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The Secret Life of Side Dishes

The Secret Life of Side Dishes

The success of a side dish requires but one thing: culinary ingenuity.

A good side dish can make or break a meal.

By using fresh, seasonal ingredients, onsite chefs find sides don't need as much butter, oil or salt to satisfy customer cravings for bolder, fresher flavor. Broccoli Rabe with Caramelized Shallots and Orange Zest; Roasted Vidalia Onion stuffed with Shoe Peg Corn and Lobster Mashed Potatoes; Strawberry Gazpacho; Spinach Salad with Grilled Peaches and Goat Cheese Toast; and Wheat Berry Salad are prime examples of standout side dishes that are pushing aside the bland, the steamed and the simply tossed.

“With our all-you-care-to-eat style dining, sides are available throughout the day and change to complement the main items being served,” says Timothy Gump, executive chef at Illinois State University (ISU) in Normal, IL. “We look to pair complementary flavors, colors, and textures.”

Until recently, heartier grains weren't part of the menu mix at ISU. But Gump now boasts a great deal of success with sides like the Wheat Berry Salad, Quinoa Pilaf, Broccoli Apple Salad, Bulgur and Edamame.

“They go very well with the main dishes with which they are being served. Students and guests are able to try a little bit of these unique flavors and expand their palates at each meal without committing to a full portion,” he says.

With its Midwestern setting, many of the aforementioned ingredients were unfamiliar to ISU's customer base, so Gump and his team helped educate the students and guests on the new dishes. This proved to be a resounding success.

Gump calls on seasonal ingredients to add intrigue to ISU's regular rosters of sides, and in doing so, complements flavors at the center of the plate. Case in point: the Broccoli Apple Salad.

“Many of the ingredients in this salad are locally sourced seasonally,” says Gump. “The salad includes fresh broccoli, locally grown apples, walnuts, and dried cranberries. It's a huge hit.”

“Ultimately, the side has to complement the entrée in flavor and seasonality,” says Scott McFarland, foodservice director at Wisconsin's Ripon Public Schools. “If your entrée is spicy, your side should work against the spiciness of the entrée, not build on it. I usually try to add texture to my sides as well with something crispy. An example would be whipped parsnips garnished with some parsnip crisps.”

Slaws, Salads, Soufflés

Operating in school services, McFarland finds he is somewhat limited when it comes to side dishes. By tapping into his creative side, though, he's been able to serve up delicious dishes that the pickiest eaters of all find “yummy!”

When onsite chefs add a new spice or sauce — something unexpected — into something familiar, the result can be a new, innovative and delicious dish.

Formerly an executive chef at a contract-operated university foodservice, McFarland says he has had gret success offering roasted root vegetables, savory bread puddings, grilled vegetables, marinated vegetable salads, whipped parsnips, and many different slaws during the course of his career.

“I like to take the tried and true sides and add my own touch to them,” he says. “My potato salad is made from roasted, quartered redskin potatoes with a coarse grain mustard. I add sour cream instead of milk to my whipped potatoes to give them a different taste. I try to get away from cabbage being the main ingredient in slaws by using jicama, broccoli, Belgian endive or greens.”

Ditto for Robert E. Jackson, executive chef of catering at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “I like to add my own signature to certain side dishes,” he says. “I do a healthy coleslaw with Napa cabbage, julienne vegetables and cilantro-lime vinaigrette. I combine whole leaves from baby lettuces, fresh herbs and grilled vegetables. I also like to twist up the mashed potatoes with roasted corn, grilled scallions or even horseradish and aged cheddar.”

At Dell, in Georgetown, TX, Bryan Norris, district chef over the computer company's nine cafes, not only offers unique sides, but ensures they meet certain healthful requirements as well.

“We try to offer fun things like a Carrot Soufflé, which everyone assumes is made from sweet potatoes (pg. 36),” says Norris. “It has the same flavor profile as a sweet potato casserole — flour, brown sugar, eggs, cinnamon, vanilla — so it's nearly impossible to convince them. Sometimes, I literally have to pull out the recipe to prove to them it's not sweet potato, but is, in fact, carrot.”

Soufflés aside, Norris also offers a bevy of unique vegetable based sides like a Root Vegetable Gratin, Braised Cauliflower with bacon and blue cheese, Maple Orange Sweet Potatoes, and a Citrus Broccoli Rabe.

Looks Matter

While it is important to make the most of side dishes to round out flavors and showcase seasonal produce, color and plating are just as important.

“White potatoes on a white plate? How boring!” says McFarland. “A sprinkle of fresh chopped parsley and a potato gaufrette will make it look a lot nicer; it also gives it a perceived value upgrade for less than a penny product cost.”

Drexel's Jackson enjoys using vegetable slaws, cold pasta salads or even rice salads to add color to his plates. “These types of sides offer variety and add to the overall presentation. An example would be something like grilled chicken over a jicama slaw with grilled radicchio.”

At Dell, Norris likes to add citrus fruits to his legume or grain salads. He also likes to tap into more exotic ingredients that bring a new flavor to his customers' tastebuds.

One of the most unique side dishes we do, appearance wise, is black barley,” he says. “We make a black barley salad that has mirepoix, red and green bell peppers, zucchini and yellow squash and a light vinaigrette with roasted pecans. Customers often request this side and a lot of our vegetarians will purchase this as an entrée.”

The Potato Chip Difference

When is a potato chip not a potato chip and instead a gourmet side dish?

At Biola University in La Mirada, CA, Executive Chef Peter Alfaro has introduced a homemade potato chip bar with all sorts of unique and inventive toppings that put those crinkly bags of chips to shame.

“We offer this side with some of our grill entrées,” he says. “We use Russet potatoes, fresh sliced and thin, and fry them in canola oil. We spice the topping bar up with different salsas like Chile de Arbol Apricot Salsa (pg. 36), Argentina Chimi Churi, Roasted Red Pepper and Walnut Sauce, or even a Spicy Mango BBQ Sauce. We've found that anything that can add some nice heat while balancing the sweetness and saltiness always works well.”

According to Alfaro, the potato chip bar generates more interest for some main dishes students might normally overlook. For example, when he serves a vegetarian entrée, those who normally eat meat are more willing to try it.

“Students enjoy flavoring their chips in a more unique way,” he adds. “That has truly become the selling point.”

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