For many home gardeners, growing your own Brussels sprouts can be a little off-putting. They look like a lot of work (they are not); most of the problem seems to be a lack of creative ways to use them once you have coddled them to harvest in the fall. Boiled, steamed, poached with artichokes, pan-seared with diced bacon, just about every recipe out there begins with fresh sprouts and finishes them off with a little too much cooking. Looking for a new way to eat them while keeping much of their nutritional value intact? The Pennsylvania Dutch call it Keime Graut (“sprouts kraut”) and it makes one of the best cold weather foods going. All you need is a five gallon crock and the patience to wait it out until it ripens to perfection.
Brussels sprouts freshly harvested from the field have a sweetness that fades pretty quickly once the sprouts are shipped out to the stores. But if you grow your own, you can capture that sweetness in your kraut and savor it all season. Furthermore, if you happen to be a garlic lover, then here is where you can create a new marriage of flavors that will keep your dinner guests commenting long after the meal is over. Brussels sprouts call out for garlic anyway, especially if they are old and tired and strong-tasting from overly long storage (this causes the natural sugars to deteriorate). Baker Creek offers two varieties, Catskill and Long Island Improved. Both are perfect candidates for “sprouts kraut.” The trick is all in how they are prepared for the crock. So why not experiment this year with a creative yet old-timey way to showcase the best your Brussels sprouts have to offer?
The following recipe is more about procedure than an exacting list of ingredients because there is plenty of leeway when it comes to quantities just as long as the necessary proportion of salt to shredded vegetables is maintained. And anyway, your calculations should be geared to the size of the crock (or similar non-reactive container) and how much you think you can get into it. The basic vegetable mix consists of finely shredded cabbage and thinly shredded Brussels sprouts.
• Shredded cabbage
• Shredded sprouts (or mix the two together)
• Garlic cloves
• Pickling salt
• 1 Crock
1. Shred the cabbage as you would for sauerkraut, the finer the “strings” the better. The Brussels sprouts should be sliced or shredded paper thin with stems intact. You begin by scattering 1-1/2 pounds of shredded cabbage on the bottom of the crock.
2. Then scatter over this one pound of shredded sprouts (or mix the two together). Add a few sliced cloves of garlic and scatter 1-1/2 tablespoons of pickling salt over the top.
3. Repeat with another layer of cabbage, Brussels sprouts, garlic, and salt, and continue in this fashion until you have filled a sterilized crock about 3/4 full.
4. Press down with a weight and add enough untreated spring water to cover the dish or plate. Add 2 extra tablespoons of salt, cover, and let the mixture undergo the same fermentation process as cabbage.
5. The vegetables should develop a white scum after about 1 to 2 weeks; this is a good sign. However, skim it off. If the vegetables smell or taste too sour, add a little more salt. Allow 1 month, then drain the vegetables from the liquid, discard the liquid (or reuse it instead of spring water as starter for another batch). When the process is completed the vegetables will have a flavor and aroma similar to Polish cucumber pickles, especially if you add dill blossoms along with the garlic.
You can serve this pickle in several ways:
1) Uncooked as a pickled side dish.
2) Cooked like sauerkraut with various cuts of meat. Smoky ham is excellent. The classic Pennsylvania Dutch method is to cook the mixture with apples and then scatter finely chopped fried slab bacon or smoked sausage over the top. The vegetarian alternative would be to cook the vegetables with mushrooms or even grilled eggplant.
3) Freeze in zip-lock bags for later use. This also tenderizes the vegetables. The frozen kraut will keep from six months to a year.
William Woys Weaver is an internationally known food historian, author, and heirloom gardener living in Devon, Pennsylvania.