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Today: How to add much-needed spark to your winter diet (and your Thanksgiving spread).
Thanksgiving calls for sparks of life -- the cranberry relish, the random bowls of olives, good wine. They propel you toward more helpings of the piles of food you've spent the day on, give life to the conversation, stave off the food coma.
This year, you can temper the platters of pale and soft from an unexpected place: the brussels sprouts.
Even if we, as a people, have recovered from mushy sprout flashbacks, they're still often wrapped in butter or cream. Which is fine. But what happens if we shove them in a new direction?
David Chang happens to be good at that sort of thing. With his revolutionary Momofuku family of restaurants and cookbook, he's taught us much about invention in the name of "deliciousness." Here, he takes two under-the-radar ingredients -- brussels sprouts and fish sauce -- and turns them into the big meal's sleeper hit.
If you're nervous about fish sauce (or the people you're feeding will be), realize that, while it is nothing you should eat -- or, okay, smell -- by itself, like an undercurrent of anchovy or soy sauce, it can make magic. Especially when combined with flickers of garlic and chile and bursts of lime and rice vinegar. And cilantro stems (you'll use the leaves as garnish -- bonus genius points).
In fact, as China Millman-- food writer, former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette restaurant critic, and wife of talented Food52 Developer Michael Hoffman -- wrote to me, "The fish sauce vinaigrette is the genius part of this recipe. It's quite simple -- and it keeps for up to a week in the fridge. It is an incredible combination of salty, sweet, and sour, livening up everything it touches. I like this with brussels sprouts even more than bacon."
The other genius part: cooking the sprouts till they're crackly, with pretty brown surfaces and lots of crevices for the vinaigrette to seep in and bounce around. As Chang told GQ in 2009, he likes to get this going with the sprouts laid face-down in a skillet of sizzling oil before finishing them off in the oven.
But when cooking for a crowd, spreading them on a couple of baking sheets in a screaming hot oven works well too. For Thanksgiving, you can do this ahead and warm them up later (or leave them room temp -- both are good).
Or you can (carefully) deep-fry the sprouts, like Chang did when he introduced them at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. They will rattle your mind, in the way that well-fried things can. But a very hot oven and a not-stingy amount of oil will give you the same deeply browned exposed facades and rippling flyaway leaves. The insides will just be a little more recognizably vegetal, which, in many cases, can be a good thing. Like when you're surrounded by gravy.
The original recipe includes some other fun doo dads -- fried cilantro leaves and spicy toasted puffed rice. If you want those, look here. I skip them.
Because, with a bowl of handsomely roasted sprouts, that vinaigrette, and a finishing blanket of fresh mint and cilantro -- any more excitement just wouldn't be fair to the sweet potatoes.
Adapted lightly from Momofuku (Clarkson Potter, 2009)
2 pounds brussels sprouts
2 tablespoons thinly sliced cilantro stems + 1/2 cup cilantro leaves
Grapeseed or other neutral oil, as needed (lots for frying, little for roasting)
1/2 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
Juice of 1 lime
1/4 cup sugar
1 garlic clove, minced
1 to 3 red bird's-eye chiles, thinly sliced, seeds intact
3 tablespoons chopped mint
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
Photo of David Chang by TIME Magazine; all others by James Ransom