Brussels sprouts may sound like a curious substitute for birthday cake, but today’s veggie delight will be appreciated by my lovely pal Anne in Venice, California, who lives down the coast from the Santa Monica pier and down the street from Gjelina, the restaurant that in a few short years has exploded from neighborhood eatery to bright beacon of fresh, rustic California cool.
Eight years ago, self-taught chef Travis Lett opened Gjelina as a local hangout in the run-down beach town of Venice, which was slowly gaining traction in its Brooklynesque transformation from Los Angeles hood to hipster scene. Lett makes food you could and would want to eat daily – grilled pizzas and vegetables from his wood-fired oven, satisfying salads, house-made charcuterie – and in those early years, Gjelina’s cozy patio was a regular stop for Anne, who lived nearby and worked from home.
I had lunch at Gjelina with Anne and friends on a girls weekend years ago, and every time I’ve read about it since, I remember being in sunny Venice, going through the industrial-rustic room, out to the weathered brick and wood patio, eating the most pristine, flavorful food, and feeling so, so LA.
Most restaurant cookbooks are too involved for my simple tastes and lazy kitchen skills, but the Gjelina cookbook, released last fall, is Ottolenghi-like in its veggie seduction. It’s California food, modern yet classic, healthful and farm-fresh.
I’m not hawking the book, just giving you a taste of California eats. This bacon-enhanced recipe shares flavors with my brussels sprouts salad, but Lett’s cast-iron-skillet approach does an impressive job mimicking the wood-fired oven roasting he employs at the restaurant. The sweetness from dates makes all the difference, balancing the smoky bacon and bright splash of vinegar.
You could try this recipe with any heavy-bottomed pan, but if you don’t own one, I highly recommend you buy a Lodge pre-seasoned cast iron skillet. Inexpensive and incredibly useful, the skillet moves easily from grilling sandwiches, vegetables or meats on the stovetop to baking cornbread in the oven. The 10-inch ($23) is most versatile and not as groaningly heavy as the 12-inch ($27).
Before we get back to the birthday sprouts, a little history on the birthday girl:
- Anne and I met on the first day of training for our first post-college jobs on Wall Street. We agreed to room together about two minutes after we met, which wasn’t as weird as it sounds considering most of our fellow trainees were guys. Anne’s a petite blonde Canadian, and I a Chinese Californian, but we saw kindred spirits in each other from the start.
- Anne and I lived together in a sunny 6th-floor walk-up apartment in Greenwich Village, from which we could see the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the distance. Only after we moved in did we realize that the two-bedroom apartment was really a small studio with two walls erected to make tiny rooms that were more like sleeping closets. But it was rent-controlled, and we loved it, even though we had to haul our laundry down five flights of stairs, out to the laundromat, and back up again.
- Anne’s college buddy is Justin Trudeau, current prime minister of Canada. Which just goes to show, if you are a middle aged parent and want to be heralded as young, vital and sexy, you simply need to become a head of state.
Anne is such an incredible doll, she reads my blog even though she has zero interest in cooking. But she’ll appreciate me giving the gift of Gjelina in honor of her special day.
To the brussels sprouts, we add bacon, dates and vinegar – an irresistible combination of salty and sweet, with an accent of tart.
Medjool are the king of dates – big, soft and sticky-sweet. Just pull them open to remove the pit.
Fry up the bacon until mostly cooked but still juicy. Then remove the bacon but leave the grease. Don’t sweat the grease – this is just a little bacon for a lot of brussels sprouts.
Add the brussels sprouts. Turn to get as many cut-side down as possible. Then resist the urge to meddle – you want to leave them alone to develop a nice sear.
Turn the sprouts once they begin to char. The deep roasting brings out the sweetness and flavor inside.
Season well with salt and pepper. Add bacon and dates.
Slowly add chicken stock (or water), reducing to make a light glaze. Finally add red wine vinegar.
I notice some Amazon reviewers think the Gjelina dishes in the book look burned, which makes me laugh. Californians love the intense, smoky roasting of super-hot wood-fired ovens, which brings out concentrated flavor and sweetness in vegetables. To me, the char in this dish is perfection.
The recipe says it serves 4 to 6 as a side. But you may find a luxurious pan of these warm nuggets disappears very quickly, especially when you’re not paying $10 a serving.
Happy birthday, sweet Anne! We toast you with brussels sprouts.
Brussels Sprouts Gjelina
Before it was a Los Angeles hotspot, Gjelina was a casual neighborhood joint in Venice, serving up creative, vegetable-intensive food to live on – like this smoky, sweet brussels sprouts dish with bacon, dates and a splash of vinegar. From the Gjelina cookbook.
- 3 ounces (85 g) bacon (2-3 thick-cut slices), cut into 1/4-inch wide matchsticks
- 1 pound (500 g) brussels sprouts, cut ends trimmed and halved through the stem end (or quartered if they are very large)
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/4 cup (40 g) soft dates, pitted and roughly chopped
- 1 cup chicken stock or water
- 4 teaspoons red wine vinegar
- Heat a large cast-iron frying pan over medium-high heat, and cook the bacon until it has rendered most of its fat but is still juicy, about 5 minutes.
- Remove bacon to a dish, leaving the fat, and add brussels sprouts to the pan, turning as many sprouts cut-side down as possible. Resist the urge to shake the pan or turn the sprouts, and let them sear until well-charred and beginning to blacken, about 4-6 minutes.
- Flip the sprout halves and season with salt and pepper. Add the dates and bacon to the pan and stir well. Add the stock (or water) to the pan, a little at a time, using a spoon to smash the dates into the sauce. Once the dates are incorporated into the sauce, add the vinegar.
- Cook another minute or two until the sauce is thick enough to coat the brussels sprouts, without being reduced too much (add a little more water if you need to loosen it up). The sprouts should be bright green and somewhat firm inside, but tender to the bite. Check seasoning; the sprouts should be well salted and peppered.
- Transfer to a serving platter. Serve warm.
Serves 4 as a side dish.
- Balsamic vinegar is also nice if you don’t have red wine vinegar.
- The book has a mismatched measurement for the dates (1/4 cup vs 85 grams, which is more like 1/2 cup). The lower amount seems sufficiently sweet here, but as with any recipe feel free to adjust to taste.
Here’s the link to a printable version.