Win Thanksgiving With Blackened Brussels Sprouts, Bacon, and Dates
I knew about these Instagram-famous Brussels sprouts from Venice, Calif., before I knew much else about Travis Lett’s chic Los Angeles restaurant, Gjelina, which opened in 2008 in Venice. The restaurant is now a destination for culinary pilgrimages, consistently packed, constantly photographed, and selling more than 400 orders a week of Brussels sprouts—when Brussels sprouts are in season, of course.
In Lett’s new book Gjelina, Cooking from Venice, California, he explains that his kitchen grumbles when the season begins, knowing that it’s going to be sprouts, sprouts, sprouts, and nothing but sprouts for a while because diners are collectively obsessed with the simple dish.
Sure, it falls in step with Gjelina’s scruffy, gorgeous, vegetable-loving aesthetic, but it’s also unreasonably delicious—a pile of well-browned cabbages generously cushioned with sweetness and fat.
To make the dish, you char a bunch of small, tight Brussels sprouts in a mixture of rendered bacon fat and olive oil, then toss them around in a simple sauce that’s thickened with mashed-up dates. That’s it.
At least, that seems to be it. A lot of Gjelina’s dishes appear thoroughly uncomplicated, but involve precise directions. The sprouts are no exception—if you overlook Lett’s visual cues and cook everything too long, the vegetables will steam in the pan and their insides will veer over from tender to squishy. If you allow the sauce to overreduce, it’ll get as dark and sugary as something you’d pour over a sticky toffee pudding.
If you follow Lett’s cues, though, you’ll end up with something irresistible and balanced, hearty enough to be right at home on your Thanksgiving table. I turned the Brussels sprouts into a weeknight dinner by piling some on hot corn tortillas crisped in chicken fat.
Gjelina’s ingredient lists will often call for basic things that chefs happen to have in the walk-in at all times, such as chicken stock, or preserved lemons, or confited garlic. You’re not expected to make stock from scratch specifically so you can make these Brussels sprouts: You’re supposed to have chicken stock at the ready, always, like some kind of god.
But cooking from a book always involves some negotiation between aspiration and reality. If you don’t have stock or time to acquire any, don’t be put off. I think you could get away with using water to make a lighter sauce, which still does the work of deglazing the pan, lifting all the tasty browned bits and pieces up, and putting them to work as it boils down and demolishes the dates. It won't be by the book, but it could still be fantastic.
Charred Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Dates
Adapted from Gjelina, Cooking from Venice, California, by Travis Lett
3 ounces bacon, cut into ¼-inch wide matchsticks
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 pound Brussels sprouts, halved lengthwise
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
¼ cup pitted dates
1 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
Heat a large cast-iron or heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium-high heat and add the bacon and olive oil. Cook until the bacon has rendered most of its fat but is still juicy, about 10 minutes. Transfer the bacon to a bowl and increase the heat to high. Add the Brussels sprouts to the pan cut-side down and sear hard, without shaking the pan, until well-charred and beginning to black (see photo above), about 5 to 7 minutes. The idea is to get a deep, penetrating sear that nearly blackens the sprouts, but keeps them relatively green inside. Reduce the heat back to medium, flip the sprouts, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Add the dates and cooked bacon, and toss well. Add the stock to the pan, a little at a time, using a wooden spoon to smash the dates into the stock, breaking them into smaller pieces as the stock reduces into a sauce. Once the dates are incorporated, add the vinegar.
Continue cooking for 2 or 3 minutes, until the sauce is thick enough to coat the sprouts, but be careful not to reduce it too much or the sauce will become cloyingly sweet and sticky. (If you do overreduce it, add a splash of stock or water to get it back to where you want it.) Transfer to a serving platter and serve warm.
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