I’ve noticed how I always manage to get in the wrong line at Trader Joe’s. It’s become a core competency of mine. The other day, while I was at TJs buying – among other things – the brussel sprouts for this recipe, and after having successfully defended my title in the wrong-line-picking championships for the umpteenth week in a row, I had a conversation with the checker dude. I have absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Something to do with blotting paper, British people and chairs. I nodded, and smiled, and said, “Yes!!” in a highly excitable tone a couple of times, and then he said, “See? That’s why I love you guys”. I think I successfully winged that one then.
My life has involved a fair amount of winging-it, over the years, if truth be told; and especially in the kitchen. One of my best ever winging-it moments was when I was a young student in London. I earned my bread-and-butter by helping John – my University Department Head – to cater bridge parties for ladies-who-lunch, swanky Sunday brunches where it was entirely unfashionable for the women to actually eat anything, and very posh soirees. One particular Sunday, I was feeding fancy finger food to well-heeled gentlefolk at a large garden party in a rarefied part of Surrey. There was an awful lot of champagne involved, and, I am certain, several other types of alcohol. I was glad for that because it meant, when disaster struck in the crème anglaise department, I could wing it with abandon. The risk of tragic food news leaking from the kitchen got less with every popping cork.
John and I usually managed these parties between us, but the size of this event required another pair of hands. Enter, Harry - an overly charming Irish man with an eye for the ladies and a strong pair of freckled hands. All went swimmingly until it was time for a little something sweet. Harry curdled the crème anglaise moments before it was to be served alongside dessert. Quelle horreur! Quick as a flash, I rifled through the pantry, knowing that any self-respecting household – no matter how wealthy – would have a canister of Bird’s Custard Powder lurking inside. I tossed it to Harry and he threw some in a pan, whipped milk in and brought it to a simmer until it thickened. We had a sauce! Except everyone there would know it was instant custard - with its immediately identifiable flavor, and, I am pretty sure, its own Pantone number. As the desserts were being plated by the servers, I frantically searched our box of tricks for inspiration.
John, who had been watching the fray, calmly picked up a small bucket of praline paste & handed it to me. It took me 2 seconds to rip the lid off and lob some of that glorious, smooth, brown nuttiness into the warm custard. I stirred that stuff so fast I thought for a moment my arm might twist right off. The sauce took on a wonderful pale golden beige hue, while the intense toasted hazelnut aroma wafted around my head. 10 minutes later the host came running into the kitchen. I contemplated diving under the sink, or making a dash for the wine cellar, but before I could flee the crime scene he was all up in John’s face demanding, “That sauce! What was that sauce?” Without batting an eyelid, John replied, “Creme de nougatine”. I stood rooted to the granite floor, no longer aware of the hubbub of clinking glasses as the clean-up crew scurried to recycle them back out into the hands of the merry garden-partyers; a large smear of praline displayed boldly across my starched, white apron.
“Fantastic!”, our host declared. “Bloody brilliant! Best thing on the menu!”
BEST. WING-IT. EVER.
Having winged-it at the check-out line, it seemed only appropriate that I would later wing-it with a bag of brussel sprouts and a bottle of balsamic. I love brussel sprouts; they remind me of Christmas. We ate them frequently at home in England, but I remember them best for being part of our slap-up Christmas Dinner every December 25th. Roast turkey, mini sausages wrapped in bacon and roasted in the turkey juices, roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, roast parsnips, carrots, all covered in lashings of meaty gravy. And brussel sprouts. I think there was another vegetable in the mix too (Mark? Help?), but for reasons that I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on, I remember the brussel sprouts the best.
I haven’t been eating brussels much since I landed stateside, mainly because the one I’ve had here have been tougher, more bitter and less palatable than their English counterparts. After my first few run-ins with American brussels, I nodded understandingly when friends from this side of the pond wrinkled their noses at the thought of devouring them.
This recipe may well change all that; because, as most people will agree – everything tastes better with bacon. Even, or maybe especially, brussel sprouts.
- 4 slices bacon, chopped
- 10 oz / 280g shaved brussel sprouts (Trader Joe’s sell them ready shaved)
- ¼ cup / 2 fl oz. white balsamic vinegar
- ¼ cup / 2 fl oz. water
- Sea salt and pepper
- Cook the chopped bacon over medium heat until lightly browned.
- Add the shaved sprouts and stir well.
- Cook, stirring frequently, until sprouts just start to brown, about 5 minutes.
- Add the balsamic vinegar and water and stir well.
- Reduce the heat to low, cover with a lid and cook for a further 5 minutes until sprouts are tender.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste.