I was 30 years old before I learned Brussels sprouts grew on stalks. It was our inaugural fall in south central Pennsylvania, and we’d gone apple picking in the rolling hills of Adams County. Stopped in our tracks by a wooden sandwich board advertising warm cider donuts, we pulled into a roadside farm stand.

When I saw the pyramid pile of budding stalks on the counter, I said something like “Get outta town! That’s how you get Brussels sprouts?” The Mennonite woman behind the counter smiled at my cluelessness. Whether it was a “bless your heart silly city girl” kind of a smile or an indication that she knew she was about to make an easy sale, the result was the same. I bought three stalks full, spurred on by her explaining how the stalk, even when severed from its roots, continues to supply the plant’s buds (the sprouts) with nutrients to keep them sweet and fresh.

In the 20 years since that afternoon, glossy food magazines and vegetable-forward cookbooks have made roasted, on-the-stalk sprouts a fashionable dish – on the side or as the main attraction. And these days, it’s easy to find on-stalk Brussels sprouts throughout the fall at farmers markets, Hannaford, and even Trader Joe’s. The stalk with sprouts is presented whole at the table, where eaters pull off the crisp-on-the-outside, sweet-and soft-on-the-inside spouts at their leisure.

Brussels sprouts on the stalk are much easier to find than they used to be. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

But no one ever talks about eating the actual stalk.

Well, except for Danish-born chef Mads Refslund. He’s one of the cofounders of the highly acclaimed Noma in Copenhagen, but I met him on the pages of his book “Scraps, Wilt + Weeds: Turning Wasted Food into Plenty.”

Brussels sprout stalks are tough. I mean that literally. You must do something drastic to soften the very woody outer layer that Mother Nature designed to be strong enough to host 50 or more sprouts. Refslund strips the sprouts from the stalk and chars the stalk’s exterior over a fire (I used my gas burner), then wraps it in plastic to further soften it through the captured steam. (To avoid the plastic, place the stalks in a pan with a tight-fitting lid.) He then strips the charred skin (which he saves for stock) to expose the tender, 10-inch long, ¾-inch in diameter, celadon green center. Peeling the roasted stalk with a sharp paring knife works well.

The inner stalk is sweet and starchy with a slight cabbage flavor. Its consistency and mild flavor remind me of an artichoke stem.

I’m not going to lie. It’s a lot of work for the 20 or so 1/2-inch slices of cooked stalk you get in the end. But if you go on to serve them with the steamed sprouts, tossed in caraway and garlic butter, the finished dish will give you an opening to talk with your eaters about the practice of waste-not, want-not cooking.

CHRISTINE BURNS RUDALEVIGE is a food writer, recipe developer and tester, and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Eat all parts. Clockwise from left: Charred Brussels sprout stems, sliced inner stalks, whole sprouts, loose sprout leaves, halved sprouts. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Steamed Brussels sprouts, leaves and stem with garlic, caraway seed butter
The leaves I use in this recipe, adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s “River Cottage Veg Everyday,” are the smaller ones that loosely wrap the bigger sprouts on the whole stalk. Generally, the larger leaves get sliced off the stalk before it is sold. Those larger leaves are sometimes bundled and sold separately and can be cooked like collards. If you’ve only got loose sprouts, the sauce is still a good one to use with them.

Serves 4-6

1 stalk with Brussels sprouts
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon slightly crushed caraway seeds
Black pepper

Remove the sprouts and loose leaves from the stalk. Wash the leaves. Slice the larger sprouts in half.

Using tongs, hold the stalk over a gas flame and char the entire stem. Cut the stem in half (this will require a heavy, sharp knife). Place it in a covered skillet and allow the residual heat to soften it for about 10 minutes. Using a paring knife, peel the charred skin from the stalk. Slice the tender inner stalk into ½-inch medallions.

Set a steamer basket into a medium saucepan above 1 inch of salted water. Place the sprouts, leaves and stem medallions in the basket. Cover, place the pan over high heat. Steam until the sprouts are tender to your taste, 6-8 minutes.

Remove the basket from the pan. Drain the water. Place the pan over low heat. Add the butter. When the butter is melted, add the garlic and caraway seeds. Cook gently for 2 minutes. Add the vegetables back into the pan. Toss, season with salt and pepper and serve.

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