Mains and sides

It’s the return of the Tin Chef!

As some of you know, I’ve finally started actually cooking, after thirty-some-odd-years of basically never doing it. I now have a nice array of recipes I like and can do, and enough confidence now that I’ll happily browse a magazine or cookbook and go “oooh, that sounds tasty, maybe I should try it,” as long as the recipe isn’t too daunting.

But almost everything I make is a single-dish meal, or if it isn’t, then we just throw some spinach on the plate as a salad. I’m still not much good at making a main dish and a side dish to go with it. Partly because that type of multitasking is still a little difficult for me — making sure things are ready around the same time, but don’t demand my attention at the same instant such that something winds up burning — but also just because . . . I have a hard time judging what things will go well together.

I know that to some extent the answers to this are a) it doesn’t matter that much and b) I can experiment and see what works and what doesn’t. But I’ve got a whole list of side dishes I’d like to try someday, and every time I look at them and go “I dunno, would that pair well with this main item?” I wind up going back to the single-dish things I’m comfortable with. So I put it to you, the cooks of my readership: how can I get better at this? I have two different “meat with balsamic + fruit sauce” main dishes I like — one chicken with balsamic vinegar and pomegranate juice, one pork chop with balsamic vinegar and dried cherries — and the fruitiness keeps making me second-guess whether a given side dish would make a good complement. And there are a lot of main dishes I haven’t even really taken a crack at yet. If I had some guiding principles for figuring out what combinations are good, I might experiment more.

2 Responses to “Mains and sides”

  1. Robert

    I am trying cooking too, and relying heavily on the bbcgoodfood website for recipes. One of the things that I like about it is that they often include “goes well with” advice on their mains (or their sides), and that many of the recipes are actually for complete meals, with instructions that I find easy to follow. (They assume UK supermarkets though)

    Other than sticking to the things they package together in those recipes, I tend to try and stay within the same general continent when cooking. So I served a keema dish with Indian spiced greens, a ginger shiitake noodle dish with an Asian coleslaw, etc.

    I also find that if the main dish is very fragrant or spicy, the main side can be a bit plain. If the main dish is earthy, then a zingy / tangy salad or side can add something. For fruity / tangy main dishes, I might be tempted to look for earthy sides, or something with onions / spring onions that cuts through the sweet and sour notes. I think the general rule is that there should be some kind of contrast between mains and sides, whether in texture or flavour or spicyness or sweetness or acidity or all of the above…

    I think for the balsamic fruity meats you describe, these are the sides I would be tempted to try: – it looks a bit plain and earthy and won’t distract from the tangy main meal. The only question is, does “creamy” go with a main that is quite acidic? – parsnips have a slightly wooden, earthy taste, which I think would contrast nicely with the tangy mains. On the other hand, they are quite sweet, too, which might reduce the contrast… – the earthy couscous and the onions would work, I suspect, but tomatoes and zingy dressing might reduce the amount of contrast between side and main.

    Hmmm. I think I should stop giving advice now, lest an overthinker start offering overthinking tips to another person who is overthinking things in the kitchen…

    • swantower

      Thanks! Even the overthinking is helpful — it gives me some idea of how other people approach this.

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