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Brussels sprouts — Is it splat or crisp?

It's probably my inner artist that compels me to treat a Brussels sprout the way I do: a quick steaming to bring out the bright-green blush, followed by a quick saute in butter.

That's it. Delicately crisp and to the point.

But like anything in life, it's a matter of taste. A California friend and fellow food writer, Elaine Corn, once shared her conflicting opinion regarding the amount of time a Brussels sprout should spend in steam or simmering water. In a nutshell, she said it should cook long enough so that when thrown against a wall, it will make a satisfactory splat.

"None of that 'al dente' stuff," she ranted. "You have to REALLY COOK a Brussels sprout before they're worth fooling with."

So there you have it, two completely opposite — yet valid — approaches. For me, overcooking creates a mushy, strong-flavored disaster — the stuff of youthful shudders.

For the best quality, Elaine and I both agree that Brussels sprouts should be bought by the stalk. You never know how long those little celo-wrapped boxes have been around. Make sure the sprouts are bright green and firm. Heads should be tightly closed and leaves tightly furled. If the outer leaves are yellow and wilted, turn your cart about-face and head for the broccoli display.

The two most basic approaches to cooking are blanching and steaming. Both methods come with pros and cons.

Blanching preserves the brilliant green color, but the sprouts tend to absorb some of the water. Steaming, although more likely to render a tender-yet-crisp end result, can have a negative impact on the color if the vegetable is overcooked, so you really have to watch your time. But if you can be mindful of the clock and plan on eating them immediately, steaming is preferable.

With both methods, the vegetable can be cooked almost to the done point, cooled quickly by plunging into cold water, then drained well and finished at a later time.

Two additional ways I like to prepare my sprouts are roasting and sauteing. With sauteing, I first slice the Brussels sprouts into lovely little rounds, which means they cook very fast and absorb lots of extra flavor in the process. Roasting seems to encourage an extra bit of sweetness to develop from within the lovely little gems.

Here are some cooking guidelines and serving suggestions:

SIZE MATTERS: Cook Brussels sprouts according to size. "Small" are 3/4 to 1 inch; "medium" are 11/4 to 11/2 inches; "large" are 2 to 21/2 inches.

STEAMED BRUSSELS SPROUTS: Wash and trim sprouts (larger sprouts should be halved). Bring about 3/4 inch of water to a boil in a steamer. Place the sprouts in a steamer basket and steam, covered, until tender. Small Brussels sprouts will cook in about 6 to 8 minutes; medium sprouts, 8 to 10 minutes; large sprouts, 10 to 12 minutes. Cooking times depend on the freshness of the vegetables. They should be tender but retain a slight crunch. If not eating them right away, cool them immediately by immersing in cold water to preserve their color and texture.

BLANCHED BRUSSELS SPROUTS: Wash and trim sprouts (larger sprouts should be halved). Cook the sprouts in a large pan of boiling, salted water just until tender. Small sprouts will cook in 4 to 5 minutes; medium sprouts, 5 to 8 minutes; large sprouts, 8 to 12 minutes. Drain, place in cold water to set color, then drain well and either refrigerate for finishing later or proceed to serving.

BUTTERED: Before serving steamed or blanched Brussels sprouts, roll them in a skillet with some melted butter and cook just until heated through. Or top with a lightly browned butter. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

POLONAISE: After steaming or blanching Brussels sprouts, saute with butter and a sprinkle of dill. Heat through, then add lemon juice and salt. Transfer to a serving platter. Add a little more butter to the skillet and cook until it's browned. Fry some fresh bread crumbs in the browned butter. Meanwhile, sprinkle a finely minced, hard-cooked egg over the sprouts, then pour on the butter and crumbs.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at janrd@proaxis.com.