Book club: winter

I’ll start here: I’m in a book group. In addition to enjoying books, we all also enjoy cooking. So when we gather each month, the food we prepare and enjoy makes our group as much a dinner group as it is a book group.

We’re a bit of an odd group, partly because we’re co-ed (and wouldn’t have it any other way), but our routine is just like any other book group rotating from house to house each month. With the exception of Hillbilly Elegy, we read only fiction, and mostly new fiction. In December we read a short story instead of a full-length book (because, holidays…).

Because we’re an odd group, what works for us, food-wise, on our book group nights might not work for anyone else. But if you are in a book group (or club), co-ed or not, and your group is as dedicated to food as to reading, then maybe this will help if you’re on the schedule to host in the next few weeks. Even if you’re not in a book group, one of these ideas might be just the thing to get you motivated to have a few friends over one winter night.

And, for the record, “The Stew” really is good, particularly when made with some strong, fresh ginger (if ginger is appealing to you). Whether you make it exactly as the recipe specifies or modify here and there to make it your own (I added lime and doubled the stock), it’s a hearty comfort on a cold night..

Curious about the books my book group has enjoyed recently? Here are a few we really liked:

  • Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson
  • Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk
  • Mrs. Caliban, Rachel Ingalls
  • An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
  • Leaving Atocha Station, Ben Lerner

Brussels

About a dozen years ago a friend of mine threw herself a birthday party at a newly opened yoga studio, and she asked me to help prepare some food for the post-practice party. We had Champagne (of course) and a huge platter of raw and lightly-steamed vegetables with a couple of dipping sauces.

“Who knew Brussels sprouts would be the most popular vegetable on the platter?” my friend marveled the next day.

To be sure, the small, green gems were the first to disappear – before the red pepper strips, baby carrots, or haricots verts. I had included them on a whim, as I recall. The party was in December, and when I was shopping at the market, there was a display with lovely stalks of fresh green sprouts. I couldn’t resist them – mostly on looks but also because I had become fond of Brussels sprouts in my adult cooking years.

In the dozen years since, Brussels sprouts have become utterly ubiquitous. You’ll even find them on bar menus, served in little iron skillets with heaps of bacon and loads of cheese. In the week or two leading up to Thanksgiving, I’ll bet almost every food site, blog, column, or TV show includes a Brussels sprouts recipe.

So why add yet another entry, here? Simple: to encourage you to keep it simple.

Brussels sprouts (cultivated in, yes, Belgium several centuries ago, which is why the “B” should always be capitalized) need very little enhancement but require good preparation. Fresh, light green sprouts can easily be shredded or shaved (in a food processor, if you like), dressed with a lemon-shallot vinaigrette (and some salt), and served as salad. (See? You don’t even need a recipe!)

Cooking the sprouts is where you have to be both attentive and light handed. If you overcook them, they’ll be mushy and taste of sulfur. That’s why the best and most popular recipes typically call for cutting the sprouts into quarters, dressing with olive oil, and roasting in a hot, but not too hot oven until they are crispy on the outside edges of the leaves and just cooked inside. Pan frying is also an option if you follow the same rule and do not overcook.

I love to cook: If you’re already a committed Brussels sprouts fan and just looking for something new (without maple or bacon), try them with pecans and avocados (recipe from Jean-Georges Vongerichten). Or try crispy gnocchi and Brussels sprouts using either this free-access recipe from Eating Well or the subscriber-only recipe at New York Times Cooking.

Weeknight reality: Try this hearty salad with quinoa, lemon, walnuts, chile and Brussels sprouts. Make enough to take for lunch another day. Or used the old standby: Ina Garten’s roasted Brussels sprouts.

I need a miracle: OK, first you’ll have to decide whether you want to save prep time or cooking time. If you’re saving cooking time, then buy the freshest sprouts you can find, trim the ends, remove outer leaves, and shred. You can toss the raw, shredded sprouts in dressing and serve; or, if you want to take the raw edge off, try this easy – and super quick – warm salad. If you want to save prep time by buying a bag of sliced or shredded sprouts, then you’ll have to cook them. The pre-packaged stuff tastes terrible raw but can be salvaged by cooking and seasoning. Here’s one way: Heat some olive oil in a skillet; use tongs as you toss in the bag-o-sprouts, moving them around to coat in oil; add some lemon juice, if you have it, or a little water (a tablespoon or two) if not, and cover to steam for a couple of minutes; remove the cover, sprinkle in red pepper flakes (this is the best way to use the pizza packets, if you store them in a drawer like we do) and salt; keep cooking, and tossing, until all the liquid is gone and the vegetables are brown and crispy in places. Easy-peasy.