Inspired Gourmet Sides

December 14, 2006

19 Min Read
Inspired Gourmet Sides

Photo: SpringThyme Oils Ltd.

Southerners call restaurants that serve plate lunches meat and threes, in reference to their main offering of a meat and choice of three vegetables. Its actually a choice of sides, because the vegetable choices include standard starchy options. This leads to the running joke that only in the South is macaroni and cheese considered a vegetable.

These restaurants may be down-home, but they understand the value of side dishes. Their customers appreciate having choicesoften as many as 9 or 12making the vegetable plate popular fare.

Increasingly, people today are scaling back the protein portion of their meal and replacing some of their meat intake with vegetables or side dishes. Most dietitians recommend two to three servings per day of high-protein sources such as meat, poultry, fish, beans and eggs, with the ideal serving being the size of a deck of cards, or roughly 4 oz. Consider that the smallest restaurant steak size is typically 8 oz., with 10 oz. or 12 oz. being more common, and you see how easily Americans can overshoot their protein requirements. Even a lean chicken breast, chosen often by the diet conscious, is typically 6 oz. to 8 oz.

Health-aware consumers are also trying to incorporate more fiber into their diets and striving to reach the five-a-day recommendation for fruits and vegetables; the 2005 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest an average of 4½ cups of fruits and vegetables per day, which equates to roughly nine servings. Side dishes are their best hope for achieving this goal. Add a touch of gourmet, and the side dish can rise to new heights.

Produce possibilities 

A few decades back, a blend of peas and diced carrots was considered upscale. Then, diced vegetables gave way to julienne cuts to add gourmet appeal. While the cut is important, combinations of vegetables provide the most interest. In addition, color adds visual appeal and suggests higher nutrient value, since vegetables with the most-intense hues, such as carrots and kale, are highest in antioxidants. Rich and unusual colors can immediately upscale a dish. Maroon or rainbow carrots, orange or purple cauliflower, red okra and yellow beets are infinitely more interesting than the standard varieties.

Mashed sweet potatoes, instead of regular russets, add a new dimension to the ultimate comfort food.Photo: Chef Walter Royal/Angus Barn 

For some consumers, the less processed vegetables are, the more they are perceived as nutritious. And the more nutritious, the more consumers are willing to pay. Health and wellness is a big part of the American culture right now, says Adam Schreier, corporate chef, Mastertaste, Commerce, CA. In manufacturing, were trying to push as many vegetable combinations and fruit combinations for kids, just for healthier alternatives, instead of french fries and mashed potatoes. As children mimic their parents eating habits, the selections become more diverse.

With vegetables, if its not fresh, its not upscale. There are several keys to enhancing the appearance of freshness. One is to avoid uniformity of cut. In foodservice, Offer products that dont appear overly processed, so the consumer believes the items were prepared in the back of the house, says Dianna Fricke- Stallsmith, C.W.P.C., research and development chef, J.R. Simplot Company, Caldwell, ID. Keep vegetable cuts large and random, or allow the operator the ability to combine fresh ingredients with frozen components for a better finished texture with vegetables or pasta blends.

As a rule, ingredients should be of a similar size so they cook evenly in a blend, Fricke-Stallsmith continues, especially for retail products that may need failsafe cooking instruction. In manufacturing, we have the ability to control the cut size and blanch time for items before they are IQFed for a particular product, she says. We can adjust the blanch times to predict the preparation times of certain products, to make it shorter for the end user.

Consumers often perceive fresh or freshly prepared items as more nutrient-dense than frozen or canned. But consumer perceptions are not necessarily accurate. Freezing captures vitamin content near the point of harvest. Because many fruits and vegetables are grown far from the point of sale, Fricke-Stallsmith suggests tailoring side dishes around seasonal offerings.

Promoting origin can also add perceived value to food items. Regional produce might be considered fresher than something shipped from California or Mexico. In the Memphis area, for example, Ripley tomatoes are more prized than nationally distributed tomatoes. Grown locally, they are naturally ripened and are believed to have more flavor. Idaho potatoes, Michigan cherries and Washington apples have name recognition and a connotation of quality. Produce items with far-sounding names also have gourmet appeal: Parisian carrots, French beans (haricot verts), baby Dutch potatoes, Japanese eggplant and Peruvian purple potatoes, for instance.

In Sept. 2008, country of origin labeling (COOL) requirements are slated to take effect. This may help or harm consumer perceptions, depending on the fruit or market. Imported fruit and vegetables seem more-upscale in a gourmet market, but would Chilean blueberries, for example, be as valued in a more working-class grocer? Or could they be thought of as less fresh since theyve obviously traveled so far?

In the eyes of consumers, vividly colored ingredients, such as sweet potatoes, connote health and freshness.Photo: North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission 

Specificity is a hallmark of gourmet. In making a wild rice, cranberry and orange dish, we would now be using blood oranges, says Schreier. If it were a dish with a lemon emulsion, now wed be using a Meyer lemon emulsion. Putting the type of fruit or vegetable and associating where it came from is really important these days.

Vegetable offerings are increasing in variety and quantity, notes Fricke-Stallsmith. As the offerings of heirloom and varietals increase, restaurants are on the forefront of introducing these previously unknown vegetables to consumers who can later find them in a store to prepare at home, she says. Who doesnt want to try a new variety of beet, bean or squash? Another introduction to exotic vegetables is through different styles of cuisines and fusion cooking in restaurants.

Using new varieties of vegetables or varieties not currently widely available through foodservice can upscale a side dish, says Fricke-Stallsmith. For example, golden beets, Chioggia beets, cranberry beans, cipollini onions, delicata squash, fingerling potatoes, varieties of peppers such as piquillo peppers, or sunchokes.

Some old-fashioned vegetables are making a comeback in upscale form. Beets are probably the hottest vegetable there is, says Schreier. I think back 10 to 15 years ago, and beets were only thought of in borscht. It seems roasted beets are on salads in every gourmet restaurant, like a roasted beet salad with goat cheese, he suggests.

In the vegetable world, little is big, Schreier says, suggesting that the baby concept is very hot and trendy. Parisian carrots, baby artichokes, baby eggplant, baby radishes and fingerling potatoes are but a few examples. Some vegetables, such as King Richard leeks, are bred for smallness, while others, like baby corn, are harvested early. In the United States, baby carrots are often pared to size; others are specifically bred and cultivated for their small size.

Sauces can increase interest in vegetables. Instead of Mom just hitting that frozen corn with some butter before its trip to the microwave, it can be prepackaged with a Southwestern cream sauce, says Chris Warsow, research chef, new business development, Kerry Ingredients Kerry Specialty Ingredients, Beloit, WI. This may be able to cross over into fresh vegetables, as well. I see a market for fresh, cleaned and trimmed veggies packed in a microwaveable container along with an RTU sauce. A great example would be perfectly cooked asparagus from your microwave with a fluffy, smooth béarnaise.

Infused oils, such as those produced by SpringThyme Oils Ltd., Padiham, England, can add natural flavor. Though the company offers more than 100 flavors, oils infused with basil, garlic, chile and lemon are the best sellers. Fresh caramelized onion, fresh spring onion, porcini mushroom, Chinese five spice, lemongrass and cinnamon are among the unique infused oils offered. Infusions are available in olive or sunflower oil.

Another way to upscale vegetables is to incorporate classic methods of cooking. Steaming, while healthy, may be a bit boring for some tastes. Roasting or grilling, however, adds a touch of sweet caramelization or a smoky note. Poaching or soaking can infuse a food with flavor. Braising can add depth to lentils.

Fricke-Stallsmith recommends offering ingredients that are time-consuming to process or prepare in an easy-to-use format. For example, she suggests blending wild rice or brown rice (which take a relatively long time to cook) with roasted or sun-dried tomatoes (an expensive, upscale ingredient) and roasted artichokes or peppers (another process that takes time to achieve in the kitchen) and a seasoning (measuring out individual ingredients) all in one ready-to-use package.

Water activity of specific ingredients can present a challenge to these blends. There are ways to formulate around them, Fricke- Stallsmith says. You can roast ingredients to enhance the flavor and drive out excess moisture. You can also bind the excess water from a frozen vegetable with starches or gums in the seasonings or sauces.

Rice revelations 

Rice offerings are far more plentiful than the quick-cook white rice of years past. Just by blending in varieties other than traditional long grain, white rice can be upscaled, says Warsow. Im seeing more restaurants that are serving esoteric varieties, like Thai purple rice, and whole-grain basmati, he says.

Easily sourced specialty varieties that can add gourmet touches include: Arborio rice, a short grain Italian rice with a creamy texture and a firm center; Basmati rice, an Indian rice with a distinctive fragrance that cooks up long, slender and fluffy; Jasmine rice, a Thai rice, is also known for its fragrance and has a white kernel with a silky texture. Wild rice is not a true rice, but a relative (genus Zizania vs. Oryza for regular rice) that provides a nutty flavor and distinctive appearance. It also has more iron and niacin than regular rice, and provides a good source of other B vitamins, potassium, calcium and fiber.

Caryl Levine, director of marketing, Lotus Foods, El Cerrito, CA, sees a gourmet trend of exotic rice varietals, such as black rice from China, kalijira brown rice from Bangladesh, and Bhutanese red rice. Lotus Foods wholegrain rice dishes have all shed the tie-dye, branny and chewy notion of whole grain brown rice, due to their cooking qualities, she says. Bhutanese red rice cooks in only 20 minutes, brown kalijira in 25. Each rice variety has a soft texture. Brown kalijira is particularly delicate, she says. This makes it more suitable in mildly flavored applications.

Brown rice has gone from earthy to elegant as more consumers gain a greater appreciation for its versatility, rich nutty flavor and extreme nutrition value. Switching from white rice to brown is an easy way to increase whole-grain intake. Brown rice is especially well-suited to ethnic cooking and stands up well to flavorful seasonings and sauces, says Kimberly Park, spokesperson, Riviana Foods, Houston. It also serves as a great base for salads and pairs well with stir-fried vegetables or roasted meat, chicken or fish. Stuffings, pilafs, stir-fries, fried rice and salads are some of the most popular uses.

Going for the grains 

As consumers strive to increase their fiber intake, they are paying more attention to grains and incorporating them into side dishes. Specialty grains can provide a popular way to accomplish this with a gourmet cachet.

Mike Orlando, president, Sunnyland Mills, Solana Beach, CA, finds that bulgur, a form of whole wheat, can be substituted for about half of the rice in a typical dish. Bulgur, however, will be ready to eat with minimal cooking. Or, after soaking in water or broth, it can be mixed with other ingredients without further cooking. Bulgur adds more texture, fiber and a whole grain component than when only white rice was used before, he says. Bulgur goes well with the texture of beans. When mixed with legumes you get a complete amino acid profile. Other uses for bulgur are pilafs and salads, such as tabbouleh. Orlando reports that bulgur sales are up over 10%, an indicator that bulgur is gaining acceptance.

Couscous, made from semolina, is traditionally considered a grain in its native North Africa. Americans consider it a pasta that is sometimes made with whole wheat. To make it, the wheat is mixed with water and then formed into small granules, steam-cooked, and dried. The finished product comes in coarse, medium and fine grades based on size. When made from semolina, couscous has a mild flavor that lends itself to a variety of flavorings, including nuts, olives, dates, artichokes, lemon or apricots.

Unexpected ingredients used in familiar dishes, like avocados in potato salad, can instantly upscale a side dish.Photo: California Avocado Commission 

Quinoa is considered an ancient grain. Its small grains make it similar in appearance to sesame seeds. It can be cooked in 10 to 12 minutes. Comfortable as the star of the dish, it can also easily be combined with rice or bulgur, or can be used in place of rice in side dishes.

Barley is being incorporated into pilafs, risottos and salads. Pearl barley has been processed to remove the tough outer hull and is then pearled, or polished. It is available in several forms, depending on the degree to which it is pearled. Because some of the insoluble fiber and other nutrients are lost in the pearling process, pearled barley is not considered a whole grain. Nonetheless, it is still a nutritional powerhouse, with significant amounts of soluble fiber and other important nutrients.

Hulless barley requires minimal processing. The outer hull is loosely adhered to the kernel and usually falls off in the field when the barley is harvested. Hulless barley is considered a whole grain. ConAgra Mills, Omaha, NE, produces a hulless variety, Sustagrain ®, available in flour, flakes, steel-cut, whole and kernel forms. Through selective plant breeding, this variety has been developed to have significantly more fiber than traditional barley. Most barley has 10% fiber and 4% to 5% soluble fiber. Sustagrain has 30% total dietary fiber and 12% soluble fiber. Barley, because of its high solublefiber content, is eligible to support a heart-health claim when consumed as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol.

Polenta, once the food of Italian peasants, is a trendy grain side dish. Made with yellow or white cornmeal (coarsely, medium or finely ground), it can be boiled for a smooth creamy texture or, after cooking, it can be pan-fried. It might be lightly sprinkled with cheese, or sauced with a wild mushroom ragout. Because it has a relatively bland flavor, polenta offers a mild canvas for a chefs culinary painting. Weve done a gorgonzola polenta with soaked pears, says Schreier. We soaked the pears in port, a little star anise, cinnamon and cracked black pepper.

Grits is the Southern version of cooked cornmeal. The coarser the grit, the more likely it is to find itself on upscale menus. It is especially popular as a side to Creolestyle shrimp.

To take a page from upscale restaurants, Fricke-Stallsmith sees cakes, cakes, cakes of every type, formed and griddled golden brown just before service: potato cakes, polenta cakes, risotto cakes, edamame cakes, couscous cakes and compressed rice cakes.

Potato performers 

Most chefs agree potatoes still dominate. Potato is the king of side dishes, says Fricke-Stallsmith. Mashed potatoes are the ultimate comfort food. Having said that, people are always looking to improve mashed potatoes.

Potatoes still rule Middle America, according to Warsow. However, there are ways to upscale them, he says. Many chains and packaged goods companies are coming up with flavored mash, and they go beyond just cheese. I think this will be one of the new forefronts of mixing the familiar (mashed potatoes) with the unfamiliar (roasted garlic with olive oil).

Flavor is key in upscaling mashed potatoes, says Fricke- Stallsmith. I read a statistic that over 80% of mashed mentions on a menu are flavored mash, she says. By using mashed potatoes as a flavor base, you can create so many wonderful flavor combinations with cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano, sheep-milk feta, smoked mozzarella or fontina. You can flavor through roasted vegetables like caramelized leeks or onions, and oils such as olive, truffle or lemon. Again, you can change the shape or form by making potato cakes or frying the mashed potatoes in a crispy spring roll wrapper.

I see people mashing other vegetables to create different varieties of mashed potatoes, continues Fricke-Stallsmith, such as French fingerlings, yellow Finnish, and sweet potatoes, or vegetables, like mashed sun chokes (Jerusalem artichokes), blending in celery root purée or white sweet corn with the mashed.

Especially in potatoes, baby is big, says Schreier, noting the popularity of baby reds as well as fingerlings.

Some restaurants are switching from mashed potatoes to petite whole-roasted potatoes, and these types of products are ideal for the freezer case. Fricke-Stallsmith says their Baby Bakers have a buttery yellow flesh. They are like mashed potatoes without the guiltbuttery and soft without the fat. Roasted potatoes pair well with beef, pork and chicken. They may be flavored with herbs and garlic or brushed with olive oil. The choice of potato, from russets to redskins to Yukon Golds, will influence the appearance as well as the flavor of the dish. Yukon Golds, for example, are considered to have a more buttery attribute.

Baked potatoes can be garnished simply with butter and sour cream, or loaded with bacon, chipotles and cheddar. Russet Burbank, Shepody or Ranger varieties of potatoes are the best for baking or processing into potato skins, says Fricke-Stallsmith. These varieties have a nice shape and, when baked, finish with a proper moisture content. For foodservice, the Washington State Potato Commission, Moses Lake, suggests not wrapping in foil prior to baking. This traps the steam, making the skin soggy. Baked potatoes can be kept in a warming drawer or under a heat lamp for no more than 20 minutes before serving.

Twice baked potatoes add pizzazz to a plate. The skin is refilled with a baked potato filling and rebaked. Because of the second baking step, the potatoes hold up well to quick freezing. Potatoes can go gourmet by combining Cheddar, sour cream, Roquefort or goat cheese, chives, roasted garlic or bacon in a filling. Squeezing the filling into the potato shell in a decorative fashion enhances its appeal.

Sweet potatoes may take the same forms as white potatoes: whipped, baked or roasted. Sweet potatoes are smooth with skins that come in various colors, depending on the variety, from pale yellow to deep purple to bright orange. Flesh colors range from light yellow to pink, red or orange, which provides visual interest. Often, their flavor is enhanced with the addition of vanilla, maple or other complementary, dessert-type flavors.

French fries, long associated with fast food, have risen to loftier heights with the addition of touches like a truffle aioli, or a sprinkling of ground cheeses or fresh seasonings. Standard, crinkle-cut fries are the hallmark of mass produced, frozen fries, but shoestring, waffle or wedges bring the fry out of the mass-market category, especially if not cut too uniformly.

Typically, potato salads are made from red potatoes, although any type of potato can be used. Grilled or roasted potatoes add visual as well as flavorful interest. Ethnic versions abound and give upscale appeal compared to the ubiquitous mayonnaise-soaked picnic-style salad. Served warm with a vinegary dressing, its a German potato salad. Adding feta and olives suggests Greek food. A touch of curry evokes Indian cuisine. Chipotle sauce adds a smoky, Latin flair.

Pasta potential 

Spaetzle, a small German dumpling made from wheat flour, is worthy of reinvention, Schreier says. People dont do enough spaetzle. A whole-grain mustard spaetzle with a pork chop is the best. Traditionally, they are spiced with nutmeg, although the bland flour dumpling is also compatible with herbs.

In American restaurants, pastas do not typically take to the side as they do in Italian restaurants. Yet pasta appears in the form of egg or rice noodles. They are commonly used in salads as well as hot dishes. Pasta salad can come in as many different forms as potato salad, with ingredients as far-reaching as roasted peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil, olives, capers or artichokes. A curry sauce may be as equally at home as a base as pesto or mayonnaise. Clearly, the macaroni salad of the past has evolved. Elbow macaroni has given way to cavatelli, farfalle and orzo.

If any pasta has an upscale, side dish image, it is orzo. Small and rice shaped, it has a delicate appearance and pairs well with nuts, vegetables, herbs and cheeses. It can be served hot or cold; baked with spinach and goat cheese, for example, or in a salad with feta and olives. Orzo can be used to create a risotto-type dish or a pasta-based pilaf. Its uses are as endless as the chefs creativity.

The quintessential American pasta side dish is still macaroni and cheese. Mac and cheese is one thing that I have not seen up-scaled yet, but there is a lot of potential, says Warsow. The most recent advance of the hearty mac and cheese is putting it in the refrigerated section. Some of these products are as good as homemade, a lot easier than making a cheese sauce from scratch.

Schreier suggests truffle mac and cheese for a particularly upscale product. Using a regional cheese can empower the dish. Similarly, adding combinations of cheese can add interest. A four-cheese mac and cheese is infinitely more interesting than plain Cheddar. Adding a touch of heat by way of peppers, or a splash of color in the form of roasted red peppers or herbs, can take it from lowly to exquisite. Putting panko crumbs on top of the old classic would give a different variety of texture, he says.

In fact, the importance of texture should not be overlooked in any dish. Fricke-Stallsmith suggests using nuts or seeds, such as Marcona almonds, pumpkin seeds, pistachios and pine nuts, in a variety of dishes.

The best places to look for side-dish inspiration are steakhouses, because of their a la carte offerings, says Schreier. In the South, one may look to the meat-and-three restaurant, because there, the side dish reigns supreme. 

Cindy Hazen, a 20-year veteran of the food industry, is a freelance writer based in Memphis, TN. She can be reached at [email protected]

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