In praise of the humble Brussels sprout

Spice up your Brussels sprouts with bacon and chestnuts, or remove the leaves and cook them with pancetta.
Spice up your Brussels sprouts with bacon and chestnuts, or remove the leaves and cook them with pancetta. Los Angeles Times

California farmers grow all the glamor crops: fine wine grapes, tomatoes, almonds, pistachios, strawberries and so many more.

Steve Bontadelli finds glory in the humble Brussels sprout, as detailed in a recent edition of the California Farm Bureau’s publication, Ag Alert. For that, we give thanks.

“I never saw it coming,” the fourth-generation Santa Cruz County grower told a Bee editorial board member of the booming Brussels sprouts demand.

These are not the frozen green things of yesteryear, when preparation entailed boiling them and stinking up the house. Back then, the cabbage-looking vegetable was too bitter, smelled too much like sulfur and tended to elicit the gag reflect.

Thanks to better breeding, kale-like nutritional value, starring roles on cooking shows and placement on the finest menus in town, the Brussels sprout in recent seasons has taken its place at farm-to-fork tables, especially this time of year. They’re a favorite for chefs such as Patrick Mulvaney, who roasts them in garlic, oil, salt and pepper, or sautées them with chili and mixes them with pasta at the end of a shift. Others prefer the Julia Child recipe that includes cream, butter, and yet more cream.

Bontadelli has a recipe that involves shredding them, bacon fat, shallots and garlic. Full details will be posted on his website, once he gets it back up. He’s been busy, this being harvest.

Crop reports from San Mateo, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, the source of 95 percent of Brussels sprouts production, tell the tale. In Monterey, the crop was worth $31.3 million in 2015. A decade earlier, it didn’t warrant its own category.

Santa Cruz counted the crop’s value at $16.5 million in 2015, twice what it was in 2005. San Mateo County’s crop was worth $15.2 million last year, up from $5.5 million in 2005. Brussels sprouts are worth a fraction of, say, strawberries, but need far less water.

There are challenges ahead for Bontadelli. Salt water intrusion threatens Pajaro Valley Groundwater Basin. The farm labor shortage will worsen if Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress fail to devise a workable immigration overhaul. Bontadelli worries California’s new law requiring overtime pay for farmworkers will drive up costs.

But for now, times are good for growers, and for those of us who will gather around Thanksgiving tables that have set aside space for the cabbage-looking vegetable.