We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.
Today: Tara Mataraza Desmond, author of Choosing Sides, talks to us all about the supporting roles on our dinner table, and why they're worthy of an entire cookbook.
When you think of the best meals you've had -- at a restaurant, cooked by your family, made by your sweetheart -- there are often sides involved, and usually those sides pack a punch. Sides can make or break or meal. They can be unexpected and imaginative, or showstopping versions of the classics. A potato salad can go from a potato salad to A. Potato. Salad. Tara Matazara Desmond's new book is a thorough ode to sides, organized by occasion (weeknight dinners, warm-weather cookouts, potlucks, and parties), and complete with entrée suggestions.
What inspired you to write this cookbook?
I was making a Rutabaga and Turnip Gratin (which ended up in the book, by the way, on page 187, in the Holiday Feasts chapter) to bring to Thanksgiving at my parents' house when the idea for the book hit me. I'd been emailing with several friends about Thanksgiving recipes, and all of them were for side dishes. Around the same time that year (2010), Kim Severson and Julia Moskin did this face-off on the TODAY Show -- turkey vs. sides -- to decide which was more important at the Thanksgiving table.
For me, the whole plate matters. If I'm torn between two dishes on a restaurant menu, the accompanying sides are usually what make the decision for me. And lame sides can really suck the life out of a decent main dish. Accompaniments have a very significant impact on the whole meal, whether it's a holiday feast or a weeknight dinner. So in the midst of making the gratin, I had this idea for a book about side dishes for any meal, all year long. I stopped layering root veggies and sent a message to my agent to pitch her the idea.
More: In the mood for a gratin? We've got 6 more.
What’s one side dish in your book that people won’t expect to see?
The Sushi Salad: It puts all the usual suspects of beloved sushi rolls into a salad that matches perfectly with seared tuna, or sesame-crusted tofu, or soy-marinated grilled strip steaks.
You have a perfect roast chicken. What two sides do you pair with it?
Roast chicken is a low-fuss favorite of mine and we make it a lot in our house. Since it's so low maintenance, what I serve with it often depends on whether I want to take advantage of the time spared by its effortlessness by cooking something else, or by being outside of the kitchen altogether.
My Herbed Biscuits are stunners and go naturally well with chicken, so if I'm not preoccupied by another task, I'll make them while the chicken roasts and bake them while the chicken rests, before carving it. For a simpler side, I'd make Crisply Roasted Garlic Potatoes, which come together very quickly and can occupy the oven along with the chicken. I like to have salad with roast chicken, too, so I'd make one with lots of great texture, flavor, and color to brighten the meal.
I included a supplemental index of Main-Course Pairings so if you know you're making chicken as a main course, but you're not sure what to serve with it, flip to the Chicken section and browse the suggested recipes for inspiration. Plus, every recipe throughout the book includes a short list of ideas for main dishes with which to serve the side.
More: Gussy up your vegetarian side with leeks, buttery braised and with a breadcrumb topping, from for the love of south.
What’s your least favorite kitchen task?
As a true indicator of my current place in time, I admit to hating cleaning my kids' sippy cups and bottles. All those darn valves, lids, straws, and oddly-angled containers! I know I'll miss a lot of things when these tots are grown, but time spent at the kitchen sink fussing with sippy cups is not one of them. Aside from that, for some reason I always shove off on my husband the task of grating cheese.
The holidays are here. What are some sides you plan to make ahead?
I love Pumpkin Cozy Rolls as a make-ahead side. They require an overnight rise in the fridge before baking the next day. Even if you bake them a day or two ahead of the holiday feast, they reheat beautifully. Any of the three stuffing recipes are in the running because they can all be made ahead in part: Caramelized Onion and Roasted Garlic Herb Stuffing, Hazelnut and Roasted Mushroom Brioche Pudding, and Legacy Cornbread Dressing, which is my husband's grandfather's recipe that uses my husband's grandmother's cornbread.
I love salads on the buffet table because most holiday favorites are (lovingly) rich, starchy, relatively monochrome, and heavy, and salads offer instant balance and palate-refreshing lightness. Arugula with Sugar Cranberries and Pancetta is an excellent option since the cranberries, pancetta, and dressing can all be made ahead and the salad can be assembled just before dinner is served. It's nice to have options for breakfast and brunch, too, when families come together. Salmon Caper Cream Pumpernickel Tart and Cinnamon Challah Muffins are excellent for those purposes. The tart can be made a couple days ahead, and the custard bread base for the muffins can be made the night before and baked first thing in the morning.
Book cover by Ben Pieper, portrait by Amy Pinard. All other photos by James Ransom.
We're giving away 5 copies of Choosing Sides! To win a copy, tell us in the comments: What's your go to side with the perfect roast chicken? We'll pick winners at random at the end of the week! (Unfortunately, we can only ship domestically.)
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