Tips & Techniques Cooking Side-Dish Ideas
Side-Dish Ideas
Once you have decided what dish will be the centerpiece of your meal, choose among a wide variety of appealing side dishes to round out the menu. Keep in mind both speed and ease of preparation.

Steamed rice: Look for aromatic white or nutty brown rice to pair with stir-fries. You can cook it in advance and refrigerate it in sealed plastic bags.

Potatoes: Bake russet or sweet potatoes for an easy, inexpensive partner to meat dishes. Russet and Yukon Gold potatoes also mash well, making a delicious accompaniment to braises or stews. Toss small fingerling or red-skinned potatoes with olive oil, salt, pepper and chopped rosemary before roasting them.

Whole grains: Seek out whole-grain bulgur, quinoa or other grains for nutritious, full-flavored side dishes. Sauté the grain in a little canola oil or butter until it releases a nutty fragrance. Add hot water or broth, cover tightly and simmer until the grain is just tender.

Couscous: Quick-cooking couscous, available flavored or plain, takes less than 10 minutes to prepare. While it is typically served hot, it is also good cold: toss it with minced green onions and drizzle with a light vinaigrette for an easy summer salad.

Polenta: Cook a double batch of quick-cooking polenta and serve half for dinner. Pour the remainder into a lightly oiled baking dish, let cool, cover and refrigerate. Cut the polenta into triangles or squares and broil or panfry until browned on both sides.

Salad: Vary your greens and dressings: thinly sliced cucumbers and shredded red cabbage with a sweet-and-sour dill dressing to go with German-style sausages, or arugula and sliced radicchio with a balsamic vinaigrette to pair with an Italian dish. Make extra dressing and refrigerate for another meal.

Tomatoes: Slice fresh, ripe summer tomatoes and arrange on a platter. Just before serving, sprinkle with sea salt and pepper and drizzle with a fruity olive oil or an herbed aioli. If desired, tuck fresh basil leaves between the slices and top with thinly sliced fresh mozzarella or crumbled feta cheese.

Fresh vegetables: You can steam, blanch or roast many vegetables a day ahead, and then reheat them in a fry pan with a drizzle of olive oil or a pat of butter at dinnertime. Or, mix them with slivered almonds or fresh herbs, toss them with olive oil and lemon juice or a vinaigrette, and serve at room temperature.

Roasted vegetables: Cauliflower, asparagus and bell peppers are well suited to high-heat roasting. Toss them with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast in a single layer on a baking sheet in a 425°F oven, stirring occasionally, until tender and golden, 10 to 20 minutes. Peel and cube root vegetables and roast in a similar manner at 350°F.

Cooked greens: Sauté Swiss chard, spinach or beet greens in a little olive oil. Shred or chop tougher greens, such as kale and collards, add a small amount of broth, cover and cook, stirring often, until tender.

Artisanal bread: Warm a crusty French or Italian loaf and serve it with room-temperature butter or olive oil. To make garlic bread, mix melted butter with minced garlic to taste. Halve a baguette horizontally and brush with the garlic butter. Wrap in aluminum foil and place in a 300°F oven until the bread is crisp and heated through.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Food Made Fast Series, Simple Suppers, by Melanie Barnard (Oxmoor House, 2007).