Challenging sides

Cynthia
Cynthia Stone
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One of the questions that pops up often in my inbox or on my phone is, what do you serve on the plate with _____? Fill in the blank with anything from a chicken leg to a cabbage roll, the heart of the issue is finding the perfect side dish.

One of the most difficult dishes to pair successfully is a casserole. Casseroles were invented so you wouldn't have to serve anything with them. They usually contain a protein, a starch and a vegetable in some sort of sauce.

Now we aren't happy with a plateful of chicken-rice-broccoli bake or a big bowl of goulash, and I blame all our great local chefs. They serve us up a piece of lasagna with a Caesar salad and crusty Italian bread, or a pot pie with enough vegetal garnishes to make a pot of soup.

So, how do make that leap to a decorative plate without tripling the work? Remember, restaurants have all those sides prepped and ready to go with whatever is on the menu. At home, you have to make a plan and go get the ingredients.

I don't fuss too much if the main is beautiful and delicious, but if I am serving a side, I try to come up with a complementary colour or flavour or texture that elevates the dish.

Succotash

If your main has a meaty base, and you are inclined to put a little extra effort into a side, then give succotash a try. The recipe usually includes lima beans, but this is my north-of-the-border rendition. Of course, you can substitute as you like. Use squash instead of turnip, and any bell pepper will work. To buoy up a lighter main, throw in diced ham or chicken. Then, the next day, add some broth and a handful of pasta, and you've got a delicious soup. This amount makes 6 decent side servings.

1 carrot, peeled and diced

1 stalk celery, diced

1/2 small turnip, peeled and finely diced (a little smaller than the carrot)

1 tbsp. each butter and vegetable oil

1 small onion, diced

1 tsp. dried savoury

1 pinch dried red pepper flakes (optional)

1 cup green beans, fresh or thawed from frozen, cut into 1/2-inch lengths

1/4 cup chicken broth, dry white wine or water

1 small red bell pepper, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

2 cups thawed-from-frozen or canned corn kernels

1/2 tsp. each salt and freshly ground black pepper

Fry carrot, celery and turnip in butter and oil until you start to see a little colour around the edges. Add onion, savoury and red pepper flakes and fry until onion takes on a little colour. Add green beans and broth; cover and simmer until turnip is tender but not mushy - about 5 minutes. Remove cover and allow most of the remaining liquid to evaporate. Add red pepper and garlic and cook together 1 minute longer. Stir in corn, salt and pepper. Heat through and serve.

° ° °

A couple of girlfriends got together in Montreal last week. I had commitments that kept me at home, but they called Sunday morning to ask what to do with cooked fresh beets so that they would go nicely with salmon. I was jealous that they were there and I was here, but I suggested two of my favourite beety things anyway. If I don't want to fuss, it's super easy to squeeze a little orange juice over sliced cold beets (not pickled, of course); add a spoonful of sugar and maybe a pinch of salt and pepper. Cover and microwave or heat in the oven until they are piping hot.

If you have a few minutes and want a dramatic side dish, then try this next recipe. They are so much better than the canned variety it's not even funny. This amount generously serves 6, but leftovers will keep a few days in the fridge, and are delicious served cold or reheated.

Harvard Beets

1 tbsp. cornstarch

1/2 cup cider vinegar

1/4 cup each white and firmly packed brown sugar

1/2 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1/4 tsp. ground allspice

5 whole cloves

1 tbsp. good quality orange marmalade or red currant jelly (optional but very good)

3 cups diced cooked beets

2 tbsp. soft unsalted butter (optional)

Whisk cornstarch into vinegar in a heavy pot or in the top of a double boiler. Stir in white and brown sugar, salt, pepper and allspice. Add cloves and bring mixture to a low simmer. Cook together until glossy and thick. Stir in marmalade and beets. Cover and cook over lowest heat 15 minutes or until beets are hot through. Add butter, if using, and stir until melted.

Buttered Peas and Onions

Peas are a go-to side for me because they are so gorgeously green and sweet. A spoonful of frozen green peas, dipped in boiling water and drained, then topped with a pinch of finishing salt or tossed with butter and pepper offers a little pop under the teeth and a burst of freshness for the tongue.

If the main dish has lots of crunch or chew, cook the peas a few minutes longer and throw them in the food processor with any chopped fresh herb - maybe flat-leaf parsley, basil or mint - and swirl a small spoonful of sour cream through the puree. I also love the classic pairing of peas and onions, and together they make the perfect side for even the hardest-to-match main. Serves 6.

1 small onion, diced

3 tbsp. butter (divided)

3 cups green peas, thawed from frozen (not canned)

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 tsp. sugar

1/4 tsp. salt (or a little more if using unsalted butter)

1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Fry onion in 1 tbsp. of the butter until lightly coloured and translucent. Add peas, wine, sugar and salt and bring to a boil, uncovered. Reduce heat and simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add black pepper and remaining butter and stir until melted.

Cynthia Stone is a writer, editor and teacher in St. John's. Questions may be sent to her c-o The Telegram, P.O. Box 86, St. John's, N.L., A1E 4N1.

 

Organizations: The Telegram

Geographic location: Montreal, Peas, St. John's

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