Jane McLeod: In defense of Brussels sprouts

Pick late in the season, lightly cook to retain natural flavors

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— Several light frosts have come and gone and my Brussels sprouts are thriving. The ultimate cool-weather crop, Brussels sprouts can survive a nip or two of frost. In fact, a little frost actually improves their flavor, making them the star of the fall vegetable patch.

A hardy member of the cabbage family, Brussels sprouts are rich in valuable nutrients including fiber and folate. They are not fussy about soil type, but soil amended with water-trapping compost will allow good drainage and the ability to retain steady moisture the roots need during the plant's life cycle.

Other requirements are a plentiful and even supply of water, lots of growing room - 24 inches all around - and sun. They are tall and shallow-rooted, which can make them tippy, so lightly stake or keep a firm soil mound around the plant base as it grows. Slow growing but frost-hardy, they require at least 90 days to mature.

Here, it is very helpful to start them inside or in a cold frame, or buy a plant at the nursery. Set the transplants out in early summer, timed to mature when days are still warm and sunny and night frosts are just beginning.

After 55 days, when the maturing plant looks like a skinny palm tree with big floppy leaves, small, round buds will start to emerge where each leaf joins the stalk - starting at the bottom and moving upwards over time. These round sprouts grow larger as the plant matures, and although you can harvest them at any size, leaving them for later in the season allows a frost to infuse them with a natural sweetness that most commercially grown versions will never know.

Cover sprouts at night when the frosts deepen. They are at their best when small, about the size of a large marble. But to increase the size and hasten the maturation process, you can top off the plant about a month before the first big killing frost to help the plant put its energy into the maturing sprouts. Because the sprouts won't grow all that much after mild frosts - once temperatures dip into the low 20s it's the end of their garden days - bring them in stalk and all, strip the leaves and store in a cool, dark place for no longer than a couple of weeks, or leave them unwashed and store in the refrigerator for about a week.

For the final conversion of skeptics, the secret is in the cooking or, should I say, barely cooking. If you've only tried them once, it's probably because they had the flavor and color boiled out of them to a soft mush.

A properly cooked Brussels sprout should arrive on your plate green and slightly crisp, and to achieve that, all the better recipes - there are hundreds on the Internet - toss them in olive oil and then roast, braise, stir-fry or saute them, leaving them sweet with a slightly nutty taste and ever so yummy. They taste good, are good for you, and you can pick them in the snow - what more could a gardener ask for?

Jane McLeod is a Master Gardener through the CSU Extension Routt. Questions? Call 879-0825.

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