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After the first big frost of the season, things got real at the farmers market. Buyers arrived, knowing it was our last chance for warm weather crops; I was there for tomatoes, and felt like a big spender with my two boxes, earmarked for salsa.
Then Chef Scott Gill showed up with a hand truck, as if to remind me that I’m a wannabe player, and loaded it with crates of lipstick-red sweet peppers. With one season ending, another was beginning, and soon we were chatting about Brussels sprouts.
The season for these dense, green nubs has just begun, and it will last deep into spring. Around the market, farmers were selling Brussels sprouts, often still attached to the stems. Gill’s restaurant, Scotty’s Table, specializes in seasonal food, but thanks to one particular dish, Brussels sprouts are always in season at Scotty’s.
Fried Brussels sprouts and cauliflower is the one dish that stays on his menu year-round, regardless of the season, by popular demand. It’s a mess of deep-fried sprouts, cauliflower florets and fatty pork lardons tossed in a cider vinegar reduction and presented atop a thick smear of mustard crème fraiche. The sharp, rich flavors and crunchy textures keep the eater bewitched until the plate is empty, at which point they might wonder what just happened.
Before Gill and I parted ways that brisk, Saturday morning, he invited me to come by the restaurant and learn the recipe. I went off in search of cauliflower and Brussels sprouts — which unlike tomatoes are not endangered species these days.
The locally grown Brussels sprouts are not as large, uniform or tightly wrapped as their perfectly trimmed imported counterparts. But as I would find out later following Gill’s recipe, those funky, untrimmed Brussels sprouts are fun to use.
They blossom like flowers in hot oil, the crispy, translucent leaves deliciously dishevelled like perfect cases of bed head. “As chefs we always want to have something fatty, crispy, tart and sweet,” Gill sermonized, when I arrived at his kitchen. “This dish is the epitome of that.”
The veggies and lardons are audaciously rich coming out of the fryer, and that fattiness is countered by the cider reduction. The mustard crème fraiche adds delicious redundancy, contributing more fat and more tanginess, while the spice of the mustard harmonizes with the Brussels sprouts and cauliflower — both plants are members of the mustard family.
While you are free to replace the lardons with chopped bacon — or skip them altogether — you don’t have permission to deviate from the vegetable directives. If you don’t blanch the Brussels sprouts the outsides will burn before the insides cook. And if your oil isn’t at least 350, cry into your soggy, greasy veggies — but not to me or Chef Scotty.
FRIED BRUSSELS SPROUTS AND CAULIFLOWER
Served with lardons, mustard crème fraiche and apple cider reduction
Ahead of time: Make the mustard crème fraiche, apple cider reduction, lardons; blanch and dry the Brussels sprouts.
Mustard Crème Fraiche
1 cup heavy cream 1 tablespoon buttermilk 1 teaspoon cider vinegar 1 teaspoon lemon juice 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard 3 tablespoons ground mustard
Stir the buttermilk, vinegar and lemon juice into the cream; let sit for two hours. Stir in the mustards. Keep refrigerated until needed.
Cider Vinegar Reduction
1 large onion, chopped 2 tablespoons oil 1 cup sugar 1 teaspoon salt 1 quart cider vinegar
Heat the oil in a pan and “caramelize the crap out of the onions” on low heat for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the sugar, salt and vinegar, and cook until the volume reduces by ⅔. Let cool, and blend until smooth. Strain out the (very tasty) onion sludge. Keep the cider reduction refrigerated until needed.
1 lb pork belly, cut into ¾ inch cubes 2 teaspoons salt 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Combine the ingredients and wait about two hours. Keep refrigerated until needed.
If you can get untrimmed Brussels sprouts, leave them untrimmed for whimsical aesthetic affect. For the frying, Gill recommends peanut oil, although he can’t use it at the restaurant because of peanut allergies. Safflower and sunflower oils are good choices too.
2 servings 2 cups (8 oz.) Brussels sprouts, evenly sized 2 cups (8 oz.) cauliflower florets, broken or cut into 2 inches or smaller on a side 1 quart fry oil ½ cup (2 oz.) quick-cured pork belly lardons (or 2 slices bacon, cut crosswise into ½-inch wide pieces) ¼ cup cider vinegar reduction ¼ cup Mustard Creme Fraiche
Blanch the Brussels sprouts for about 2 minutes. Transfer immediately to ice water for another 2 minutes, then drain. They should be completely dry before going into the oil.
Heat a quart of oil in a heavy bottomed pot or deep pan. The oil should be at least 2 inches deep, and at least 3 inches from the rim. When it reaches 350 degrees, turn the heat down to hold it there.
Fry the lardons for a minute or two, until they are golden brown. Remove and let drain. Add the cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, and fry for about 3 minutes — until the cauliflower is brown and the Brussels sprouts puff up. Remove and drain.
Toss the Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and lardons in salt, and then the cider reduction, and serve atop a puddle of Mustard Creme Fraiche.