Growing Brussels sprouts takes time and patience, but when grown properly, their flavor is unmatched.
There have been several moments in the last few years where I evaluated a particular relationship in my life. Are we too in love? Do I like you as much as I used to? Am I ready to move on to something else? Certain events have led me to consider walking away from Brussels sprouts all together; the time I opened my freezer and six bags fell out onto my bare feet, for instance. It’s not unnatural to entertain the idea of prioritizing a different vegetable. Sometimes sweet potatoes catch my winking eye, and other times I flirt with the rainbow chard. The truth is that my heartstrings are tied to Brussels sprouts for a reason I wish I could explain.
It wasn’t until I realized other people shared my addiction that I really let it get out of hand. In my previous home of Chicago, restaurant menus were filled with dishes featuring my main squeeze. Happily hopping from kitchen to kitchen, I sampled them all. I dragged my friends, and I made phone calls to the chefs. “Please may I have this recipe?” I would beg. Sometimes they obliged, other times they talked softly and indirectly told me to get some help. “Maybe you should try another vegetable, too,” they would prod. “We have really beautiful green beans right now.”
One chef understood me, however. Chef David Cooper at HB Home Bistro in the Lakeview neighborhood shared my incessant curiosity about food. The day I was in his kitchen, he was boiling up a cow tongue and smoking pheasant thighs. When I told him I wanted to learn more about Brussels sprouts, he was fully onboard.
He explained that we could thank Mom for exiling the vegetable from our diets. Generations of over-steaming, over-cheesing and over-boiling made Brussels sprouts a form of childhood punishment. Fortunately, he said, chefs are finding ways to reintroduce them to Americans. As he talked, he made a raw Brussels slaw as a topper to those pheasant thighs – the vinegary medley perfectly balanced the smoky meat. A little jalapeño jam and cranberry preserves only highlighted the sprouts’ delicate characteristics.
Listening to Chef David describe his relationship with his farmer brought up questions for me. What do farmers think about this resurgence of Brussels sprouts popularity? Are people requesting this vegetable? If I was really going to get to know this cabbage relative, I needed to know where it came from. The farm was the only logical place to go.
My investigation first led me 45 miles west of Chicago to a 3-year-old organic farm situated among lush country homes in St. Charles, Illinois.
The morning sun sat low over the northern Illinois horizon as I tried to follow my GPS. The farm’s address was atypical: 5N726 Crane Road. I wasn’t even sure I was in the right town.
Eventually the city faded and the countryside came into focus. When I pulled off the pavement onto the gravel road, an inconspicuous yellow sign with cheerful carrots signaled that I had arrived at Sweet Home Organics.
Kim Marsin, the farmer, met me at the “farmstand,” an A-frame storefront with picturesque red-checkered curtains. Her faded pink sweatshirt added a girly touch to her dirty jeans, and her short, tousled hair spilled over her dusty gray “Kauai” visor.
She whisked me away to the hoop house, her seedlings’ womb and buffer from the cold weather. Spread out on plyboard tables, black trays held thousands of germinated seeds, each labeled with a special code that only Kim could decipher. At that stage in their growing cycle, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli and other Brassicas looked identical: two 1-centimeter-long leaves barely emerging from the warm, loose soil.
We meandered down to the field carrying germination trays and taking care to keep our feet off the thrice-tilled soil. Rocks and hay sprigs decorated the long, thin plots, remnants of winter’s protective blanket. As the clouds rolled in, we tested to see if the soil was dry enough to work over. In early April, it’s risky to plant, because if the soil is too wet, it turns to rock-solid clumps. There was also the chance of one more freeze killing many of Kim’s crops. She told me this fear wakes her up in the middle of the night and even has her contemplating spending cold nights on the farm should she need to hurriedly cover her crops. Kim deemed the soil a bit too moist, and we trekked back up to the farmstand to get some potted Brussels sprouts ready for her friends.
The vegetable’s growing season is long-debated. Do you harvest them when they look ready to satisfy your customers, or do you go for quality by waiting a bit longer? The Midwest farmers I talked to agree that Brussels sprouts should be planted in early to midspring and not harvested until late fall.
Consumers’ impatience pressures farmers to harvest them early, says Diann Moore, from Moore Family Farm in Watseka, Illinois. They may look ready in August or September, but they aren’t. “They really need the first frost or freeze to get that sweetness,” she says. Grocery store Brussels sprouts usually come from California or Mexico, but it doesn’t get cold enough in those regions to produce a sweet sprout; one reason they have left a bad taste in American mouths over the years.
Beth Eccles, from Green Acres Farm, supplies produce for the celebrated Publican restaurant in Chicago. She told me that many farmers cut off the top of the stalk to get larger bulbs, but she lets it grow as tall as it pleases, usually 3 feet or more. This produces a smaller but sweeter sprout. “They have been an interesting vegetable for us to market.”
The Brussels sprouts at Kim’s farm have typically turned out small as well. One of her volunteers told me they taste great, but Kim doesn’t feel right selling a stalk of relatively small sprouts, so she gives them away. “It’s cool to hand out a stalk of sprouts,” Kim says. “They’re a nice offering at the end of the growing season.”
A few days later it happened: The seedlings were the ideal size to plant, and the sun was shining. Gloves weren’t going to work for the kind of planting we did. We needed to protect the delicate roots from any kind of damage, care that only bare hands could provide.
Kim said to “milk” the seedling pots to get the plant out. Finally it broke free and took its first breath of farm air outside of the hoop house. We had already turned on the drippers to make sure the roots contacted soil and water at the same time – an essential step to ensure their survival.
I planted sprout after sprout, measuring 2 feet in between and admiring how these three-leaf infants would grow tall and strong in a number of months. We turtlenecked them with soil, hoping to make them hardy and wind-sturdy. Kim interrupted my repetition and told me she thought the plants would thrive that season. “When someone puts love and energy into what they plant, it grows well.”
Kim’s planting philosophy has reverberated in others as well. “People tell me they can taste the love we put into our food. That it makes the food taste better,” she says.
Just when I thought I had mastered an efficient planting technique, the unimaginable happened. I burst the drip line with my sharp garden tool, a “cobra head.” Suddenly I was sitting in a pool of mud, trying to put my hand over the hole to stop the Trevi Fountain I’d created.
Certain I was going to be banned from the farm once my crime was detected, I cinched up my overalls and told Kim what I’d done. She teased that she was going to put a “wanted” sign at the entrance of the farm with my face on it.
In silent shame, I moved on to a different part of the row, still secretly fearing my exile. But there was rarely a time when Kim didn’t fill silent voids with helpful advice or funny anecdotes about her last five years as a farmer. And she certainly would not have anyone feeling badly about themselves for rupturing the drip tape.
The clouds darkened and brought a chilly breeze with them as we finished our work. We couldn’t risk leaving the plants vulnerable to fickle weather conditions. Row covers serve to shelter the seedlings in their new environment, recreating a similar atmosphere to the hoop house, but they also create a perfect home for treacherous insects. It was a chance we had to take.
We rolled out the gossamer sheets to discover the mice had gotten to them first: Holes littered foot after foot of the sheer blanket. If raccoons and other critters wanted to get in, they would. We used the screen regardless of the damage and hoped the animals wouldn’t be smart enough to figure it out.
On the drive home, I found myself wondering what keeps Kim coming to the farm every day. I looked at the dirt lodged under my nails, and I smelled the farm aroma that followed me into the car and saturated my oversized plaid shirt. This is why, I decided. It’s the freedom of open space, the smell of freshly plowed soil, the chill of crisp, morning dew before the day’s heat touches down, and the feel of a seedling in your hands as it makes its way to its permanent home.
I went to the grocery store and came to the Brussels sprouts. By then I had memorized where they live in the produce aisle. For some reason I was not as immediately drawn to them. After planting them, I looked at them in a different light. I had a new appreciation for farmers like Kim who plant and care for Brussels sprouts the right way.
I shuffled over to my other crush, sweet potatoes, and stared at the peeled, diced, ready-to-go orange cubes. How easy would it have been to buy that packaged vegetable and put in almost no work to make it taste amazing? Throw them in a roasting pan with some garlic and olive oil, and they would be perfect. But wouldn’t that have completely contradicted my weeks of farming? If anything, I had come to learn that good vegetables are not convenient commodities. They take hard work and sweat.
At home, I passed some sprouts through my shredder to make a slaw, and I thought about how the ones I planted would change so much over the next several months.
In two months, the stalk would be nearly 2 feet tall with baby bulbs peeking out of the bushy leaves. In four months, the stalk would be 3 feet or taller with bulbs nearing maturity, some even looking ready for harvest.
In six months, just as the last leaves fell from the trees, and the soil beds prepared to rest for the winter, these green landmarks would remain, patiently waiting for the frost to contract their cell walls.
One late October night, the telling moist air would blow a chill through the Midwest. Weather reports might start predicting snow flurries. The Brussels sprouts plants would quietly celebrate and breathe a sigh of relief knowing that then, and only then, they were ready to be harvested.
I bit into my salad and savored the juxtaposition of tang with sweet. I discovered that one cranberry per spoonful was the perfect ratio to slaw. The slivers of sprout bulbs didn’t wilt under the light dressing’s cover. All the parts worked together to create a unique Brussels sprouts experience unlike any other.
My time spent with Brussels sprouts gave me more than just nutrients and good exercise, it was chaff to a growing fire. It pointed me toward the life I hope to lead. Where seeds are nurtured in cozy, warm hoop houses. Where germinated seedlings are transplanted only when they’re ready. Where a Brussels sprout plant is allowed to shiver and grow to maturity. Where a family surrounds a table with a bowl of green bulbs in front of them, and instead of serving as punishment, they’re the main event.
Read more: Learn how to increase your growing-season with Companion Planting Chart: 10 Common Vegetables. For a yummy recipe using Brussels sprouts try this Brussels Sprouts Slaw Recipe With Apples, Hazelnuts and Cranberries.
In 2012, Web Editor Natalie K. Gould devoted six months to farming and eating Brussels sprouts, and not much else. She even made a chocolate-covered Brussels sprout just to say she did. She has since converted many a Brussels sprouts hater.