Friday, February 1, 2013

Brussels sprouts - Let's get the heart (center) of the matter

Last summer one of our customers at the local farmers' markets we attend to sell our garlic asked me if I had a copy of the following book: On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee. When I sheepishly said, 'No', his simple answer was 'You must! You will love it!'. After borrowing it from our library, I agreed and I must have been a good girl this past year because Santa had a helper (my older son) leave a copy of the newer edition under our tree.

Oh my, this is a wonderful book if you enjoy food, enjoy cooking, and have questions such as "Why are Brussels sprouts often bitter when eaten?" or "Is it just my imagination or is the flavor of the Brussels sprouts leaves more bitter in the middle than on the outside of those little baby cabbages, 'mon petit chou chous'?"

McGee's On Food and Cooking makes food chemistry both alive and readable, and I could probably wax poetic and at length to answer those two questions based on information found in this 884 page book.

Instead, I'll make the answers as short as possible:
1) Brussels sprouts have the highest amount of "Relative Amounts of Sulfur Pungency Precursors", i.e. Brussels sprouts = 35 at the top end of the scale and Cauliflower = 2, at the low end of that scale. There you go!! More precursor molecules, more bitter. Brussels sprouts are at the top of the heap.

2) These flavor components are concentrated in the center of the Brussels sprout, i.e., the active growing section of the plant. So yes, these are the molecules that impart the highest degree of bitter taste, so having more of them in the center is why the center of each little sprout might taste more bitter than the outer edges. That seems like a long sentence, but I hope that makes sense. It helps to remember that these bitter molecules are present primarily for the plant's own defense mechanisms (our potential health benefits are secondary), so it would seem logical that they would be concentrated in the part of the plant where active growth is still taking place. Even my husband (who seems to know everything - he would be very good on the TV show Jeopardy) did not know this tidbit of interesting information.

As I said, I could go on and on, but I'll leave you with that understanding and hopefully a new respect for Brussels sprouts and willingness to try them (again) if you are not already a fan.

PS - I sorry that I don't know my customer's name, but I hope he'll remind me this coming summer of his book recommendation so I can be sure to thank him for my night-time reading. I am slowly, slowly making my way through (and re-reading) this encyclopedia. I also thank my older son who had a great communication with Santa. :)

Where kale is more than decoration on my plate,

Diana Dyer, MS, RD

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