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how to know what side dish goes with what main..?

is this a dumb question? i love food (which is why i'm a 'chowhound'), and am always experimenting, but always get tripped up when menu planning (like know before i head to the markets), and trying to figure out what pairs well with what, as far as protein and sides. we're a family of 3, with a 10 year old who will eat or try just about anything i put in front of her. hubby can be a bit of a hard sell at times, but gosh has he come a long way (LOL).

i'd just like to feel a bit more confident/adventurous in this area, so any help, recommendations, suggestions will be so very welcomed and appreciated!

angela :)

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  1. Some cookbooks have complete menus along with the recipes of the dishes in the menu. The Joy of Cooking is one of those books. Pages 17 through 23 of my 1997 revised copy have menus for special occasions or ethnic dinners. The page number for each recipe in the listings is cited. I assume that there are other cookbooks with the menus and their recipes.

    1. There are classic combinations of flavours that you can also riff on as far as variations on a theme (any pork, potato, cabbage combo, for example). But you know what? It's really whatever strikes your fancy. If you want to pair sautéed rapini with pot roast, go for it. Mac & cheese with grilled portobellos? Go for it. They may not be obvious or "classic" combinations, but if you and your family like the combination, then there's nothing that stops you from pairing things together as you like.

      1. Just imagine eating the foods together.
        Is it a good combination?
        If you can't imagine it you evidently need to do more practical research!

        1. I was always taught that a balanced meal was a protein main entree, a vegetable side dish and a starch side dish. Salad and bread optional. Any meat, any veggie or veggies and for the starch...potato recipes, rice, pasta, etc. Any combos were acceptable. But I have to admit that I often will make just a one-skillet (or casserole) main as we don't need all the extra calories and we are empty nesters :=) And frankly, I absolutely hate leftovers.

          2 Replies
          1. re: pilotgirl210

            Me, too. Protein, a starch, a green vegetable. You can use a yellow vegetable if you are going to serve a green salad.

            If you want to lose weight, serve a small salad and a cup of soup 2o minutes before the entree.

            1. re: pilotgirl210

              We are the same way. Protein + Starch (this includes corn) + veggie (low on starch)

              Staples in our house are:

              -Fish, rice, broccoli
              -streak, pototoes, carrots
              -chicken, rice, frozen mixed veggies
              -Bean chili with spinach. I've been know to plate the chili right on the raw spinach (don't do a specific starch here b/c I feel beans in the chili covers that)
              -spaghetti and meat sauce with broccoli
              -pork chops with mashed pototes and pea and carrots
              -chicken sausages with KD and broccoli/califlower (for an night of comfort food KD)
              - Breakfast for dinner!! In which we will have fruit instead of veggies but, this one is a rarity b/c it's soo heavy..lol

              We mix and match all the time. Do what you want but, the above are suggestions :))))

            2. I tend to think along these lines:
              1. Color: nice contrast (Mac-n-cheese with steamed broccolli, not grilled fish / rice & cauliflower)
              2. Sauced: if one component has a sauce, others can be more plain (Plain grilled chicken with vegetable stir-fry side).
              3. Flavor intensity/contrast: pair something simple with something strong (curry with rice), don't repeat strong flavors (garlic, cheese, etc).
              4. Texture contrast: Mushy with crisp, Chewy with creamy (Steak with potato gratin)

              Hope this helps!

              4 Replies
              1. re: firecooked

                Agreed. That's pretty much how I do it. And if the main is creamy, I dress the salad with a vinaigrette. Think contrast in colors, textures and flavors. And no more than one sweet thing per meal, not counting dessert if you have it. Barbeque, sweet salad and sweet potatoes, for instance, are too many sweet flavors in one meal.

                I don't feel it is necessary to have a veggie and a salad, or that a cooked veggie dish is always necessary Plenty of times I've done a main, a salad and a starch. Tonight we had homemade soup and homemade biscuits.

                1. re: firecooked

                  Yep, +1. You may get some use out of books like Niki Segnit's Flavour Thesaurus; it's an index, essentially, of combinations you may or may not have thought of that are more or less interesting, how to achieve balance and contrast, and sometimes where to source recipes. My mom bought me one a little while ago, and I use it more than I do many other books simply because it's well cross-referenced and I am bad at following full recipes.

                  Also, I certainly hope you're thankful that your kid will eat actual food -- my mom is pretty peeved by the fact that my sister and I, now both huge food nerds, had such taste or textural aversions and quirks when we were younger. :)

                  1. re: megjp

                    yes! this is what i'm talking about megjp! help with flavor combo's, balance, etc!! i love this site!

                    and yes, i get that having a 10 year old who's willing to try something at least twice is a big deal, lol!! hubby and i are foodies, although i am more of one than he is. he used to HORRIBLE! his favorite meal used to be overcooked bland chicken breast, canned corn or green beans, and boring mashed potatoes. his date night dinner routine was to order a beautiful cut of meat (filet, strip/rib eye, or even prime rib), then ask for it to be cooked to over done!! YIKES! he wouldn't eat any ethnic food beyond basic grocery store 'taco in a box' tacos. it was bad for a long while, and needless to say our biggest fights were always about what was for dinner, lol!

                    but now, he's turned into somewhat of a food and wine snob!

                    thanks again everyone!

                  2. I like baked sweet potatoes (busted open and filled with butter and brown sugar) with Tandoori Chicken, a combo I doubt is eaten in India. When cranberries are in season I freeze a ton of cranberry-orange relish so I can serve it with Chicken Curry. All of the 'sixties maxims apply: do your thing--- if it feels good do it--- the rule is that there are no rules.

                    1. thanks everyone!
                      you have served to remind me that i need to just continue to do what I WANT TO DO!! what i've been doing. i just thought i'd come here, like always, for some ideas and inspiration. and i have it.

                      thanks for taking the time to respond!

                      now i'm off to make some sole en papillote with confetti couscous (with corn, peas, leeks, and almonds), and a nice salad and crusty bread for my family!

                      angela :)

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: ladybugsmom

                        I'm going to agree with you- do what you want to do and enjoy it!!

                        Tonight I made miso-carrot-ginger soup, veg pizza (artichokes, mushrooms, peppers) and steamed string beans.

                      2. In general I tend to think of balance, and try to have protein, starch, and at least two vegetables (excluding onions and garnishes), however they are arranged. For the vegetables, I try to have more than one colour in a meal (typically green + yellow/orange/red/purple).

                        As far as flavour some useful guidelines are

                        - I will often keep with in a particular cuisine or country for the sides - Indian/Mexican/Middle Eastern/Italian/Chinese etc.

                        - I generally don't double ingredients - so pasta a with tomato sauce wouldn't get paired with a tomato salad, because that's boring. In the same line, I would avoid multiples from cabbage/cauliflower/brussel sprouts/broccoli which are in the same class. If the protein has a cream sauce, the sides don't.

                        - If the main dish is very strongly flavoured, or very rich, then I tend to pair it with subordinate flavours, rather than something equally strong or rich, unless I'm really sure it will work.

                        - If the protein dish is very plain in seasoning (grilled chicken, roast beef, pork chops) I will usually pair it with a more noticeable side dish, to keep the meal from being too bland.

                        - for matching flavours, you can pick seasonings from the same 'group' to make sure they are complementary. For example, from Indian cooking, you can pull out curry powder/cumin/coriander/cardamon/mustard seed/onion/garlic/ginger. From Mexican, chili powder/cumin/oregano/thyme/garlic/lime. From Italian basil/oregano/rosemary/thyme/garlic/lemon/vinegar. From Japanese soy/sake/ginger/rice vinegar/sesame oil.

                        For example

                        - Indian curry with rice might be paired with roasted cauliflower with cumin and garlic and a diced vegetable salad with yoghurt dressing, and some lime pickle (from a jar).

                        - Mexican flavoured pork stew paired with boiled potatoes, with a garden salad with a vinagrette dressing, and stir fried corn and chives with cumin and paprika. The corn is a strong flavour, but matches the flavours of the stew well.

                        - Baked chicken legs with cumin, cous-cous, paired with a Greek salad with feta cheese and roasted eggplant and onion.

                        - A rich duck stew with wine. This is really intense, so I match it with mashed potatoes, a garden salad, and steamed green beans. Putting scalloped potatoes with it, for example, would be too rich.

                        - Grilled steak and baked potatoes. This is fairly plain but good, and so I do a richer side dish of creamed spinach, and sauteed mixed vegetables with a bit of garlic.

                        A lot of vegetables are fairly neutral, as is a garden salad, and can be paired with a variety of dishes. I can then spice them up a bit in a way that matches the rest of the meal. For example, green beens. With roast beef, I might saute them with a them with a bit of garlic and thyme. With Chinese, they get stir fried with diced garlic and sesame oil. With Middle Eastern, I might blanch them and serve as a salad, with finely diced onion and tomato, and drizzled with olive oil and wine vinegar. With spaghetti, maybe steamed and dressed with a bit of freshly grated parmesan and black pepper. As a side for a rich stew, I'd probably just top with a bit of butter or olive oil and salt.

                        1 Reply
                        1. One my favorite non cookbooks is Culinary Artistry (Dornenburg and Page).

                          The book provides lists of complementary foods, herbs, and spices and standard preparations for a variety of vegetables and proteins.. It is a great tool for selecting sides, flavour combinations or putting together menus. I use the lists in the book to get inspiration for farm market purchases that I don't know what to do with.
                          For e.g. The book's list of flavours that combine well with acorn squash are: bacon, brown sugar, garlic, honey, maple syrup, nutmeg, parmesan cheese, and sage. Acorn squash is usually baked, steamed or boiled.

                          I have recipe for turkey cutlets cooked with bacon and sage so I may combine this with roast acorn squash as a side because acorn squash also goes well with bacon and sage. The idea of maple syrup and squash is also appealing so I may look up acorn squash recipes that include maple syrup. You get the idea....

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: lunchslut

                            actually THIS is what i'm talking about!! things, flavors that complement each other, and ideas for pairing them. thanks for this info.... i love this site!

                            angela :)

                          2. You'll not go far wrong if your starting point is to use whatever is seasonally available where you are in the world. For example, local asparagus is available to me I around May & June and I don't eat it or buy it outside of these months.

                            If cooking a "foreign cuisine", I like to stick to things that seem appropriate to me rather than a mix & match approach. I also never want competition on the plate so, if the protein is being cooked in a "fancy" style, the veg are likely to be very simple. On the other side of that coin, a simple pan fried steak offers the opportunity to be more creative with the accompaniments.