Brussels sprouts. For many, they’re the indisputable staple side dish of the festive season—the one green thing on the table, if you will. But despite dozens of encounters with Brussels sprouts over the many holidays I’ve spent in the U.K. and America, I never truly enjoyed eating these bulbous brassicas. Whether they’re roasted, toasted, or dusted with a flurry of cheese to mask their stinky odor, I’ve (perhaps unfairly) treated most Brussels sprout dishes with disdain. That is, until I staged at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
Now, Brussels sprouts usually go wrong in one of two ways. One, they can be nicely browned and caramelized on the outside, but more often than not, the insides are still dense and squeaky, grossly undercooked. Or two, they can fall on the other end of the spectrum—essentially overcooked to the point of near mush, which admittedly is a tad more palatable than their squeaky, undercooked counterpart, but at which point they’ll start to smell like month-old eggs.
But during my time at Blue Hill, there was this one Brussels sprout dish that changed my view of this fall vegetable for good: boiled—yes, boiled!—Brussels sprouts served with a charcoal mayonnaise. This sounds terribly simple, but living up to the farm-to-table ethos of the restaurant, the sprouts were served still attached to the stalk of the plant, so guests had to carve the bulbs off the tree and inadvertently do a little mock-harvesting themselves. The bulbs would then be swiped through a smoky, paprika-tinged mayonnaise dip that was infused with bone char—blackened, fully carbonized animal bones which would usually be considered waste, if not for Chef Dan Barber’s clever resourcefulness in using it to impart a deep, funky smokiness to the dip.
Already, this makes Brussels sprouts so much more fun and interactive to eat. But the true genius of the dish lies in the cooking of the vegetables themselves. Unlike most recipes which call for roasting or frying Brussels sprouts to cook and caramelize them, hopefully to get rid of their gassy stench, at Blue Hill, they were plunged into a sputtering, 3-feet deep pot of boiling water, salty as the Dead Sea, for exactly four minutes.
Why You Should Boil Brussels Sprouts
What this does is cook the Brussels sprouts very evenly on all sides, making sure that there are no undercooked bits. But more importantly, since water is a much better conductor of heat than air is, the cooking time is greatly reduced. This is crucial, because according to food chemist Shirley Corriher, author of CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking, the longer Brussels sprouts are cooked, the more stinky hydrogen sulfide gas is released. The result of the quick-boiling, then, is Brussels sprouts with a super clean, vegetal sweetness with a tender bite, and none of that styrofoam squeakiness.
The technique itself is epiphanic on its own, and works well with just about any classic Brussels sprout pairing: bacon, pears, strong cheeses, citrus-y vinaigrettes, but if you’re looking for an especially killer recipe, here’s my own that’s inspired by Chef Dan’s dish. Instead of a charcoal mayo that’s made from bone char though, I used bacon fat to make a bacon-y mayo. (One can hardly go wrong with bacon, after all.) And instead of leaving the Brussels sprouts on its stalk—which, while wonderfully interactive and undeniably festive with its miniature Christmas-tree look, would be a nightmare to source for—I used individual balls of Brussels sprouts, which are a whole lot easier to prep and share as a game-changing side dish at Thanksgiving. —Jun
- Prep time 10 minutes
- Cook time 30 minutes
- Serves 2-4
- Brussels sprouts
juice of 1/2 a lemon
freshly ground black pepper
- Bacon mayonnaise
strips of smoky bacon
- Cook the bacon until crispy. You can do it in a pan, frying them on low heat for 10-15 minutes until they’re nicely browned. But I like to bake them in an oven preheated to 375°F for 15-20 minutes, flipping them halfway through. Either way, when they’re nice and crispy, slice or break them up into small chunks, and save all the bacon fat!
- To make the mayonnaise, start by whisking together the egg yolk, mustard, lemon juice, and salt. Then, keep whisking while slowly drizzling in the vegetable oil and the cooled bacon fat. To make a successful mayo, add the oil in extra slowly in the beginning while whisking vigorously to make sure a smooth emulsion forms before more oil is added.
- Now, onto cooking the brussel sprouts! To start, place the gallon of water and salt in a deep pot, and bring it to a strong boil, keeping it over high heat to maintain the boil. Then, place the brussel sprouts into the boiling water and cook for 4 minutes. Then, fish out the brussel sprouts with a strainer or slotted spoon, and let them cool slightly before slicing them in half lengthwise. Taste the brussel sprouts and check if they’re tender all the way through. If you have particularly large brussel sprouts, you might need to put them back in the pot and boil them an additional 30 seconds.
- After they’re cooked, transfer the brussel sprouts into a bowl, and season with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and a few good grinds of black pepper. Toss the brussel sprouts around in the bowl to make sure they are all well-seasoned.
- Top the brussel sprouts with the bacon bits and a dusting of smoked paprika, and serve it with the bacon mayonnaise on the side to dip through. (Or you can toss the brussel sprouts in the mayo and then serve them, if you're into that rustic, messier look, heh!)