Side issues

Categories: Expert guidance

Ed Smith, author of an upcoming book about side dishes, addresses two vitally important questions: what and how many sides to have with your Christmas dinner

The much-repeated debate about the Great British Christmas lunch (or dinner) focuses on whether you should be cooking turkey, goose, or a rib of beef.

Our food writers, celebrity chefs and Christmas specials tend to be cyclical, rather than steadfast in their opinion; from memory the glossies have featured a lot of beef over the few years, so I’m guessing we’re probably back to turkey again for 2016.

For what it’s worth, I’m quite a fan of a well-cooked bird (golden skinned, juicy of flesh). But I also believe this issue is a complete distraction from a much, much more important matter: what and how many side dishes are you serving with that bird, cow, or, indeed, turducken?

The answers to those questions are crucial. The sides are a far bigger issue than the centre; the success of your meal really depends on whether all your sides are ready at the same time.

Crispy on the outside
What people really care about is whether the potatoes are crispy on the outside, fluffy in the middle. They hanker after seconds of the stuffing and of sausages wrapped in bacon, not turkey breast. And they really, really want to know that they can have as much cranberry and bread sauce as they want, in the confidence there’ll also be loads left over for the multiple fridge raids and cold sandwiches they’ll be making over the next day or two.

I’ll admit to having a vested interest in this theme. Next May sees the release of my debut cookbook, On the Side, which I hope people will see as a useful and inspiring sourcebook for their own cooking. It includes 140 side dish recipes, but also a set of directories which suggest what sides go with what main meals, and how practical it is to cook certain things together.

So, I’ve done quite a bit of thinking about what makes a good side dish, and which sides go with what meal.

It’s Christmas, isn’t it?
As it happens, ordinarily I believe a meal only ever needs two or three side dishes. More, and the effort required of the cook is disproportionate to the success of the meal, and the appreciation of others. But, well, it’s Christmas isn’t it? So there have to be the aforementioned potatoes, stuffing, bread sauce and cranberry sauce, which is four things before you’ve even got started.

One or two more sides on top of that really is plenty. I’d suggest something sweet, like carrots, squash, or parsnips; and something verdant, like cabbage, cavolo nero, flower sprouts, sprout tops… or, indeed, sprouts.

If you fancy doing some new sides this year, I’ve come up with a couple of new recipes for you: winter squash roasted with smoky lardons, chestnuts and rosemary; and sprout tops with anchovy and clementine butter.

Neither are in the book, but they give a taste of things to come. They’ll also go well with any roast meat, and will work just as well next to polenta or pulses as they do roast spuds.