How’s your side dish repertoire looking? I would humbly suggest that it’s time to refresh, update and extend.
For while there’s absolutely a time and a place for seasonal greens, smashed roots and, of course, the odd roast potato, there’s a general tendency to neglect this most important part of our mealtimes, and to leave the trimmings to a cursory or overcooked afterthought.
Good side dishes match both the centrepiece and the other accompaniments. The very best also feature a tweak, twist or embellishment that helps them elevate their plate partners.
It might be a case of using ingredients that are traditionally outside your comfort zone, or adding a sprinkle or sauce that enlivens proceedings. Though we also need to seek a balance of taste, colour, texture, versatility, seasonality and effort versus reward.
These are all simple things to think about, but we should do just that — side dishes have the potential to inspire whole meals and to be the element you come back to for seconds. Eating well on the side ultimately means eating well in the round.
Here are three sides that will help raise your game. Match them to your favourite centrepieces, or use them to prompt something new…
PX radicchio Trevisano
Radicchio Trevisano (see above) is a long, tear-shaped purple radicchio. It’s thicker, hardier and more bitter than the round Chioggia variety, which I tend to see more often and enjoy raw in a salad. But the Trevisano holds up particularly well to being cooked in a sticky, grown-up fortified wine and butter sauce.
Those glorious burgundy leaves wilt and turn brown. More appealingly, though, they also soften in texture, mellow in flavour and yield some of their own juices while soaking up the Pedro Ximenez, or PX (an intense sweet, dark sherry – you could use a sweet oloroso or Madeira to similar, though not quite as thrilling, effect). There’s toffee, coffee, chocolate and all sorts of irresistible flavours here, in part thanks to the PX. I suppose using it is a little bit naughty and a touch lavish but, like all things with these qualities, very desirable.
If you can’t find Trevisano, curly radicchio Tardivo works really well. The more fragile red radicchio di Verona, Chioggia, or even red chicory could be used too, but cook them for slightly less time. I think this is particularly grand next to game birds, pigeon and rich beef dishes, but I suspect you’ll enjoy it with white fish and wild mushrooms as well.
1–2 heads (about 500g) radicchio Trevisano
70ml Pedro Ximenez sherry
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 200 ̊C/Fan 180 ̊C/Gas 6. Separate the radicchio leaves by cutting off the base to loosen them. Wash them in cold water and drain briefly, leaving a little water clinging to the leaves. Put the leaves in a small roasting tin, making sure they’re no more than two or three leaves deep.
Pour the Pedro Ximenez and 50ml water over the top, mixing to ensure all the leaves are coated. Sprinkle with a generous pinch of salt and a grind or two of black pepper, then dot the butter on top of the leaves. Make a cartouche by wetting a piece of greaseproof paper a touch bigger than the roasting tin, scrunching it up, then unravelling it, placing it over the leaves and tucking it in around the edge. Bake in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes, stirring the leaves and replacing the cartouche every 10 minutes, to make sure none of the leaves dry out.
The leaves will brown and soften and start giving off a coffee smell. When that’s happened, remove them from the oven and transfer to a serving dish. Pour the cooking juices over the top and let the leaves absorb their bath for 5 minutes before serving. Make sure everyone takes both leaves and sauce when helping themselves.
Butter beans with courgettes and tapenade
Generally, cooking pulses from scratch is best: the result is more flavoursome and has a better texture than what you find in a tin or pouch. I know, though, that quite often this approach seems like a bit of a faff. If convenience is king, look for gigantes beans from Greece, or really large Spanish butter beans – the ones in glass jars rather than tins – which are definitely among the top tier of ready-to-eat beans, then stir a quick tapenade and courgette mixture into them. The pre-cooked beans seem appropriate because this side feels like it should be a hyper-convenient one. The flavours suit light, simple, quick meals involving things like steamed salmon, or a little piece of baked white fish, perhaps some prawns, oily merguez sausage or a lamb chop, but nothing more complicated or time consuming than that.
500g cooked gigantes or butter beans 3 small courgettes (around 400g)
75g Kalamata olives (stone in)
1 garlic clove
Leaves from 10–15 sprigs thyme
2–3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Warm the beans gently in a saucepan with the liquid from the tin or jar to stop them sticking. Meanwhile, slice the courgettes into 2–3mm- thick circles, then add them to the beans, stir and simmer very gently for 5–10 minutes.
To make the tapenade, pit the olives by bashing them with the base of a mug or small bowl – a quick tap splits the olive, then you can push the stone out – then chop the flesh roughly. Put the garlic clove in a pestle and mortar with a pinch of salt as an abrasive. Pound it to a paste, then add the olives and thyme. Pound again to a rough paste, stir in the olive oil and then the sherry vinegar. Drain the beans and courgettes, return them to the saucepan and stir in the tapenade. Serve warm (although it’s good at room temperature or cold, too).
Grilled green tomatoes
Although I enjoy roast or pan-fried cherry tomatoes, to my mind (and I think the minds of others too), large red tomatoes are only acceptable if cooked to absolute perfection (caramelised, blistered, fully soft) and placed next to bacon, sausage and black pudding; but otherwise: no thanks.
Green tomatoes are a better option. You’ll find sharp, hard, unripe green tomatoes as well as softer, more subtle heirloom varieties in the shops. Both seem to enjoy a little heat from a grill, as well as the complementary seasonings of dried oregano, chilli and nutty rapeseed oil suggested in this recipe.
I like to eat warm, yielding green tomatoes with things like grilled fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, cod) and cheeses like ricotta and halloumi; basically, they’re juicy and luscious and are effective at cutting through savoury and salty foods without hogging the limelight.
4–6 large green tomatoes (either unripe or intentionally green)
3–4 tablespoons cold-pressed rapeseed oil 2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 medium mild red chilli, finely diced
Sea salt and ground white pepper
Preheat the grill to medium-high. Cut the tomatoes in half widthways (rather than from stem to tip). Place each of the halves on a small baking tray into which they all fit snugly, cut-side up. If they don’t sit flat, slice a tiny bit off the other end so that they do. Drizzle and slick the tomatoes with two tablespoons oil. Sprinkle them with a little pinch of white pepper, a bigger pinch of salt and a scattering of dried oregano.
Place under the grill about 8–10cm from the heat with the oven door ajar. Cook for 8–12 minutes, during which time they’ll sizzle and spit, soften and sink a little (but not totally), and dry out a touch on top. Soft, ripe tomatoes will take less time than harder, unripe green tomatoes; you’re looking for the flesh to sink a little, the outer skin to start slipping and the tomato to be tender but still hold its shape. Remove from the oven, drizzle each with more oil, add another sprinkle of salt and top with the diced red chilli.
These recipes are taken from On The Side by Ed Smith, published by Bloomsbury (£20, hardback)