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The not-so-subtle Brussels sprout

WITH the current obsession with smaller-is-better vegetables, Brussels sprouts by their very nature should be the darling of autumn and winter cuisine. Unfortunately, they are not.

Perhaps the flavor of this miniature cabbage is just too aggressive. Except for its size, there is little subtle about the Brussels sprout. Even before it makes an entrance on the dining room table, you know it's around by its heady aroma.

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Brussels sprouts have taken more abuse over the years than they deserve, mainly through overcooking -- which results in a soggy, gray-green, sometimes bitter, and generally unappealing lump. A surprising number of otherwise fine cookbooks find it easier simply to ignore them altogether.

Too bad for this noble vegetable, and worse for us. The folks of Brussels did not give it their city's name for no reason. And can the population of the capital of a European city be all wrong?

Properly cooked and attractively served, Brussels sprouts make a splendid addition to some of the more hearty dishes, especially lamb, goose, beef, duck, and other game.

They are available frozen throughout the year but are far better fresh, from about the middle of September on through the autumn and into winter. Some people prefer to wait until after the first frost to buy them, as they believe a nip in the air nudges a little sweetness into the vegetables.

In Europe, I have been served sprouts about the size of a thumbnail, and even smaller. They are seldom found that size in the United States, however, except when plucked from one's own garden.

Supermarkets usually carry them in pint-size plastic baskets. These weigh in at about 10 ounces, and because of their rather strong flavor, this small amount will usually please four people.

If you are fortunate enough to be able to buy Brussels sprouts loose, choose ones that are similar in size -- the smaller the better. Otherwise, consider trimming some of the larger ones down to facilitate even cooking. Trimmed outer green leaves may be blanched, frozen, and added to stews or vegetable soups.

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Be sure to wash sprouts thoroughly in cold water, trim them of any yellowing or shriveled leaves, and, with a paring knife, cut a deep X in the center of each stem to speed cooking time. Be especially careful not to overcook them.

One easy and delectable way of preparing the sprouts is simply to parboil them in plenty of salted water for 10 to 12 minutes, drain them thoroughly, and saut'e them in bacon, goose, or duck fat. Top with a few caraway or toasted sesame seeds or slivered almonds and serve.

Steaming Brussels sprouts keeps them crisp and green and prevents waterlogging. Simply place sprouts in a steamer or colander above boiling water, cover, and cook for about 8 minutes.

Be sure the steamer or colander is above but not touching the water. Test for doneness with a skewer. They may also be par-cooked using this method.

To microwave the sprouts, place them in a dish with 1/4 cup salted water or chicken stock. Cover with plastic wrap before microwaving. Braised Brussels Sprouts 3 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup chicken broth 1 tablespoon shallot or onion, minced 2 pints Brussels sprouts, trimmed of loose or yellowed leaves Freshly ground pepper to taste

In a small pan bring butter and broth to boil. Add chopped shallot or onion and sprouts. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer until sprouts test tender with a skewer, about 15 to 20 minutes. Shake pan several times during cooking.

Toss with pepper and more butter if you like. Serves 4. Brussels Sprouts Gratin 2 10-ounce baskets Brussels sprouts, washed, trimmed 4 strips bacon, in 1/2-inch pieces 3 tablespoons butter Freshly ground black pepper to taste 3/4 cup heavy cream 1/2 cup bread crumbs Butter 1/2 teaspoon paprika

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Cut an X in each sprout stem. Parboil them in salted water 10 to 12 minutes. Drain, rinse under cold running water, and drain again.

Saut'e bacon in butter until slightly cooked but not crisp. Add sprouts and pepper. Place in ovenproof baking dish. Add cream and top with bread crumbs. Dot with added butter and sprinkle with paprika.

Bake 25 to 30 minutes. Serves 6.

In his delightfully readable and excellent book ``Greene on Greens,'' Bert Greene gives this recipe of Roseanne Schlussel's. Brussels Sprouts `a la Grecque 1 cup water 1/2 cup olive oil 1/4 cup lemon juice Bouquet garni: 2 parsley sprigs, 1 bay leaf, 2 tarragon sprigs, 6 peppercorns, 1/2 teaspoon celery seed tied in a small cheesecloth bag. 1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed, with an X cut in each stem 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar 1 teaspoon finely slivered lemon peel Salt and freshly ground black pepper 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Combine water, olive oil, lemon juice, and bouquet garni in a medium saucepan. Heat to boiling. Reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes.

Add sprouts and return to boil. Cook, uncovered, until sprouts are barely tender, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. Discard bouquet garni.

Transfer sprouts with liquid to serving bowl. Add vinegar, lemon peel, and salt and pepper to taste. Toss well and chill. Serve with chopped parsley as garnish. Lemon-Butter Brussels Sprouts 1 pound Brussels sprouts 6 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice Salt and pepper to taste

Trim, wash and halve sprouts. Blanch in salted boiling water until tender. Drain throughly. In a large sauce pan, melt butter and add sprouts. Toss and add lemon juice. Heat throughly. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 4 to 6.

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