Salads, starches, sauces, veggies, dips and casseroles – the term “side dish” itself tends to suggest a secondary or less important place for these foods at the holiday dining table. Today we want to invite you to change that mindset and consider these three easy ways – and 5 tasty recipes – all intended to elevate your holiday side dishes from second class citizens to snazzy superstar status. One of the great things about side dishes, is that we generally enjoy a few different preparations on the same plate, each dished out in somewhat smaller portions. As such, each of these preparations can showcase bold flavours and textures in a way that might be less enjoyable if they were intended to be consumed in larger quantities.
Before drilling down into a few of the specific ingredients, cooking methods and recipes that we’re really digging this holiday season, it’s important to establish a balanced plan of attack that includes a few hearty and filling dishes as well as some lighter and more refreshing items. In other words, for each casserole you plan to prepare, you might want to consider a salad; for each pan of roasted vegetables you might want to consider a fresh vegetable or bean preparation. Even chilled grilled peppers and antipasto-inspired ideas can bring an element of diversity and interest to your dining table, ultimately making the more “traditional” and heavier sides all the more pleasurable.
One creative way to add interest and intrigue to traditional or classic holiday side dishes is through what I like to call “cross-pollinating”, or borrowing ideas, ingredients and methods from one classic dish and lending it to another completely separate recipe. One great example is hybridizing a dessert “vehicle” with savoury flavours and ingredients, like a savoury butternut squash crumble where you might replace the traditional brown sugar and butter topping with some bread crumbs, parmesan and sage leaves, or a savoury trifle where we replace fruit with vegetables and custard with some soft cheese. Savoury bread puddings have also become a trendy and novel way to present comfortable flavours using interesting preparation methods. Salads are another great place to incorporate classic holiday flavours and ingredients, like topping a spinach salad with chilled roasted roots vegetables like beets and heirloom carrots.
Another one of my favourite ways to elevate classic holiday side dishes is through the addition of a specialty or fancy ingredient. If a given recipe calls for any plain old cheese for melting or crisping atop a casserole, why not replace it with a bolder and more flavourful substitution, like Comte or Gruyere – both of which deliver fabulous flavour when melted. Another easy way to amp up the flavour quotient with your root vegetables is with a light drizzle of truffle oil or aged balsamic vinegar, or even a light trickle of good quality maple syrup for a bit of sweetness and intense smoky flavour in a mashed sweet potato or turnip.
Less Is More
The single best way I know of to improve the quality of any dish is through the use of the freshest and best possible ingredients available. In as much as this is the case, I also find that the old adage “less is more” tends to be quite apt. When using beautiful crunchy fresh green beans, a bit of melted butter and some lightly toasted shaved almonds are all I need to be pretty happy. It’s when one uses compromised “star” ingredients – like frozen vegetables vs fresh, for instance – that we are tempted to add a whole bunch of different ingredients to distract from the lousy texture. Making a small effort to get my hands on fresh delicious produce usually makes the process of cooking a whole bunch easier as I can let the quality ingredients speak for themselves, rather than cooking methods or other flavouring additions.