When people see me eating, they often think I am on a diet. And maybe I am, depending on the meaning one ascribes to the word. I am in a permanent state of alertness, of mindfulness when it comes to elemental flavors, an attitude that is reflected in my minimalist style of cooking. I don't want those flavors smothered by condiments or sauces: I like to taste the "suchness" of vegetables, fruit, fish, etc. In his book Peace is Every Step, Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote: "In Buddhism, the word 'suchness' is used to mean 'the essence or particular characteristics of a thing or a person, its true nature.'"
In my late teens, I was on a weight-loss diet for a period. During that time, I learned to take small bites and savor each one to prolong a meal into a slow, mindful ritual. I steered clear of all but the lightest dressings and sauces and learned to explore the flavor of foods prepared in ways that kept them close to their original state. This applied particularly to vegetables, too often considered in need of heavy clothing before they are allowed to go out of the kitchen and present themselves on the table. When we lighten what should be the background, we see, smell and taste the foreground more clearly, and in the uncluttered "field of view" of all our senses observation reveals a richness previously unsuspected.
Right now, I am roasting some Brussels sprouts that I harvested earlier today at Redwood Roots Farm in Arcata, as part of my winter u-pick community supported agriculture (CSA) share. Before putting them in the oven, spread in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with a silicone mat, I washed and halved or quartered them, depending on their size. The freshly picked Brussels sprouts made a crisp swishing sound when I cut them.
Have you ever seen a Brussels sprouts plant? Large leaves and gemlike sprouts grow on a tallish stalk. Harvesting the sprouts is like going on a treasure hunt (rubber boots and waterproof pants are recommended if the hunt occurs after one of the rainy spells for which our county is appropriately famous). When you cut a sprout in half, you see that it is a miniature cabbage, a layered wrapping of ever-smaller leaves.
As I write, my kitchen smells of delicately roasted Brussels sprouts. I inhale and cultivate the expectation of eating them. In some recipes for Brussels sprouts, sauces or dressing are added with a heavy hand, supposedly to make them palatable. But if you drown Brussels sprouts in melted butter, you'll taste butter, not Brussels sprouts, and you won't become aware of their "suchness." Brussels sprouts abhor over-cooking, in particular over-boiling, and react to it with screaming sulphur notes. Paying attention to their suchness means cooking them so that they offer the best of themselves, rather than their dark side. Oven-roasting Brussels sprouts reveals their natural sweetness and keeps under control the reaction that produces the unpalatable smell.
My current favorite dressing for oven-roasted Brussels sprouts is a ripe avocado mashed with some fresh Meyer lemon juice and a touch of salt. When the sprouts are cooked to my liking, tender to the bite, slightly harking back to their original crunchiness, and with a hint of browning of the lighter parts, I take them out of the oven, add the mashed avocado and stir. The result is a bright green side dish that highlights the flavor of Brussels sprouts -- sweetened by oven-roasting -- via the creamy texture of avocado. The lemon juice adds a brightening trill.
I've used the same avocado dressing on other members of the Brassica oleracea species, namely broccoli -- of the regular or Romanesco variety -- and cauliflower. I take a pound and a quarter of the chosen vegetable, steam the florets and stalks -- peeled and cut into coins -- let cool a bit, then add to the bowl with the mashed avocado and toss well. I then enjoy the simple suchness of the combination.
Brussels Sprouts with Avocado
In our household, the quantities given here serve two and there are no leftovers.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Rinse and trim the sprouts as needed: Cut off the hard end of the stem, remove any wilted leaves. Cut the sprouts in half, or into quarters, if they are large.
Place sprouts in a bowl and sprinkle with a bit of olive oil. Toss well then spread in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with a silicone mat. Turn the halved sprouts cut side down and the quartered ones so that they have one of the cut sides down. After 20 minutes, stir the sprouts (keeping them still in one layer) and gauge the time remaining to complete cooking, about two to three minutes. Bake until nice and tender, with a hint of browning.
While the Brussels sprouts are in the oven, dice the avocado pulp and place in a food processor fitted with the steel blade or a blender, add a pinch of salt and the lemon juice (I prefer the more delicate flavor of Meyer lemon here) and process briefly. Empty into a serving bowl. Alternatively, dice the avocado pulp and place in a serving bowl, add the other two ingredients, and mash well with a fork.
When the Brussels sprouts are cooked, toss them with the mashed avocado until the dressing coats all. Adjust the seasoning and serve.