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Overview

Sprouts – the Christmas green that tears the nation!

It’s hard to think of something so small creating such strong opinions. However, these tiny balls of green divide the nation. Love them or hate them, the sprout really does deserve more than just a place once a year, on the Christmas dinner table.

Many people’s hatred of sprouts comes from childhood nightmares of having them boiled for hours – with that delightful, over-cooked sprout smell engulfing the kitchen! But times have changed, and creativity in the kitchen has turned many of the haters into lovers!

So, here’s to sprouts… For life, not just for Christmas.

About

What are Brussels Sprouts?

Brussels sprouts are, more or less, very small, compact cabbages, although they grow quite differently. They come from the Brassica family of plants that includes cabbage, kale, spring greens, broccoli, cauliflower and mustards. They’re named after the Belgian city of Brussels, but they’re usually just called ‘Brussel sprouts’.

Why are Brussels sprouts associated with Christmas?

One clear reason for Brussels sprouts being part of a Christmas dinner is the seasonality of the vegetable, which can grow at quite low temperatures. Brussels sprouts also became popular around the same time that the Victorians were inventing the traditional Christmas feast, and ‘miniature cabbages’ may have been a fun addition to the meal. However, the idea that Brussels sprouts are essential to Christmas festivities probably has a lot to do with marketing in the 20th Century. Today, the UK is one of the largest producers and consumers of Brussels sprouts. In fact, we eat so many that despite producing about as much as the Netherlands we barely export any - and a third of that consumption takes place around Christmas.

Why do some people hate sprouts so much?!

Some people really don’t like Brussels sprouts, but this may just be because they tried some overcooked sprouts! Overcooked Brussels sprouts are not only mushy, but can also develop a strong garlic, or onion-like pungency. Cabbages and mustards are all part of the same large family of plants, and overcooking Brussels sprouts really brings out those pungent flavours and aromas that some people don’t enjoy. If your Brussels sprouts are very pungent and you’re sure you cooked them just right, this could just be natural variation, or the sprouts may have been under-watered at some point in their growth. Drier methods of cooking that caramelise the Brussel sprouts, on the other hand, bring out their sweetness. Experimenting with different recipes can go a long way to converting a sprout hater to a sprout lover!

History

The ancient history of the Brussels sprout is not all too clear. Ancestors of the Brussels sprout may have been grown around the Mediterranean by the Romans, which might then have been developed into the Brussels sprout by northern Europeans in the 5th Century AD or later. The name ‘Brussels sprout’ is thought to have come from the cultivation of the vegetable in the 13th Century around Brussels, the modern capital of Belgium. However, this name only became commonly used at the end of the 18th Century which is when the vegetable itself became popular. The confusion over the name is the main reason it’s hard to know where they came from, but they’re probably a fairly recent addition to the British dinner table.

The first known recipe for Brussels sprouts, written by Eliza Acton in 1845, calls for them to be boiled in salty water and served on buttered bread with melted butter on the side.

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How should Brussels sprouts be stored?

Storing Brussels sprouts is pretty straightforward; Peel off any wilted or yellow leaves, put them whole in a plastic bag and store them in the fridge. They should last up to a week there. Brussels sprouts will become less sweet and stronger in flavour the longer they are stored, so they could be more desirable after a little maturing. If you want to prepare them for cooking and then store them, they should be kept in an air-tight container and not for more than one or two days. Keeping them on the stalk will allow them to stay fresh the longest if space is available.

If you want to freeze your Brussels sprouts you should blanche them first to help them stay ‘fresh’. To do this, peel off any wilted or yellow leaves, trim the stalk, wash them and then place them in boiling water for 3-5 minutes depending on how big they are. When they’re finished boiling, put them in ice water to stop them cooking any further and then dry them thoroughly to prevent ice forming on them. When they are dry, put them in a plastic bag, remove as much air as possible before vacuum packing and freezing them.

Nutritional benefits of Brussels sprouts

Brussels sprouts are a very nutritious and healthy food. They are made up mostly of water, with the rest being carbohydrates and protein in a 3:1 ratio. Brussels sprouts contain almost no fat all. The main nutritional benefit of Brussels sprouts are the high levels of both vitamin C and vitamin K found in them. Brussels sprouts contain more vitamin C by weight than lemons! They also contain a good amount of vitamins A, B6, B9 and B12, dietary fibre and some essential minerals, particularly iron.

Because vitamin K helps our blood to clot, and because Brussels sprouts are such a rich source of it, consuming large amounts of them may not be advisable for people who have been prescribed anticoagulant drugs. For the vast majority of people though Brussels sprouts are a very healthy option, but as always the recipe itself has to be taken into consideration, such as those involving a lot of cheese or bacon!

Seasonality of Brussels sprouts

Brussels sprouts’ growing season ranges from October to March in the UK, with each variety having a slightly different season. Part of the reason they’re so popular around Christmas is that December falls right in the middle of Brussels sprouts season, and so sprouts are generally at their best during this holiday season.

Quality

How to choose good Brussels sprouts

A good Brussels sprout has compact leaves and is firm to the touch. It’s not a problem if the stalk ends are slightly yellow or brown, but if they’re dark in colour they’re probably too old. Another sign of old sprouts is a stronger smell – the freshest sprouts will have little to no odour.

The size of the sprouts can affect flavour. Smaller Brussels sprouts tend to have a sweeter taste. It’s important to try to use Brussels sprouts of roughly the same size to ensure even cooking without having to trim them. Larger sprouts may need to be cut in half prior to cooking, or else you risk an overcooked outside or an undercooked core. Brussels sprouts exposed to frost while growing are sweeter, but unfortunately putting them in the freezer won’t have this effect.

There are a number of different varieties of Brussels sprout. These varieties are usually not too important when it comes to the consumer end because they’re chosen by producers to suit different climates, growing seasons and so on. The newer varieties of Brussels sprouts do generally taste better than older varieties though.

There are also purple varieties of Brussels sprouts! These were created in the 1940s by a Dutchman called C. N. Vreeken by crossing Brussels sprouts with red cabbage, so no genetic modification was involved. Most purple sprouts, sadly, lose their colour with cooking, although steaming them may help retain the purple.

Growing

How do Brussels sprouts grow?

It might surprise some people to see that rather than growing on the ground, on a vine or in a bunch, Brussels sprouts actually grow on what looks like a miniature green (or purple!) palm tree. The sprouts grow in a tight cluster on a thick stalk, up to a metre tall, that is topped with large cabbage-like leaves. These leaves can also be eaten and were probably just as popular as the sprouts themselves in earlier times.

They’re well-suited to colder temperatures, tasting best when harvested after a frost. If the weather is too warm, the sprouts will open up and won’t be any good for eating.

sproutfarmers

Where are our Brussels sprouts grown?

Oliver Kay’s Brussels sprouts are grown by Prescott Farm Produce in Lancashire, near Ormskirk. The Prescott family have been farming Brussels sprouts for three generations and have kept their fields up to date with the best-tasting varieties of sprouts available. Today Ron and Roy Prescott manage the farm and work closely with Oliver Kay’s buyers, bringing delicious fresh, locally grown sprouts.

As well as providing us with the whole Brussels sprout, Prescott Farm also grows kalettes or ‘sprout flowers’.

Kalettes, or sprout flowers, are not a part of the Brussels sprout plant but a different plant altogether – a hybrid between Brussels sprouts and kale. British breeders working for Tozer Seeds managed to produce in 2010 a plant that looks a lot like a Brussel sprout plant, but instead of growing traditional sprouts on its stalk, it grows frilly rosettes of leaves. These leaves can be green, purple, or both. Being a combination of Brussels sprouts and kale, kalettes have a complex flavour, involving earthy, nutty notes and sweetness, and tender, crisp leaves.

Kalettes are a versatile autumn and winter season green that can be incorporated into a wide range of dishes, and they pack a serious punch when it comes to nutrition, containing even more vitamin B6 and C than Brussels sprouts.

Sprout Recipes

CHEF COMPETITION

As part of our fruit and veg celebration, we are holding a monthly competition for chefs to suggest dish ideas using the produce of the month. The best dish idea each month will win a prize and be included in a recipe book that will be published at the end of the fruit & veg celebration in December 2020. So there are 12 chances to win!
We appreciate it’s busy this time of year, but to start off our recipe book in style we are keen to see your sprout dishes - it takes two minutes to show off your hard work! So please take a snap, upload to social media and tag us in, including the hashtag #fruitvegceclebration

To enter your recipe ideas, simply tag us in a photo of your dish with a short description, on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. Alternatively, you can email entries to competition@oliverkayproduce.co.uk. For more information see our fruit and veg celebration page, and entry information, terms and conditions can be viewed here. 

JUNIOR COMPETITION

Chef Russell Shout is so busy in the kitchen this December with all the Christmas parties, he needs some staff to help him out. So, we are asking you to create a sprout kitchen team member to help Russell out! He needs sous chef, porters, waiters, managers – and guests! Use your creativity and draw - or make your character! And, we would also like to know what delicious dish you would make with sprouts!

Send your entries to: competition@oliverkayproduce.co.uk (group entries from schools etc are welcome!) For more information visit our fruit and veg celebration page. Full details, including entry information, terms and conditions can be viewed here.

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