My friend Hillary has a cookbook called Everything Tastes Better with Bacon. (As you might guess, it’s not published by the American Heart Association.) While I try not to eat these savory little strips on a regular basis and question the inclusion in the book of a recipe for ice cream sundaes with hazelnut-bacon candy crunch, I would probably agree that bacon does add what the author, Sara Perry, calls a “shadowy richness” and “earthy fragrance” to a dish. She also says that bacon has “two humble but charismatic ingredients that transform every food it touches: salt and fat. Salt brings out flavor, and fat carries it to our taste buds.”
That cookbook was on mind when I opened up the November issue of Westchester Magazine and spotted the Thanksgiving recipe for “Pan Roasted Baby Brussels Sprouts with Smoked Bacon, Dried Cranberries, and Pecans,” contributed by Dan Magill, the executive chef at One in Irvington, NY. Could Brussels sprouts — my least favorite vegetable — possible taste good with bacon? I had my doubts, but I felt that as The Inspired Chef, I had to give it a try.
When I was a kid, the sight of Brussels sprouts on my dinner plate was instant cause for alarm. The bitter taste and mushy texture of what I thought looked like mini iceberg lettuce heads was not something I enjoyed, so I used to sneak the sprouts into the palm of my hand while my parents weren’t looking. Then I’d excuse myself from the table to go to the bathroom and flush the offensive produce down the toilet. Since being traumatized as a child, I’ve tried to avoid eating Brussels sprouts throughout my adult life.
That’s why it was even harder to believe that I found myself at the local supermarket shopping for my former arch nemesis. I couldn’t find baby Brussels sprouts, so I got an extra container of the regular ones instead and later picked out the smaller sprouts to use in the recipe. I also bought the required brown sugar, dried cranberries, pecans, and slab bacon (thicker than regular bacon). The only other ingredients needed — butter, canola oil, salt, and ground white pepper — I had at home.
I made the sprouts last week as a trial run for Thanksgiving dinner at my brother and sister-in-law’s house. I first cooked the sprouts in a pot of salted boiling water. The recipe says to “blanch the sprouts for a minute or two,” and I did it for five minutes because I didn’t have the baby sprouts. However, that wasn’t enough time and my sprouts ended up being a little too crunchy for my taste. I don’t recommend removing the sprouts from the boiling water until you’ve sampled one that is cooked to your desired state of firmness/softness. Two nights ago when I went to Hillary’s house for some wine and cheese before going out to dinner with my husband, she was making the same recipe for her family. I told her, “You’d better cook the heck out of those Brussels sprouts because the recipe is definitely off on the timing.” She listened to my advice and boiled them about 10 minutes. I sampled the completed dish, and they had a much better consistency.
After the sprouts are blanched, you throw them in some ice-cold water to stop the cooking process entirely. The next step is to toast the pecan pieces (400 degrees for ten minutes should do it). Then you brown the cubed slab bacon in a little canola oil — the recipe called for 1 ½ tablespoons but I added just a little splash. After the bacon gets crispy, add the sprouts and cook them until their outer green leaves turn a golden brown. For the finishing touches, add butter, brown sugar, the toasted pecan pieces, and dried cranberries, and then season with salt and white pepper to your liking.
You’re probably wondering if I liked it? The answer is yes, at least when the sprouts were cooked long enough. Enhanced by the salty, fatty bacon, creamy butter, sweet brown sugar and dried cranberries, and crunchy, nutty pecans, the sprouts actually appealed to my demanding palate (which might have matured over the past several decades). So, if you are looking for a green to make for your Thanksgiving meal, this is a real winner. Even if you think you don’t like Brussels sprouts, remember — everything tastes better with bacon!
Pan Roasted Baby Brussels Sprouts with Smoked Bacon, Dried Cranberries, and Pecans
Courtesy of Don Magill, executive chef, One
Westchester Magazine, November 2007
1 ½ Tbs. canola oil
1 cup toasted pecan pieces
¾ cup dried cranberries, halved
8 oz. smoked slab bacon, cut into small cubes
1 Tbs. brown sugar
1/8 cup salt, plus more to season
Freshly ground white pepper
Trim Brussels sprouts, removing any brown or yellow leaves. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the salt, and then blanch the sprouts for a minute or two (my note: more like 10 if you can’t find baby sprouts and are using regular ones). They should still be crunchy. Removed and shock in ice-cold water. Once cool, remove sprouts and drain. (The recipe can be prepared up to this point in advance.) In another large pan, add the oil and cubed bacon. If you don’t have a large enough pan, this can be done in batches. Cook bacon until crisp, but not burnt. Then add the blanched Brussels sprouts, and, stirring occasionally, pan-roast until golden brown. Add butter. When melted, add brown sugar, stirring again to evenly coat the sprouts. Add pecans and dried cranberries. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.