Thursday, October 9, 2008

Canning Brussels Sprouts

One of my favorite fall vegetables is Brussels sprouts—partly it's the incredible flavor after they've been kissed by a frost (they're much sweeter then), and partly it's because of their goofy name (there aren't that many two-word vegetables to begin with, and none other that I can think of where both parts end in "s"). Ordinarily, Brussels sprouts don't make it onto my radar until November, after the sorghum is all in the barrel, and a hard freeze has put a merciful end to the tomatoes, peppers, and sweet potatoes. But they're on my mind right now… because Jillian Downey put them there.

While the first freeze has not yet descended on northeast Missouri (nor is it's arrival even anticipated in the latest long-range forecast), I got an email the other day from Jillian, my friend and fellow gardener, who tills the earth at Great Oak, a cohousing community three miles west of Ann Arbor. Protected somewhat by the moderating influence of the Great Lakes, southern Michigan is in the same agricultural zone as Sandhill, even though they're two degrees latitude further north (zone 6 if you're scoring at home). While I think Jillian generally has a shorter growing season than we enjoy at Sandhill, it's not by much.

Apparently, this year she had stout crop of Brussels sprouts and—like all good gardeners—wanted to put some of her bounty by. As her freezer space was already fully subscribed, she inquired about the possibility of canning the little darlings.

That was a new one on me. At Sandhill we take food pretty seriously, which means we grow a wide variety of species, and have attempted to preserve almost everything over our 34 years of gardening. That said, I couldn't recall ever canning brassicas—of which vegetable family Brussels sprouts are a member in good standing, along with cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and even watercress. 

So I went to the food processing bible—the Ball Blue Book—and looked it up. Alas, there was nothing on canning brassicas. While that doesn't mean you couldn't do it (you can can anything), it did mean that it wasn't recommended, was not typically done, and probably wasn't smart. Canning means considerable heat treatment and in the case of Brussels sprouts, that translates into:
—intensifying the sulphur-flavor characteristic of all brassicas
—bleaching out the dark green color (think cooked-to-death grey)
—reducing the firm texture to mush

None of those things sounded like a good idea. 

While they freeze pretty well (blanch them first), I've always figured the best way to manage your crop of Brussels sprouts is to consume them fresh, preferably on a cool November or December day (we've even had them fresh for Christmas dinner, if we baby them a bit through the late fall), steamed and topped with Hollandaise sauce—what could be better than the queen of brassicas, bathed in the queen of sauces! Yum.


Tony Skyhouse said...

Hi Laird,

You might do OK pickling the sprouts. Here's a recipe online from Michigan State no less:

You might also try a ferment similar to Sauerkraut. I bet if you packed Brussels Sprouts whole into a jar or crock with salt (3 tablespoons per 5 pounds of cabbage is common). They will likely "juice out" enough to create some brine but if it is not enough to cover it by 1 to 2 inches you can add salt water (1.5 Tablespoons per quart of water). Let sit in a cool place and check weekly until they are a delicious sour flavor (you may have to skim some yeasty scum but thats standard for ferments). Eat them like pickles and store them in the fridge to slow fermentation.

We do this with cucumbers, summer squash, carrots, peppers, and other veggies and they are a treat. If you have cold storage you can keep them all winter this way or they can be canned (though this affects texture considerably).

For more info on wild fermentation see Sandor Kat's website and book: Wild Fermentation

Good luck

Unknown said...

Great article! One thing that wasn't mentioned I feel is important. Make sure there is a FREEZE on your Brussels Sprouts before harvest. 28°, not a light frost. The flavor is enhanced incredibly!