It is the vegetable that divides opinion. The humble Brussels sprout – through no fault of its own – has a reputation that is far from desirable. “I, like a lot of people, have mixed emotions about sprouts,” says Tim Siadatan, founder of Trullo and Padella. “There’s some nostalgia, but mostly bad memories of growing up on bad Brussels sprouts and hating them because they were just abused,” he says.
In many ways, we have only ourselves to blame because the horrors associated with the Christmas side dish are often the product of our own poor cooking techniques.
Boiling sprouts to oblivion, as many Brits are wont to do, does little to boost their flavour, rendering them a sorry, waterlogged accompaniment to the big bird. “I love sprouts but we have to try and forget how our parents used to cook them in boiling salted water. They have no flavour whatsoever,” says Adam Handling, owner of the Michelin-starred Frog in Covent Garden, London.
This year, it seems we’re up for the challenge. Waitrose reports a Brussels sprout sales increase of 150 per cent compared with 2022, while the number of searches on its website for the winter brassica are up more than 87 per cent month on month.
Seasonal cooking and soaring costs have played a part. “Like everything at the moment, the cost of importing vegetables has skyrocketed and people are using more homegrown vegetables, including Brussels sprouts,” says Joshua Hunter, head chef and owner of the Hawthorn in Kew, London. “People are eating them in different ways in restaurants and seeing recipes on TV and realising that there are so many more delicious ways to cook and eat sprouts than the boiled mush of years gone by.”
Here’s how the country’s top chefs get the best out of the brassica.
Team them with nuts
Nicholas Balfe, chef director and owner of Holm in Somerset, keeps things simple by dressing up Brussels sprouts with just a few ingredients – and always nuts. “[Brussels sprouts] sautéed with pancetta and chestnuts is unbeatable,” he says, adding that in his restaurant, “I quite like cutting them in half lengthways and searing the cut side in lots of foaming brown butter. Add a dash of sherry vinegar at the end and some toasted hazelnuts and you have a lovely little veggie side,” he says.
Serve them in a stir-fry
Sebby Holmes, head chef at Farang in north London and founder of PAYST, the Thai paste and sauce brand, recommends boosting Brussels with Thai flavours. “A good option is Thai red curry stir-fried sprouts.”
He recommends blanching the sprouts whole and leaving them to chill, then slicing them in half before stir-frying. “It’s best to blanch them first as it brings out all the nice natural flavours, and it’s a much better texture to eat,” he argues. “If you fry them raw in a really hot wok they retain quite an al dente, crunchy texture but with such a fierce heat they’d end up burnt on the outside and raw in the middle,” he says. “Sear the halved, blanched sprouts in a hot wok until they get a really lovely char on the outside, then just finish them off with a little red curry paste.”
Don’t cook them at all
Many chefs agree that the best approach for sprouts is to keep them away from heat entirely. Although at Trullo, sprouts are snaffled up at this time of year in a pot roast with Gorgonzola fonduta, crispy pancetta and toasted walnuts, Siadatan makes a case for eating them raw, “even on Christmas day. It’s nice to have some crunch and to have something on the side that’s neither boiled, roasted nor smothered in fat,” he says.
Handling is on board, too. “One way I love to do sprouts is to treat them like salad leaves. Cut off the root, chop them up and mix the raw sprouts with roasted nuts, a vinaigrette and some sage leaves for a festive fresh sprout salad. You can even use a Caesar dressing to make a sprout Caesar.”
Ferment or pickle them
Sally Abé, head chef of The Pem in Westminster, London, tips turning raw sprouts into kimchi, the cult fermented Korean dish, instead of traditional cabbage, by following the same pickling process. Sprout kimchi will be appearing on the Pem’s lunch menu, alongside turkey, this month.
In fact, anything you can do with a cabbage can be done with a sprout, argues Max Halley, founder of Max’s Sandwich Shop in north London. “What a lot of fuss about nothing this sprout business is,” he says. “They’re just mini cabbages. Massive or tiny, raw or cooked, fermented or burned on the barbecue, I love them,” he says.
Plate them up with something sweet
Team Brussels sprouts with another festive favourite, just like Ravinder Bhogal, chef-owner of Jikoni in London. “Cut or tear a slice or two of panettone into bite-size pieces. Melt some butter and infuse it with chopped sage and garlic before pouring this over the panettone pieces on a lined baking sheet. Sprinkle over some black pepper and finely grated parmesan and bake at 200C/180C fan/gas mark 6 until crisp and golden. Toss the panettone croutons through your cooked Brussels sprouts; they’ll bring a sweet, festive and delightfully unexpected flavour to the Christmas table.”