'They probably don't have the Heart Foundation tick of approval," Jake Nicholson jokes about the brussels sprouts he is turning out of a hot frying pan. We are backstage at Melbourne's Circa, and Nicholson, the head chef, has just provided me with a 10-minute tutorial on what has this leafy green cruciferous walking out the door. To let you in on the secret, it has a lot to do with sugar, salt and butter.
For a much-maligned vegetable, the humble brussels sprout has been enjoying something of a renaissance. Eat it here caramelised with sesame seeds. See it there deep-fried and sprinkled with salt. My five-year-old son demanded them for dessert the other night. That's Gen Z, always ahead of the curve.
Nicholson says Circa is selling 60 to 70 portions a week. Quite frankly, tasting this good, I'm surprised it's not more.
The process is simple. Blanched at a rolling boil for 10 minutes in salted water, they are transferred to a hot pan with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and a teaspoon of salt.
The kiss of the heat does its work to caramelise the exterior before they're whacked in a 180-degree oven for 10 minutes. Then it's back on the stove-top for the devilish detail: about a tablespoon of sugar topped with two dessert spoons of butter that is broken down by the heat into a deliciously caramelised glaze. It would be enough to make your heart stop, if it wasn't beating so fast in pleasure.
A stone's throw away at the Point, head chef Justin Wise is manning his own brussels sprout revolution. "On any given service 70 per cent of tables would order them; the only thing more popular are the beef-fat potatoes," says Wise, a sprout devotee, having grown up with a Ukrainian mother who knew how to avoid the nightly brussels sprout tussle. "She'd cook them with speck, so lots of pork fat." Enough said.
Wise whips up a side of the popular braised brussels sprouts with lardons. Blanched for 30 seconds, they are braised in a rich veal stock with its base of pan-seared lardons, garlic and shallots for up to 20 minutes. "We go through six kilos a day," he says.
A little later, Guy Grossi returns my call. His version is sprouts braised in chestnut flower honey. We mull over the sprout's popularity and agree it has much to do with the vegetable's ability to hold flavour.
"I think a lot of people have that bad old experience with just plain, boiled brussels sprouts, but if you put a bit of character in them, they are a beautiful veg to eat,'' he says.
The tattooed twosome of Sydney's Porteno, Elvis Abrahanowicz and Ben Milgate, are working that character angle hard. "Basically we cut them in half and fry the s--t out of them until they are really golden and nutty and brown and crispy," Milgate says, laughing.
The deep-fried nuggets are then doused in an emulsified dressing of vincotto and hot English mustard before being topped with just-tender black lentils, torn mint and parsley.
Suddenly this story - commissioned by my editor off the back of that dish - makes total sense. Milgate says "people here talk about the brussels sprouts more than they talk about the meat". For a restaurant famed for its whole animals cooked over an open-flame grill, that's quite a response.
Chris Watson, head chef at Cutler & Co, understands the pull. "I've had those brussels sprouts, they're incredible," he enthuses. "Everyone that goes there has them."
Watson is a self-confessed sprout-lover, particularly when roasted with "heaps" of butter and bacon. But he knows how to play to a lightweight crowd. Hence the brussels sprout slaw that once graced the menu at Cutler and now accompanies brined and roasted duck leg down the road at the new Builders Arms.
"We use them completely raw but shave them finely with a mandolin before sprinkling them really lightly with salt to draw out the bitterness and excess moisture," Watson says. The fine slaw is dressed with a light olive oil and lemon vinaigrette.
Back in my office, thoughts turn to dinner and the half-dozen or so brussels sprouts sitting at the bottom of my vegetable crisper. To the olive oil on my bench. To Lescure butter and fleur de sel. And to a vegetable so good it's bad.
A DIY to sprouts anew
■Roasted Toss sprouts in honey and a touch of seeded mustard until well coated. Cook for about 35 minutes in 180-degree oven until caramelised and softened, removing every so often to toss and stir. In the final five minutes of cooking, mix through walnuts and roast until browned. Remove and sprinkle with fleur de sel to serve.
■Fried Boil whole brussels sprouts in salted water heated to a rolling boil until tender. Drain. Cut in half. Heat a slug of quality oil in a pan - more oil than you would to saute, less than you would to deep-fry. Toss in sprouts and cook until crispy and softened. Spoon into a bowl and toss with a squeeze of lime, salt and Kashmiri red chilli.
■Stir-fry Boil whole sprouts in boiling salted water for about three minutes. Heat a wok, cooking off fresh red chillies, ginger, garlic and some Chinese five spice for a few minutes until aromatic. Toss in sprouts and cook for two or three minutes. Splash in soy sauce and a sprinkle of sesame seeds.
■Braised Halve and brown sprouts in pan. Finely slice shallots and fennel and add to the mix. Add a half-half mix of light stock (vegetable or chicken) and dry white wine with a grind of salt and pepper. Braise on low heat until tender, whisking through Dijon mustard to taste at the last.