"Brussels sprouts are the nerdy girl in high school that got hot."
- Jared Fried
My mother is a persnickety spitfire.
There's no other way I would be able to describe a woman who uprooted her entire life during the middle of a war, decided that spending a week in a MacGyver'ed boat was the best hope for survival, and then opened a restaurant that has now become a Little Saigon institution.
As someone who made her living off of food and cooking, she of course encouraged my youthful pursuits in the kitchen, even if it was based off of the assumption that I was still an A+ away from becoming a cardiothoracic-surgeon-engineering-ninja-hybrid.
The only condition was that I had to always restore the kitchen back to her fastidiously clean standards. You see, one did not just wash the dishes to satisfy her requirements of a clean kitchen. Aside from individually drying each plate and putting it away, one also had to wipe down the counter with a paper napkin, followed by a wet kitchen towel, and finally a dry kitchen towel. The same treatment was done on the supposedly stainless steel fridge to get rid of any visible fingerprints. The floors had to be first swept and then meticulously swiffered, in order to uphold the barefoot standards of every respectable Asian American household. If a kitchen experiment truly went awry that day, I'd have to take out the filters from the overhead fan and give them a long soak.
Most of all though, the gas stove had to be so immaculately wiped down and polished that neither a single rogue splatter of oil nor burnt piece of onion was left. The grates had to be carefully lifted off so each piece of the assembly could be given individual attention.
As a result, on the weekends where I had both the day and kitchen to myself the goal was not to have a perfectly cooked chicken left standing on the counter, but to make sure that the kitchen was immaculate before my mom came home from work. Otherwise I would hear the audibly judgmental click of her tongue, followed by her going into what I still call today her "rage-cleaning mode", where she re-washed every dish and wiped down every surface with considerable vigor.
While the twelve year old me at the time resented her excessively fussy definition of what constituted a clean kitchen, I'll be the first to admit that the habits I picked up from her have made me a more meticulous, controlled, and all around better cook in the kitchen.
Or so I thought...
This past Thanksgiving, now ten years later, I became hit with the frantic need to make deep fried brussels sprouts. Gloriously nutty and golden leaves fallen over a puree of roasted butternut squash, dotted with spots of soft bleu cheese, and then finally Jackson Pollack'ed with reduced vinegar to be exact.
With my mom getting ready upstairs an hour before hoards of family members were set to arrive, I began carefully frying my sprouts, only to discover that they were greasy and pale versus brown and crispy. Figuring my oil was far too cold, I whipped out my trusty probe thermometer (forgetting that it was now also ten years older), and sat for twenty minutes watching the temperature slowly creep up.
I don't remember the last time I was genuinely scared while in the kitchen, but as I dropped a spider-ful of sprouts into the now overheated oil, I watched in terror as violent eruptions of oil overflowed the dutch oven onto a live stove. After quickly shutting off the gas, I clamped on the lid, and spent the next forty five minutes doing my best to sop up the oil that spilled over, and futilely washing the grease before my all too anal-attentive mother found out that her post Thanksgiving cleaning schedule would be much more intense than she originally had anticipated. That night, rage cleaning took on an entirely new meaning.
FRIED BRUSSELS SPROUTS
I recently read an interview with Ina Garten about how when she cooks for herself, she still measures every single ingredient to the "1/2 teaspoon." I'm here to tell you right now that's now me. (But then again, I'm not walking barefoot in a denim shent through my garden laughing about how many cookbooks I've written.) Take these approximations as guidelines, and adjust accordingly to your taste. When fried, sprouts take on this delightfully nutty flavor and texture that remind me strongly of a good potato chip.
neutral oil (peanut, canola, vegetable) for frying
In a large pot or dutch oven, begin heating 3-4 inches of oil to 375 degrees. Make sure that you still have a considerable amount of clearance in your pot, as they will splatter.
Meanwhile, trim and prep the sprouts: peel off any outer leaves that are wilted, and depending on the size either halve or quarter each sprout.
When the oil is ready, drop a small handful of sprouts in. They will splatter, so it's important that you start off with a small quantity to gauge how many you can actually add per batch. Stir frequently for 3-5 minutes, until the outer leaves are crisp and golden. Drain on to paper towels and season with kosher salt. You may keep them warm in a 225 degree oven as you finish frying the rest of the batches. Serve with vinegar and soy dip.
VINEGAR & SOY DIP
3/4 cup of balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons of soy sauce
2 teaspoons of honey
In a small saute pan, add all of the ingredients over high heat. Reduce down until a syrupy-like consistency. You'll know when it's ready as the bubbles will begin to subside at a slower, more leisurely pace versus boiling frantically. You also don't want to take it too far as the syrup will thicken considerably as it cools.