SANTA CRUZ,Calif. — Just a few years ago Brussels sprouts were the “Rodney Dangerfield” of vegetables, but the little green orbs are getting newfound respect these days.
They are the darling of a new generation of chefs and consumers around the world.
“Brussels sprout acreage has increased along with the demand,” said grower Steve Bontadelli. “You can’t watch a cooking show or go to a restaurant without being exposed to Brussels sprouts.”
He said many up-and-coming restaurants in Santa Cruz have them on the menu every day.
“I would say the popularity began about four years because Chefs Emeril Lagasse and Rachel Ray began showing consumers how to cook them and magazine articles followed suit and made them into rock stars of the vegetable world,” he said.
Bontadelli grows Brussels sprouts and, as general manager of Pfyffer Associates, also processes them for three other growers.
Hand-picking begins in June and continues into September. Machine harvesting begins in the latter part of September.
Pfyffer Associates also has farms in Baja California that start production in January so Brussels sprouts are available year-around.
“After harvesting, the Brussels sprouts are cooled and then packed in boxes with ice. They can stay fresh up to three weeks,” he said. “We used to send the sprouts to the East Coast by rail, but now it is all by trucks. Two drivers can drive from here to New York in four days.”
The foggy coastal climate is perfect and allows even growth up the stalk. The price — $40 a box — is nice, too, Bontadelli said.
The smaller Brussels sprouts go to the freezer market and the larger ones go to fresh market.
Growing them is not cheap. The crop needs a specialized harvesting machine that costs $400,000 to $500,000, and growers need a place to clean and store the crop.
The hybrid seedlings begin life in a local nursery and two months later the transplant plugs go into the ground. The plants mature in 8-9 months.
“Brussels sprouts don’t lend themselves to organic production,” Bontadelli said. “I have a friend who grows that way but he can’t keep the aphids out. At harvest, he has to peel the sprouts and shake out the bugs.”
Conventional growers use a specialized pesticide to target aphids.
“The chemicals we use are very specific to the crop and are designed for the specific anatomy (mandible) of the bug,” he said. “It is safe to use around humans because we don’t have mandibles.”
A mandible is an insect jaw bone.
Nutritionally, they are loaded with antioxidants and have the same cancer-inhibiting potential as cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower. This is because they contain the nitrogen compounds called indoles and a significant amount of vitamin C. Brussels sprouts also supply good amounts of folate (folic acid), potassium, vitamin K and a small amount of beta-carotene — all needed for a healthful diet.
“So, please enjoy your Brussels sprouts,” Bontadelli said. “They are good for you.”