Just as the right condiment can elevate any sandwich, the right side dishes can make the meal.
Too often cooks will put all their attention on that piece of meat and then crack open a can or nuke a bag of something frozen to go along with it.
Top restaurants know the right accompaniments can keep customers coming back and, in the case where everything is a la carte, get those customers to spend several dollars more in order to enjoy a specialty.
Tribune Chronicle photos / Andy Gray
Side dishes like Maple-Glazed Carrots, left, can complement your main dish and make for a perfect meal.
For this week's Tribune Cooks, I had a couple of side dish recipes I wanted to try and not a lot of time to spend in the kitchen.
One of those foods that usually turns up on lists of "super foods" or "foods you should eat more of" is quinoa. It has more protein than any other grain and about 5 grams of fiber in a one-cup cooked serving. As more and more diets encourage people to reduce their intake of processed flour, quinoa is the kind of whole grain many nutritionists recommend instead.
It also couldn't be easier to cook. Just put one part quinoa and two parts water in a pot, bring the water to a boil, cover the pot and let it simmer about 15 minutes until the water is absorbed.
1 1/2 pounds trimmed baby carrots, preferably heirloom
2 cups chicken stock
Freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
1 anchovy fillet, drained and chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons chopped dill
In a deep skillet, combine the carrots and chicken stock and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over moderate heat until the stock is reduced to 2/3 cup, about 10 minutes. Add the maple syrup and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is sticky and the carrots are tender and well-coated, 7 to 8 minutes. Stir in the anchovy until dissolved. Remove the skillet from the heat and whisk in the butter one cube at a time. Stir in the dill and season with salt.
Smoky Quinoa and Bacon Salad
1 cup uncooked quinoa
2 cups water
Pinch of kosher or sea salt
8 slices of bacon
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon spicy brown mustard
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground chipotle
1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
Fresh cracked black pepper, to taste
1/4 medium red onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
Combine the quinoa, water and salt in a medium saucepan. Bring the water to a boil, and after the water begins to boil, reduce the heat to low and cover the pan. Gently simmer, covered, for 15 minutes (there may still be some water not yet absorbed). Remove from heat. Keeping the pan covered, let it stand for 5 minutes or until the remaining water is absorbed. Remove the lid and gently fluff the quinoa. Set aside to cool.
Crisp the bacon, drain and cut into 1-inch pieces. Set aside.
In a bowl, whisk together the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, mustard, brown sugar, smoked paprika, chipotle, salt and pepper. Set aside.
In a large bowl, toss together the cooked quinoa, bacon pieces, red onion and parsley. Toss with the dressing and serve at room temperature or chilled.
The downside is that quinoa by itself doesn't have that much flavor. How well the grain is received, especially by unadventurous diners, depends on what else is in the mix.
So what could be a better incentive to eat quinoa than bacon?
This Smoky Quinoa and Bacon Salad recipe showed up in January in the daily emails sent out by Food and Wine Magazine, and I've been wanting to try it ever since. The fact that I had nearly all of the ingredients in the house, except for quinoa and red onion, made it even more appealing.
The recipe is super simple. As blasphemous as it may sound, I used a little less bacon than the recipe called for, mainly because the recipe states a number of slices, not a weight, and the local bacon I had in the freezer was thicker than what I normally find at the store. So my 5 slices probably equaled the 8 slices listed.
I also opted to use sweet smoked paprika instead of hot in deference to my wife (the recipe doesn't specify hot or sweet). The ground chipotle pepper still gives the dish a nice tingle on the tongue, but feel free to go with hot smoked paprika to give it more zing. It still shouldn't be overpowering.
The combination of the spices, the balsamic vinegar and the brown mustard infuses the quinoa with flavor and the bacon and raw red onion add a crispness and crunch to the dish. The recipe recommends it as a side dish with barbecue, and it's something I definitely plan to make again when I fire up the grill. But it also made for a satisfying Sunday brunch / lunch salad.
The other recipe is more seasonal, assuming the weather ever warms up enough for it to be maple syrup season.
Like the quinoa, this recipe for Maple-Glazed Carrots showed up in a daily Food and Wine email, and it seemed like the perfect way to take advantage of the heirloom carrots that were included in February's veggie box from The Chef's Garden (the subject of my last food page).
I cut the recipe in half because I had less than a pound of carrots, and I used my wife's homemade turkey stock instead of chicken stock.
Like the quinoa, this side dish comes together quickly. Prepping the carrots was the most time-consuming step.
Don't let the anchovy in the ingredients cause worry. It adds a subtle salty bite, not fishy at all. Vegetarians could compensate with an extra pinch of salt.
But don't use dried dill instead of fresh. The fresh herb brightened the flavors and seemed to keep the carrots from getting lost in the maple glaze. And it should go without saying that the dish requires real maple syrup, not the artificially flavored high-fructose corn syrup that pretends to be maple syrup on most supermarket shelves.