When Hot Bacon Meets Sliced Brussels Sprouts, Salad Happens

The first time I heard a friend praising “wilted salad,” the memories came flooding back. They were not entirely good.

I could picture that half-full bowl of droopy, oil-slicked greens sitting in the fridge, leftover from the night before. When I was growing up, my mother hated the idea of wasting food so much that she saved uneaten salad for breakfast the next day, often topping it with a fried egg.

My sister and I thought my mother’s breakfast salad looked unappetizing, to say the least. I was surprised to hear someone wax rhapsodic about it.

Except my friend was extolling a completely different wilted salad. Popular in the South, it had nothing to do with leftovers and everything to do with nuggets of bacon sizzling in their own fat. When these piping hot drippings are poured over a mound of sturdy lettuce or spinach, they soften it, imbuing it with smoky richness. It sounded a lot better than my mother’s thrifty breakfast.


Bacon, Egg and Brussels Sprouts Salad

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Sizzling bacon fat wilts the brussels sprouts just enough to take off their raw edge.Credit…David Malosh for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews.

I began by riffing on the Southern version, substituting sliced brussels sprouts for the greens. I’d done this many times before and I loved the multitude of textures, the way some of the wispier pieces seemed to melt while the thicker ones stayed firm and crunchy. Bacon — that classic best friend of cruciferous vegetables — helped bring out the sweetness of the sprouts and mellowed their bitterness.

On this occasion though, I needed a meal, not a side dish. I remembered my mother’s fried egg, the alluring way its runny yolk mingled with the tart and grainy mustard she mixed into the dressing. Maybe she was onto something after all.

While my bacon crisped, I made a cider vinegar dressing, whisking in the requisite grainy mustard and leaving out the little bit of sugar often used in Southern wilted salads for a more assertive tang. The most crucial step, I learned, is to add the bacon to the salad bowl while it’s still hissing and crackling. It takes maximum heat to tame hearty brussels sprouts.

Then I fried the eggs in the same pan I used for the bacon.

The eggs made the salad so substantial I even had leftovers. Channeling my mother, I put them in the fridge. And they tasted just as good for breakfast the next morning.

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