a gene that makes them taste bitterness really strongly, and the culprit is usually the brussel sprout… so there he was on his high horse about how his taste was justified. So it’ll be Thanksgiving dinner before I try sprouts with tahini… I can’t wait. I’ve never thought of it and it sounds amazing!

  5. I love brussel sprouts. Always have. The same goes for cauliflower.

    About your weather experiences.. It sounds pretty much like our summer here in Maine. We had plenty of rain and fog and then sunshine from the second half of August on. But we never did get enough heat. :( Now I’m going to subscribe to your newsletter. :)

  6. lovely. also really good roasted in garlic butter, or sauteed with crushed peppers (the hotter, the better). i’ve become a brussel fiend this year.

  7. i have always loved brussels sprouts. i was the weird kid who loved vegetables, and sprouts were my favorite – even the nasty, overcooked ones. i had to make them myself because even my parents weren’t down with them. mike made a small batch of sauteed ones for me last thanksgiving and found not only that he loved them, but they were the first side dish to disappear. vindicated! xo, d

  8. omg i am *so happy* you finally got on board, nicolina!!! and they’re so easy, right?? mmmm-hmmmmm now i’m hungry!

    (P.S. thanks for calling me smart!! awww bff….)

  9. Isn’t it so strange? I hated them as a kid. HATED THEM. And now? I am loving them more and more. Do you think I’ll get laughed at if I actually bring them to Thanksgiving dinner? :)

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