The much-derided Brussels sprout is delicious when grown fresh and cooked quickly. Here’s how.
Apparently Brussels sprouts are Britain's most hated vegetable.
The 2002 survey that published this finding didn’t go on to explain how the sprout-haters cooked their vegies, but chances are they boiled them to a grey and sulphurous mush. Brussels sprouts lovers, on the other hand, are well aware that sprouts are a delicacy when lightly cooked, possessing a vivid lime green colour, and a delicious nutty flavour that lends itself to pairing with chestnuts or walnuts, batons of crispy bacon, or simply a knob of butter and some fresh pepper.
Photo - Ray Lacey/photolibrary.com
Sprouts were cultivated in Belgium as far back as 1200, which is why they are named for the Belgian capital, though they are now cultivated all over the world.
Sprouts are a true winter vegetable, with the best flavour developing after the frosts have come. But the trick is get them in early enough, way before you start thinking about winter food, or even winter gardening. In fact you need to be germinating seed at Christmas, when gardeners in the northern hemisphere are feasting on their sprouts harvest.
Sprouts are tolerant of almost all soil conditions, although they are susceptible to club root in acid soils. A firm soil is best as it helps the root system support these top-heavy plants.
They grow well in sun, but prefer partial shade. Don’t choose a position in front of plants that need full sun, as their foliage will put others in the shade. Again, because they are top-heavy, they should be grown in an area that is free from strong winds.
Prepare soil by digging well-rotted compost or animal manure through the bed. Keep soil moist. Lime may need to be added if soils have been well composted and are acidic. A pH of 6.8 is ideal.
The big mistake we all make is planting out Brussels sprouts with the rest of the cool season vegetables in autumn. That’s too late! In fact Sydney gardeners should plant out young seedlings as early as mid-January. Brussels sprouts need between five and seven months of growing time so to grow some of the unusual varieties, you’ll need to sow seed before Christmas.
The difficult planting schedule for Brussels can cause headaches, as in mid-summer the garden is full of warm-season vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and cucumbers. But if you can nudge aside some space for sprouts to spend some time, you will be rewarded in winter.
Sow seed in early summer in time for transplanting in mid-summer in cooler areas and for transplanting late Jan-Feb in warmer areas. Sow 10 mm deep in trays or seedbed. Transplant seedlings when seedlings reach 15cm by first removing the seed leaves and planting deeper, up to the 1st set of true leaves. Space plants 60 cm apart in rows 1 m apart. Any closer and you will get smaller sprouts.
After plants have been in about a month, stablise the growth by drawing up more soil around the trunk to prevent the plants flopping over. This is called ‘earthing up’.
Strip the leaves off the stem just above and below the young sprout buttons to help them develop. Sprouts will be ready to harvest from late autumn. Pick from the bottom, before they begin to open. Cut sprouts off with a sharp knife or snap them off by pulling downward.
Photo - Duisterhof Miki/photolibrary.com
Pests and Diseases
All the pests and diseases that affect other brassicas will also affect Brussels sprouts. These include aphids, cabbage moth and clubroot. Remove yellowing leaves throughout autumn to help avoid fungal diseases.
Tips and Tricks
You can buy unusual red varieties from www.greenharvest.com.au
Don’t forget - sow seeds before Christmas Day!
Many consider that the best flavour occurs in mid to late winter, after the plants have been exposed to frost.
If you want all your sprouts to ripen at once, for a large meal or special occasion, cut off the leafy head at the top in early autumn. If you are content to pick as they come to maturity, leaves the tops on.
Pick Brussels sprouts as soon as they are walnut sized. Don’t delay as they get puffy and the leaves will be flabby.
Brussels sprouts varieties
Brassica oleracea Gemmifera Group
This unusual Brussels sprouts is red, with a milder, nuttier flavour than green types. The quality and colour of these sprouts is improved by frost and they have a long growing season of 8 to 9 months, so they are more suitable for cooler areas. Steam lightly to retain colour when cooked. Available by seed from Greenharvest.
‘Green Thumb’ is an early to mid-season maturing F1 hybrid variety producing excellent dark-green sprouts of uniform size. It has a long harvesting season and a tolerance to downy mildew. Available as Oasis seedlings at your local nursery.