No-Fail Pan Roasted Brussels Sprouts: An Ancient Cooking Technique Makes It Happen

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photo: Martin Edic

We used to cook brussels sprouts into grey mush. And, as a result, they were the most hated vegetable. Then we discovered roasting them and suddenly they were among the most popular veg. But there was a problem. Sprouts, like other cruciferous vegetables, are largely made of cellulose, a dense plant fiber our systems cannot break down during digestion.

Heat is the solution to this. It breaks down cellulose. But while the dry heat of the oven tends to bring out the sweetness of these little cabbages, it also keeps them tough. So, how do we bring out the roasted flavor while tenderizing them, keeping them a bright green in the process? An ancient Chinese cooking technique is the secret.

Pan roasting is not sautéing. Here’s why…

First, let’s look at the notion of pan roasting. It’s pretty simple. Unlike sauteing, where the vegetables are moved around in the fat, pan roasting is accomplished by leaving the food alone after you put it into the pan. Any chef will tell you that it is critical to leave it alone if you want that beautiful crisp brown surface, whether you’re cooking a piece of fish, a steak, or those brussel sprouts. But meat proteins have fats that keep them tender whereas a veg like sprouts are just that tough plant fiber. Roasting alone won’t do it.

The Chinese potsticker method

Potstickers are stuffed dumplings that are browned in a fry pan or wok. But they face the same dilemma as the sprouts: they need moisture at some stage in the cooking process to cook the dumpling stuffing. So, some brilliant cook in China came up with a technique for both steaming and roasting the dumplings.

A film of oil is heated in the frying pan. The dumplings are placed in it and when they start to sizzle, about ⅛” of water is added to the pan and it is covered. As the water evaporates, the steam cooks the dumplings. The lid is removed, the water cooked off and the oil takes over, browning the bottom of the potstickers. And it so happens that this technique works great with sprouts. They become tender in the middle, retain their fresh green color and the surface in the oil becomes a golden brown, the best of both worlds.

Recipe: Pan-roasted brussel sprouts

You need 6–8 medium size brussels sprouts per person. Prep them by trimming the stem end, removing any loose or brown leaves and cutting them in half through the stem. If they are very large, quarter them so they will cook evenly.

Peel, smash, and roughly chop two cloves of garlic.

In a non-stick frypan with a lid, heat a film of olive oil over medium heat. Place the sprouts, cut side down into the oil. When they start to sizzle, pour in a small amount of water, enough to cover the surface of the pan and cover.

Steam for five minutes. Remove the lid and test the cooking by inserting a paring knife into a sprout. If it is tender, turn the heat up slightly and cook off any remaining water.

Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle the garlic around the sprouts. I often add a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes at this stage for a little heat.

As the water evaporates, the sprouts will begin to fry in the remaining oil. Resist the temptation to move them around. After five minutes, turn one sprout over and check for brownness. They should be golden but not burnt.

Serve with the garlicky oil.

Green vegetables should be green

This technique works with broccoli too. For those of us who grew up with overcooked vegetables and those of us who have been served bright green but basically uncooked veg, this technique will be a revelation- you get to have the best of both worlds. A lovely browned surface with a bright green tender interior and layers of flavor and texture.

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