Where have the days of bland vegetables gone? Have they receded into the memories of baby boomers, left to simmer until grayed and withered? Contemporary vegetable cookery—the use of fat, sweeteners, and salt to intensify vegetable flavors—overcompensates for the perceived deficits of its forebearers. As an outgrowth of the comfort food and stoner food movements, contemporary vegetable cookery embraces the unhealthy, the bombastic, and the overstated—in effect, it denies the traditional concept of “vegetable” in the American culinary canon. Whereas the humble vegetable was once relegated to a corner of the dinner plate, pushed aside in favor of steaks and roast chicken, “contorni” now occupy a privileged place in Manhattan’s top shelf Italian restaurants. Kids ask for kale chips instead of Lays (dusted with sea salt and chili, of course), and “eat your vegetables” is often met with furiously chewing mouths. A balance does exist, however, between the grossly exaggerated and the bland: the tasteful use of seasoning to magnify, not caricature; to complicate and make delicious, not to lampoon in burlesque.
Brussels sprouts occupy a lower position in the vegetable hierarchy than even broccoli. While children can be coaxed to try a floret, the much maligned sprout requires coercion. One faddish take on Brussels sprouts solves this problem without force feeding: just add prosciutto, pancetta, speck, or sopressata—any sort of cured meat contributes fat, salt, and porky exclamation points. The more, the better. Caramelizing those sprouts and dressing with a piquant olive oil increases the deliciousness factor by several orders of magnitude. Oftentimes though, this technique overshoots the mark, resulting in an overwhelming mess of greasy sausage and burnt Brussels sprouts. Continue reading