Califonia Bountiful

From humble to hot

September/October 2017 California Bountiful magazine

Farmers work to keep up with demand for Brussels sprouts

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Keith Breedlove, center, owner of Sacramento food truck Cülinerdy Crüzer, has turned Brussels sprouts into a major hit. Breedlove serves up the popular "Dirty Balls" sprouts dish with son Asher and wife Amy. Photo: © 2017 Matt Salvo

The once-humble Brussels sprout is more than entitled to brag these days. Formerly a maligned and misunderstood winter vegetable, it's now a year-round superstar, showing up on restaurant menus and kitchen tables throughout the Golden State.

A happy accident steered one food-truck owner to sprout success, and he's converting nonbelievers along the way. Keith Breedlove, the brains behind the Sacramento-based Cülinerdy Crüzer, said it started when a bride brought him one of her late father's recipes to serve at her wedding reception.

"It was Brussels sprouts," Breedlove said. "He would cut them in quarters, heat them in really hot oil and basically pan-fry them and toss them with some walnuts and some garlic."

But the wedding guests left most of the dish uneaten.

"We had a ton of sprouts left over," Breedlove said. "We're like, 'What are we going to do with all these?'"

That's when he came up with the idea of serving them as a side. Three and a half years later, Cülinerdy Crüzer's Brussels sprouts outsell fries 4-to-1 as an accompaniment to burgers and sandwiches. A key, Breedlove said, is to fry them whole.

After flash-flying the nuggets, Breedlove adds what he calls "nerdy seasoning"—a blend of granulated garlic, granulated onion and smoked salt. The addition of vinegar powder gave the sprouts the acidity he needed to offset their bitterness.

"That took it off, right there, because the acid really helped," Breedlove said.

"Dirty Balls" is food-truck chef Keith Breedlove's third-most popular dish. Photo: © 2017 Matt Salvo

Name game

The chef's most famous Brussels sprout dish was adapted from a recipe for grilled Mexican street corn that he and his wife, Amy, saw on TV. He created an aïoli with citrus juices, then added fried onions, fried jalapeños, garlic chips, cotija cheese and cilantro. All he needed was a name. A customer inadvertently helped with that.

"Somebody had ordered a burger with balls," Breedlove said. "We're like, 'What do you mean?' He goes, 'You know, the ball things you guys serve.' We're like, 'Brussels sprouts?' He's like, 'Yeah, yeah, those ball things.'"

Thus was born Dirty Balls, now Breedlove's third-most-popular offering. He plans to debut a new version this fall, featuring blue cheese aïoli and hot sauce.

Shela Tobias-Daniel is a fan. The Sacramento resident makes sure to order Cülinerdy Crüzer's Dirty Balls each time the truck rolls up to her office park, usually weekly.

"Even if we bring our lunch, we'll save it for the next day so we can order those," she said. A while ago, she shared her order with a colleague who had proclaimed a dislike for the vegetable.

"She loved them, even though she didn't like Brussels sprouts," Tobias-Daniel said. Tobias-Daniel took the leftovers home, and her family liked the dish so much she now replicates it as nearly as possible in her own kitchen.

Watsonville farmer Steve Bontadelli, left, has expanded his Brussels sprout acreage significantly to meet rising demand. Some of his sprout stalks are harvested by hand by employees including Ivan Rodriguez; others are harvested by machine. Photos: © 2017 Richard Green

Coastal living

In California, the Brussels sprout (that's "Brussels," as in the Belgian capital) is most often farmed on the Central Coast, where cooler summers and foggy mornings encourage its growth. Between them, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties had 2,964 acres planted to Brussels sprouts in 2015, according to county crop reports. That yielded about 30,000 tons of vegetables. Brussels sprouts also are one of the top crops in San Mateo County, where farmers had 784 acres in 2015.

Steve Bontadelli is among the farmers scrambling to satisfy Americans' appetite for the little vegetables. The Watsonville farmer, who grows Brussels sprouts almost exclusively, has land in Santa Cruz and San Diego counties. On the Central Coast, he'll plant some sprouts in February and early March and begin hand-harvesting in June or July; others will be planted in April and will be mechanically harvested from September through January. His fields in Southern California will be harvested from late winter into July.

"Used to be (in May and June) you were struggling to try to sell them, because people were more interested in watermelons or peaches," Bontadelli said. But now, he and other growers have been boosting supply.

"A lot has to do with all the value-added packaging that's going on," Bontadelli said. "The box stores are carrying them in these ready-to-microwave packages that make it very easy to use, create a year-round thing."

Indeed, fresh California-grown Brussels sprouts can be found in grocery stores and farmers markets throughout the year, with the possible exception of the dead of winter.

Research in the U.S. and in Europe, where the sprout is more widespread, has yielded more and better-tasting breeds of Brussels sprouts, although Bontadelli attributes a good deal of the vegetable's increased popularity to the way it's prepared.

Monterey resident Lisa Wegley recently discovered a tasty way to cook the vegetable. Photo: © 2017 Richard Green

New convert

Lisa Wegley of Monterey only recently discovered the vegetable.

"There was not a Brussels sprout to be seen in my household when I was younger," Wegley said, recalling jokes about Brussels sprouts on TV shows such as "Leave It to Beaver."

She'd had Brussels sprouts before that had been deep-fried and blackened, but decided she didn't have the time or the desire for that many calories. She'd also looked at recipes in cooking magazines; many involved multiple steps, and she wanted to simplify.

So she started with a flavored olive oil, then added balsamic vinegar and sea salt to create her own take.

"I just tossed them in there, put them on parchment paper and popped them in the oven," she said. "It was quick, it was fast, and the best part was there were leftovers and that they were cold. I would mix them into our salad, either for lunch the next day or dinner the next night. It holds up really well.

"I've made it when friends come over, and it has been a big hit," she said.

Farmer Bontadelli, who said Brussels sprouts have "established themselves as an everyday vegetable," doesn't see demand abating anytime soon.

"You're seeing them in all these restaurants, and you're seeing them in cooking shows, and people have gotten used to them being one of the regular vegetables you can find all year round now," he said.

And woe betide food-truck owner Breedlove if he hits the road sproutless: "The Brussels sprouts are so popular that if we show up somewhere without them, it's almost like they come out with pitchforks and torches."

Kevin Hecteman


Cülinerdy Crüzer Dirty Balls Brussels sprouts

Photo: © 2017 Richard Green

Blackening adds clout to the sprout

After a little experimentation, Brussels sprouts newcomer Lisa Wegley found a cooking method that saves time and maximizes taste: blackening.

Wegley usually serves her Brussels sprouts dish as a side or the main ingredient of a salad. The cooked sprouts keep well, so any leftovers can be reheated or eaten cold from the refrigerator.

To prepare, rinse Brussels sprouts, trim off stems and cut in half, top to bottom. Toss in a generous amount of olive oil. (Wegley's go-to is a combination of garlic- and jalapeño-flavored oils.) Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and sprinkle with sea salt. Arrange sprouts face down on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and bake at 375 degrees for about 20 to 30 minutes. Bake until crispy and leaves are toasted brown. (Note: Ovens are calibrated differently, so keep a close watch on them after 15 minutes.) No stirring or tossing is required.

If time permits, Wegley suggests a few enhancements: Add fresh lemon zest to the oil. After removing the sprouts from the oven, top with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Other variations:

  • Italian: Toss sprouts in a combination of garlic- and basil-flavored oils. Follow directions as noted above. After removing the sprouts from the oven, top with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
  • Tex-Mex: Toss sprouts in a combination of garlic- and jalapeño-flavored oils, and season to taste with sea salt and cumin. Do not drizzle with balsamic vinegar, but follow other directions as noted above. 

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