The burger or steak may be the summertime main event, especially for Thursday's Independence Day cookouts, but a great side dish is a welcomed added attraction.
There is little doubt that carefully selecting the right beef, seasoning it and grilling it just right are important, but if you ignore the side dishes, your results will be significantly diminished.
Remember what the purpose of a side dish is: It's an accompaniment that is supposed to enhance your main dish. Just like pairing wine with food, some attention and thought should be given to how it fits in and what it will add to the event. Some sides are so good they have become traditional at picnics or barbecues -- potato salad, coleslaw, chips and dips or mom's favorite casserole -- but it's not that hard to get creative and come up with something different to wow your guests.
If you are having a bit of trouble figuring out what to serve, think of it as a multi-course meal, just served all at once. You want to start with something light that will stimulate the appetite, such as a cold salad. Add a dish that will be an introduction to the theme -- think of it as the coming attractions at the movies -- and finally a main course. A sweet option to end the meal always is a good idea.
So three or four offerings would be a pretty good start -- a salad always is welcome -- and so the green pasta salad recipe below would work very well. It can be made in advance. It's pretty flexible, so you can add ingredients or take them out according to your whim and the result will still be good. If you are not fond of
the pasta idea, just make a souped-up pimento cheese and serve it as a dip. No one will complain about that.
One of the best summertime food ideas is a fresh tomato bruschetta. You can serve it as a dip or as a more traditional bruschetta on rounds of toasted bread. That is a light and delicious recipe that will compliment almost anything. It is one recipe that a great quality olive oil can enhance, but make sure to drizzle it on just before eating.
As always, putting a little thought and doing your best to be well organized will make any event much more successful, and a little time planning the menu goes a long way toward that end. The few minutes you spend with a pen and paper making a few notes on what sounds good to you will be time well spent.
GREEN PASTA SALAD
1 pound green corkscrew pasta or tri-colored pasta
2 cups cannellini beans
1/2 chopped ham
1/2 cup roughly chopped green bell pepper
1/3 cup chopped red onion
2 cloves of chopped garlic
2-3 tablespoons chopped basil
1/3 cup good quality olive oil
1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
Red pepper flakes
There's nothing wrong with using canned beans if you are not in the mood to cook your own, just make sure to drain and rinse them thoroughly to get rid of the goop they are packed in. Cook the pasta according to the package directions, drain and set aside. Sauté the ham in a little oil until it is well browned, drain on a paper towel and then mix all of the remaining ingredients, leaving out only the feta cheese. Taste and season as needed. When the salad is well tossed, top with the feta cheese and refrigerate before serving.
SOUPED-UP PIMENTO AND CHEESE DIP
Pimento and cheese sandwiches have been served in the South for generations. It was a cheap and delicious snack and can be found already prepared in most grocery stores. The pimento originated in South Africa but today is grown in Mexico. If you want to make your pimento and cheese even better, forget the pimentos and try roasted red bell peppers.
2 red bell peppers
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese
1 cup sharp English cheddar cheese
1/4 cup chopped red onion
1 (4-ounce) can green chiles, drained
1/2 cup mayonnaise
Roast the red bell peppers on the stove top or over your grill; when the skin is charred black place in a brown paper bag for 15 minutes. When cooled remove the blackened skins under running water, drain and roughly chop. Combine all of the ingredients, making sure to thoroughly drain the green chiles. This can be served cold or hot as a dip. Make sure to use a sturdy chip or toasted rounds of French bread.
FRESH TOMATO ANTIPASTO
This is another version of the classic Italian appetizer, but the availability of garden fresh summer tomatoes makes this particularly delicious.
1 loaf crusty French bread
2-3 large ripe red tomatoes
2-3 cloves of minced garlic
1 small bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
Salt and pepper
Good quality olive oil
Slice the bread on the diagonal, about 1-inch thick. Dice the tomatoes, draining away most of the juice and make sure to remove any of the tough green parts. Finely dice the garlic and add it to the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, mix well and taste; re-season as necessary. Heat a large sauté pan, add a bit of olive oil (remember not to cook with your best oil), and toast the sliced bread; it shouldn't take but a few minutes. Top with the tomato mixture, top with the basil and garnish with good olive oil.