In our household, we observe the old twelve days of Christmas: Not with a collection of strange symbolic gifts (no geese a-laying here), but our halls are still decked and ringing with Christmas carols, and our feasting continues through Epiphany (January 6).
An unsung and underappreciated element of that feasting is Brussels sprouts. These seasonal greens are common on English tables at Christmas, although what's often said of them by English writers in their defense suggests that their appearance is all too often more from a sense of obligation than affection.
My own affection for them is life-long and deep. Perhaps it's my early childhood love for miniatures, since they do resemble doll-sized cabbages, but I love everything about them. When properly cooked, they're beautiful to look at and really delicious to eat. And what's more, they're the perfect accompaniment for the turkey that is so often the centerpiece of an English Christmas feast.
If you don't think so, well, bless your heart: you don't have to eat them. That's more for me.
Brussels Sprouts with Bacon Toasted Pecans
We were with cousins on Christmas day, but a couple of days into the twelve, you know I was roasting a turkey breast (which English cooking maven Mary Berry charmingly calls a "turkey crown") to have with sage and onion dressing and these sprouts.
The secret to sprouts that aren't bitter and mushy is not overcooking them. And the best way to insure that you don't do that is to halve them before they see any heat. They may look lovely when left whole, but they'll take much longer and the outer surface is far more likely to overcook before the center is tender. And whole sprouts roll around on the plate and are more difficult for guests to eat. Halving them goes quickly when you have a large, sharp cook's knife, and it literally cuts their cooking time in half.
The great thing about this dish is that its components can be made ahead, so even though it has to be finished at the last minute, that finish is quick.
1¼ pounds small Brussels sprouts
3 slices extra-thick-cut applewood smoked bacon, cut crosswise into ¼-inch wide strips
½ cup whole shelled pecans
1 medium shallot, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and diced or ¼ cup diced red or yellow onion
Whole black pepper in a mill
1. Half fill the sink with cold water. Trim the sprouts at their base, remove the loose or any discolored outer leaves, and drop them into the water. Let them soak 30 minutes. Drain and split them lengthwise with a sharp knife.
2. Half fill a large (4-6 quart) pot with water, cover, and bring it to a rolling boil over high heat. Add a small handful of salt and then drain and carefully add the sprouts. Cover until the water returns to a boil, then uncover and cook 3 minutes.
3. Drain the sprouts into a colander and rinse them well under cold running water. They can be prepared to this point up to 3 days ahead: let them cool completely, then transfer them to a covered storage container or zipper-locking storage bag and refrigerate until needed.
4. Put the bacon in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet and cook, stirring often, until it's browned and crisp, then remove and drain it on absorbent paper. Add the pecans and sauté, tossing often, until lightly toasted golden, about 3 minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon. Turn off the heat and set the pan aside. This can be done up to 4 hours ahead.
5. When you're ready to serve the sprouts, return the pan to medium heat and add the shallot or onion. Sauté until it's translucent and beginning to soften but not color, about 2-3 minutes. Add the sprouts and sauté, tossing, until they are hot through and beginning to color, about 2 minutes more. Add the pecans and bacon and toss until they're warmed through. Season well with pepper then taste and adjust the salt and pepper. Transfer to a warm serving dish and serve at once.