I am growing a beard. I’m not sure why. I look like some sort of hobo and, to be honest, I’m not sure it’ll last through Christmas. Certainly not if Mum has anything to do with it (‘what will the vicar think?’).
Point is, for a moment, about two weeks in to the process, I thought it was going quite well: much better coverage than the last time I tried; some Clooney-esque flecks of grey; plenty of opportunity for thoughtful stroking.
But then I went to Stoke Newington farmers’ market and I was waaaay out of my depth. I mean, 75 per cent of the other males there (and a few of the females) were beard wearers, and mine must have been the youngest by at least six months. Totally emasculating.
The market is all organic, you see. ALL organic. Which might explain the beards. And the hemp overcoats. Maybe it also goes some way to explain why it was also quite lovely and totally useful. It was also interesting to note that the vendors were there for selling their wares, the punters for buying. Sounds silly, but there are plenty of other places that are as much viewing gallery as they are shop floor.
Despite spending much of my time desperately trying to hide my relatively pubescent attempt at facial hair, I also bought lots of wintery produce. The highlight of which was a bag of purple sprouts and a stick (?) of the similarly coloured sprout tops. I like sprouts and I love sprout tops. But I’d never tried purple ones before.
They didn’t disappoint. The sprouts, in particular, seemed less dense in texture and sweeter and less sulphurous in taste than the green ones we’re used to. Quite beautiful too.
We all know smoked bacon goes well with sprouts. No surprise, then, that smoked bacon has been a feature of all of the dishes I’ve cooked with the produce. However in an attempt to avoid too many clichés, instead of chestnuts, I used another friend of the brassica (and pork and smoke) as my nutty contrast: almonds.
So, after a very quick blanch, the sprouts and tops were finished in a little milk and butter emulsion, combined with the bacon and almonds, and seasoned with smoked salt, plenty of pepper, and a squeeze of lemon to cut through all the earthiness.
Total win. And not just a turkey thing, either. In fact, not a turkey thing at all. This was killer alongside slow roast shoulder of lamb and roast pumpkin. It was also great on another day with some flat bread and Greek yoghurt in a Nigel Slater-like ‘just chucked some artisanal and only marginally accessible ingredients that happened to be in my larder in a pan’ casual week-night supper. The combination of bacon/purple sprouts and tops also worked very well as a pasta sauce along with a splash of white wine, cream and Parmesan.
Bottom line is: get out there and have a look for purple sprouts and sprout tops. It may be possible to buy them even if you don’t have a beard.
Purple sprouts, tops, smoked bacon and almondsServes 3-4 as a side Four rashers smoked streaky bacon, sliced into 1cm wide strips 100g purple sprouts 130g purple sprout tops 30g whole almonds (skin on) 15ml whole or semi skinned milk 20g butter Smoked salt (if you have it), pepper, wedge of lemon (about an eighth)
Put two saucepans of salted water on to boil. Fill a large mixing bowl with cold water. Put a wok / large saucepan / large frying pan on a medium flame.
Clean the sprout tops. Cut out the woody vein and cut the leaf in half vertically. Discard the veins. Cut larger leaves in half horizontally too. Wash the sprouts too. Trim the woody end off. Cut any large sprouts in half vertically.
Put the bacon into the wok / frying pan / sauce pan with a tiny splash of oil. Cook so more fat renders out then turn up the heat to crispen the bacon. When it’s almost done, add the almonds for 30 seconds. Toss in the fat and then place the bacon and almonds in a bowl. Don’t wash the pan.
When the saucepans of water are boiling fiercely, add the tops to one and the sprouts to another. Remove the tops after 45 seconds and dunk in the cold water. Remove the sprouts from their pan after 90 seconds and dunk in the same water. Drain.
Now place the frying pan / wok / saucepan back over a medium flame, add half the butter and as it melts the sprouts and sprout tops. Cook for 30 seconds before adding the milk and butter. Cook out for another 2 minutes in total, adding the bacon and almonds in after 1 minute. Season with salt (though remember the bacon is salty), black pepper and the squeeze of lemon.