February had arrived. It was time. I'd waited for this moment for so long. I bundled up and headed for my garden.
Last year in mid-May I'd purchased some brussels sprouts seedlings (started by Joe's Garden, Bellingham) from the WFC Country Store in Ferndale, part of the Whatcom Farmers Co-op. It was a "6-pack," containing 6 small plant starts. Earlier I had consulted my "Square Foot Gardening" book and had marked out the six square feet on my garden plan which these plants would need to grow.
I raced home to get them tucked gently into the soil. Well, you can't really race when you have a ferry crossing along the way, but let's just say I was eager to help the brussels sprouts get settled into their new home in my yard.
As you can probably tell, I love brussels sprouts. Not everyone is as enthusiastic. In fact, some people are openly hostile. For example, when I looked up whether or not the "b" in "brussels" should be capitalized, I found this note (North Carolina State University's "Questions on Capitalization"):
"It is the Grammar Hotline's opinion that lowercasing brussels sprouts is one tiny step toward popularizing them. Furthermore, it is my considered opinion that Brussels sprouts are so vile that they do not deserve to be popular."
I think it's the bitter flavor of brussels sprouts that puts people off. I personally don't mind bitter tastes. I just add apple cider vinegar to balance the flavor.
However, I've found the secret to growing brussels sprouts that are much sweeter right off the plant. The trick is to leave them in the garden until February! By then there will have been several winter freezes. The brussels sprouts themselves will be large and ugly by then, but peel off a few of the tattered outer leaves on each round sprout and you'll find a beautiful yellow-green, spectacularly flavored sprout at the center.
I discovered this by accident one year when I had a vegetable garden that was across a meadow and out of sight from my home. I had finished my fall harvest back in October, and at that time it looked like my late-plated brussels sprouts were not going to get big enough to harvest that year. I didn't visit the garden again until a sunny day in February drew me outside to do some clean up work. Much to my surprise, the brussels sprouts stalks were covered with large sprouts. I brought them inside to see if anything could be salvaged, and ended up having the best tasting brussels sprouts I'd ever eaten.
According to University of Wisconsin professor Irwin Goldman, this is due to a phenomenon called "cold-sweetening." As plants produce energy through photosynthesis, they store some as complex carbohydrates, such as starches. But as temperatures drop in the fall and winter, some plants convert part of their energy excess into simpler sugars, such as glucose and fructose, and pack these away in their cells to guard against frost damage. "Sugar dissolved in a cell makes it less susceptible to freezing in the same way that salting roads reduces ice," says Goldman.
Nature's clever adaptation to prevent plants from freezing benefits humans by producing a sweeter tasting vegetable. Other plants which use the same process to protect themselves are winter greens (such as kale), beets, broccoli, carrots and even potatoes. Perhaps that's why many gardeners leave vegetables such as beets and carrots in the ground to harvest throughout the winter. It can be a little risky for the root plants, since it gives mice and voles more time to find them, but the payoff is an incomparable flavor. Since brussels sprouts form above the ground, loss to varmints is less likely to be a problem.
Sauteing winter harvested brussels sprouts slowly takes advantage of the extra sugars by caramelizing them. The recipe below is an example.
GMO LABELING CAMPAIGN
I've written before about the potential hazards of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and I'll be writing more about them soon, but I wanted to share an 85-minute documentary I discovered on YouTube last week. It's called "Genetic Roulette: The Gamble of Our Lives," and it's the clearest, most easily understood explanation I've seen yet of exactly what GMOs are and some of the hazards associated with creating them. Most important of all, this movie contains interviews with researchers and doctors about the negative health effects they are already seeing in people from eating GMOs. View at this YouTube link.
Here in Washington state, a campaign was launched to get an initiative on the ballot requiring food containing GMOs to be labeled. Over 350,000 people signed the petition, and the campaign was successful. I-522 will be on the ballot this coming November, unless the Legislature passes the bill before then. Visit labelitwa.org to learn more about this important initiative.
CANDIED BRUSSELS SPROUTS
3 c. brussels sprouts, cleaned and sliced in half (home garden, Lummi Island)
2 tbsp. hazelnut oil (Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards, Lynden)
11/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. water
1/4 c. apple syrup (BelleWood Acres, Lynden)
1/4 c. chopped hazelnuts for garnish (Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards, Lynden)
Add hazelnut oil to skillet and heat on medium-high to high heat. As oil begins to ripple, add brussels sprouts and salt.
Saute for a few minutes until brussels sprouts just start to brown and crisp on the outside.
Add water and allow steam to rise for a moment, then turn heat down to medium. Cook for another minute until brussels sprouts begin to soften.
Add apple syrup and stir constantly, coating the brussels sprouts thoroughly and allowing the syrup to caramelize a bit. After another couple of minutes, remove from the heat.
A fork should penetrate a piece of brussels sprout easily, but the brussels sprouts should not be soggy.
Serve with a sprinkling of chopped hazelnuts for a complimentary crunchy texture.
Serves 4 as a side dish.
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Acme Farms + Kitchen
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996; appel-farms.com
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959; artisanwineclub.com
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060; bellinghamfarmers.org
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699; boxxberryfarm.com
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859; cloudmountainfarm.com
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158; communityfood.coop
Everybody's Store, 5465 Potter Road, Deming; 360-592-2297; everybodys.com
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747; ferndalepublicmarket.org
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151; graceharborfarms.com
Green Barn, 8858 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-354-1008
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
Lynden Farmers Market, 514 Liberty St., Lynden, fiveloavesfarm.blogspot.com
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398; facebook.com/pages/Pleasant-Valley-Dairy/161872142667
Red Barn Lavender Farm (egg CSA), 3106 Thornton Road, Ferndale; 360-393-7057
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190; islandergrocery.com
The Markets LLC, 3125 Old Fairhaven Parkway and 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797; themarketsllc.com
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020; terra-organica.com
Bellingham Country Gardens (u-pick vegetables), 2838 East Kelly Road, Bellingham; bellinghamcountrygardens.com
Reach Whatcom Locavore columnist Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, go to Whatcom Locavore on Facebook or @whatcomlocavore on Twitter. For locavore menus, recipes and more resources, go to whatcomlocavore.com.