What are they?
Brussels sprouts are like miniature cabbages which grow in multiple rows on a thick central stalk.
The sprout is obviously a brassica, but it’s anybody’s guess when somebody mutated it from its original cabbage. I believe sprouts originated in Belgium, where they were sold in markets as early as the 13th century (they didn’t appear in England or France until the end of the 18th century). But most Belgians believe sprouts to be Italian in origin. We know that sprouts were mentioned in Belgian market regulations in 1213. The earliest French record I can find is an order for a wedding feast of the Burgundian court in the 15th century. We have no English recipes until the 19th century.
Source: Gregg Wallace, Veg – the greengrocer’s cookbook
What to do with them
Many people associate Brussels sprouts with Christmas, it’s certainly a winter veg. They’re best between October and March in the UK. Many people, especially children, dislike sprouts because of their bitter taste. Perhaps this explains the British tradition of boiling them to death. It’s sometimes joked that October is the time to put the sprouts on to boil for Christmas. It’s fair to say that they’re an acquired taste. However, modern varieties have been bred to reduce the bitterness, and are often sweet and nutty, so if you have unhappy memories of eating sprouts as a child, it might be worth your while to give them another try.
Another traditional British thing was to cut a cross in the base of the sprout. This will also lead to a mushy sprout. Instead cut the larger ones in half vertically. Sprouts should ideally be served with a bit of bite still in them. Three or four minutes boiling should suffice. Serve with a knob of butter.
The tops of the plants can also be eaten. They’re just like cabbage leaves after all – cook them as you would spring greens.