Serve with?


I said I would, and tonight is the night that I am going to cook Ottolenghi's Double lemon chicken with cheat's preserved lemon. It's such a miserable day although we are not in as dire a situation with other parts of Victoria. It's just drearily wet. But see how sunshiny that looks. Surely this will cheer us up - although there will be no wine - it's not the weekend.


It's a chicken dish with a lemon sauce, so what shall I serve with it? This is my problem. And I don't have any spring onions to garnish it with either. Garlic chives will have to do.


Actually before I started this post, I had thought that although Ottolenghi and his crew always gave you substitution ideas, they rarely suggested side dishes. Apologies to them - yes indeed they do. They had two for this particular dish: - Fragrant coconut rice with sizzling spring onions (more spring onions) and Tenderstem broccoli with peanut gochujang dressing. Alas the recipes are not yet available online as they are from his latest book and I guess they don't want to jeopardise sales. Plus us bloggers have not been able to cook stuff from the book and report on it as yet.

I shan't be making either of these side dishes though and not just because I don't have any broccoli or shaved coconut - or those spring onions. Also not just because David doesn't like coconut or super spicy food.


No, the reasons are more to do with the sheer effort of making two other recipe dishes - not that either are particularly complicated, but really because I have yet to be convinced by making something with a competing personality to my main dish. And it seems to me that these two - the broccoli in particular - compete.


Now if you are serving something relatively plain - like roast beef, for example, then, yes indeed the sides matter - although again you have to make sure that they don't compete with each other.

"The best bit about a roast dinner is the stuff you serve on the side." Ed Smith/The Guardian


My chicken though is a relatively complex dish with flavours that have been worked upon with some diligence by Ottolenghi and his team. Pairing it with an equally stunning (well I hope the chicken will be stunning) side dish is not really the thing is it?


Balance is the thing that all the writers go on about - not that I could find many writing about this problem I have to say. But they waffle on about contrasting textures and colours, spicy and mild and so on.


"the art of a memorable menu lies in selecting side dishes that turn the whole occasion into a balanced feast that satisfies all five of your senses." Le Creuset


They even maintain that a main dish is nothing without an appropriate side. It's the side that makes the main dish sing. Really? Surely the main dish should be sufficient unto itself.


Then there's balance in terms of health nutrition as well. Have you got enough protein, enough vitamins, enough fibre, enough carbohydrate and so on?


It seems to me that I at least, and probably most of my generation have gone through several different stages with respect to sides and mains.


In my youth it was the standard meat and two veg - even if it was a stew. The two veg would have been incorporated into the stew. One of the veg would have been potatoes and the other probably some kind of leafy vegetable - maybe a carrot or a few peas.


When I went to France I came across the tradition of meat (or fish) served on its own, possibly with a sauce that was mopped up by baguettes, followed by a separate course of a vegetable - usually green beans with lots of garlic and butter. They considered the vegetable course to be worthy of as much attention as the meat course. The carbohydrate component was provided by the gorgeous baguette which mopped up the sauce. This vegetable course was then followed by a palate cleansing green salad with vinaigrette - before cheese - more protein plus more carbohydrate from the accompanying bread. I suspect that this might not happen anymore - that the haricots verts are served with the steak.



Steadily since then vegetables have played an increasingly large part in our diet and increasing attention from chefs. Chefs rarely do anything plain with the vegetables now. Or the vegetables play a fundamental role in the construction of the main dish. For example this dish - Crispy fish nachos from the latest Coles Magazine, just picked at random, demonstrates the current trend. Sort of piling everything on a plate together. And of course the same thing applies to dishes like noodle bowls, stir fries and tray bakes. And when there is a party then you make all sorts of dishes and mix and match as your guests please.

And I have to say I have never been a fan of this approach. I hate dumping several different meals on one plate. The cooks have taken care with each individual dish and if it is all put on one plate then the individual taste of each dish is lost in a mess in the middle. A bit like that childhood phase of mine when I would just mash everything on the plate together. But then it's a traditional way of serving food in all manner of different cultures from the Middle-East eastwards and southwards.


I confess I mostly chicken out and just serve a green salad and some kind of plain carbohydrate such as rice or potatoes of some kind. Even bread on occasion.


So what shall I do for my star Ottolenghi chicken? I could chicken out - pardon the pun - and just do a green salad and cook some plain rice. I could look for some other simple way of being a bit more adventurous with the rice perhaps. Or I could make some flatbreads. No - not in the mood for that.

As to a vegetable - asparagus. It has to be asparagus. It's amazingly cheap at the moment, would be a good foil and the answer is in the same book! Here is Asparagus with labneh, brown butter and burnt lemon. Well I can't do the labneh - too late, but I could certainly make the asparagus.


Or I could just griddle the asparagus and leave it that. After all the sauce from the chicken would be enough for the asparagus too.


Yes that's what I'll do. Because that's the other thing about sides isn't it? If you are spending a lot of care and attention on a main dish - particularly if it's one you haven't made before, then making a complicated side dish as well is just piling on more pressure.


We have friends coming for dinner on Saturday and I shall be chickening out there too by making a one-pot dish that includes all the vegetables in it. So a green salad is all that is needed. And a baguette perhaps for the juices. Maybe I'll make the asparagus - with the labneh - as a first course. Because the thing is that there are so many wonderful vegetable dishes around these days that they deserve to be the stars, not just the sides. Which may be part of the reason more people are becoming vegetarian these days.


Besides I'm fundamentally lazy.

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