These sauteed Brussels sprouts with bacon and balsamic vinegar make a sweet and tangy side dish. (Regina H. Boone / MCT) - MCT

Sweeter in winter

Miniaturizing food has a way of improving its image. Usually no exception, vegetables consumed as "babies" achieve gourmet status.

But when medieval European farmers saw fit to shrink the cabbage, they produced a food that would polarize palates centuries later.

Apparently, there's a scientific explanation behind folks' extreme aversion to or enthusiasm for Brussels sprouts. Among the vegetable's chemical compounds are bitter-tasting ones that serve the evolutionary purpose of repelling hungry birds and bugs. Some people, according to a recent Newsday article, have taste buds genetically programmed to register the same bitterness that birds taste.

One of these compounds in Brussels sprouts diminishes when subjected to a quick burst of high heat. The other dissipates during slower cooking. Combining Brussels sprouts with something salty, sweet or sour further offsets their bitterness and can bring balance to a dish. So it's not hard to see how bacon became Brussels sprouts' best friend.

There's little cause to fret over the fat and sodium in a bit of bacon when, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Brussels sprouts contain more than the daily requirements for vitamins K and C and are a good source of fiber and folate. They also contain phytochemicals known to help prevent some diseases.

While Brussels sprouts are available nearly year-round and enjoy peak season in fall, wintertime often is when they're tastiest — after frost brings out the plant's natural sugars, making them less bitter. Their distinctive flavor also stands up to the rich, roasted meats and starchy squashes and potatoes that tend to populate cold-weather menus.

They're a favorite at my Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts, where the prevalence of meat means I skip the bacon, instead accentuating sprouts with fresh garlic and a splash of vinegar. Balsamic really turns up the flavor factor. I'm always pleasantly reassured when guests say they'd never tried Brussels sprouts before polishing off their portions.

And I've yet to encounter anyone complaining of a sulfurous odor in the house while the sprouts are cooking. That's probably because I stick with roasting, which caramelizes sprouts and downplays their relation to cabbage, as does shredding and quickly sauteing. Boiling has the opposite effect, bringing out the sprouts' cabbage-like qualities and turning them to mush in the bargain.

Owing to their small stature, Brussels sprouts won't keep as long as cabbage-family counterparts. They'll stay fresh in the refrigerator for several days, longer if still attached to their thick, central stalk. Smaller size means more trimming per pound, but also sweeter, more tender sprouts. Choose sprouts that are about 1 1/2 inches in diameter with tight, bright green leaves and no signs of decay, such as yellowish leaves.

Just because the vast majority of sprouts to be had in the Rogue Valley hail from California is no reason to turn up one's nose. When locally grown isn't an option, the produce of our neighbors immediately south or north is preferable to the Southern Hemisphere's asparagus, pea pods and green beans for reasons of freshness, economy and minimizing one's carbon footprint. Home gardeners who start seedlings in summer can nurture Brussels sprouts through the cold season for enjoyment in late winter and early spring.

Mail Tribune Food Editor Sarah Lemon can be reached at 541-776-4487, or email slemon@mailtribune.com. For more tips, recipes and local food news, read her blog at mailtribune.com/wholedish

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