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Newbie Needs Menu Help


davidshap
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Hi eGullet,

This is my first post, and I'm a newbie chef. I've been taking recipes from epicurious.com, and I often find a main course that I want to make but have no idea what side dishes to pair with it. How do you decide what to make (similar ingredients or something?). I haven't bought any recipe books yet; do those tend to pair mains with sides?

Thanks for the help.

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This might not be the most glamorous or gourmet advice, but I often limit my search for recipes on epicurious (and other sites) to ones with pictures, since there is often a side or two included in the picture even if there aren't suggestions in the actual recipe text. Many cooking magazines also include a page near the front that offer suggestions for combining recipes in the current issue in addition to suggestions they might make in the intro notes to the recipe itself. Fine Cooking is one, I know, and Cooking Light (which is, to be honest, not one of my favorites) almost always has (had?) a section on everyday meals that includes sides.

I also read restaurant menus (lots of places post theirs online these days), particularly if I'm cooking something I've never cooked before, to see what a professional would pair with a particular meat or fish.

Some combinations are "classic" (meat and potatoes, for example), so if I'm preparing a main dish that has an obvious accompanyment, I might look for recipes to play with the traditional side. Instead of baked potatoes, I might roast fingerlings or make gnocchi (like with something braised, especially in tomato). Might give some people hives, to mix metaphors like that, but it keeps me thinking about my food.

ETA: These comments are geared primarily toward everyday menu planning for the home cook since they're very high-level (and since it's what I'm most familiar with)

Edited by BekkiM (log)
Feast then thy heart, for what the heart has had, the hand of no heir shall ever hold.
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I think there's really no wrong answer to what sides to serve with what mains. You can look to compliment the main course in flavors and textures (kind of the classic continental approach, warm meat with warm starch and warm vegetables) o rlook to contrast flavors and textures (many Asian cuisines use this approach, combining hot, cold, soft, crunchy in a meal, and often in the same dish).

I usually make up my mind as to the way I want to go with sides then make my final choices based on what looks best and freshest in the store.

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I thought that eCGI course was pretty helpful.  I also like to make epicurious recipes with pictures, but how do you find the recipe for the side in the pics?  Do you just use it as inspiration for your own recipes?

If I see something pictured where the recipe isn't referenced, I usually start a recipe search (in epicurious, other online recipe sources, my own cookbooks, etc.) for the ingredient and the cooking method (if I can guess at it from the picture), e.g. roasted brussel sprouts, sauteed spinach, etc.

One thing I'd add to the eCGI course is that if I'm planning a big menu (like for a dinner party), I also take into account the cooking method, especially looking for items that don't need to be cooked a la minute so that I'm not tied to the stove mid-dinner party. So roasted vegetables are great, sauteed spinach, not so much. Every time I've ignored that personal rule, I've regretted it, as I'm usually so busy that, as the evening wears on, I start to skip things I'd planned to serve so as not to have to leave my guests. You also need to figure out your plating plan (and personal style), again working out how you're going to be able to plate course #3 when you've already been drinking with your friends through apps and courses #1 and #2. Some people are capable of fabulous plating under these circumstances, but I'm not one of them. :biggrin:

This kind of coordination is less of an issue for everyday things, but you still want to make sure you can bring all three items (in the traditional American meal: meat, starch, veg) together at relatively the same time. So I tend to leave fussy preparations out of my repetoire altogether.

Feast then thy heart, for what the heart has had, the hand of no heir shall ever hold.
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This is a common problem for me. BekkiM nailed it when she said you have to consider cooking methods. I try to find menus that can be made or mostly made in advance and items that don't require undivided attention. Socializing and cooking don't always blend seemlessly for me. Drinking and cooking can be disastrous! One rule we have is no liquor until all the knife work is done. I had one meal where everything was done except for dressing the salad. The dressing was already made so it should have been easy. Two cocktails and some wine later it looked like a good idea to add all the dressing to salad. What a soggy mess. :wacko:

One gripe about menu planning - too many recipes say "serve immediately". Easy for some, not for me.

KathyM

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I always start with complimentary flavors, then try to add a contrasting one on the same plate. Think about texture and color as well....after several bites of savory meatloaf, do you want a plainly flavored starch like mashed potatoes, or would you rather have a slighly tangy ragout of root veggies? Dense meat loaf requires lots of chewing; a soft-textured side like long-cooked flat italian green beans might be nice, or perhaps sauteed mushrooms. For me, texture and color are as important as taste; compose the plate like you would arrange a photgraph.

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davidshap....

my advice to you being that you are a "newbie" is try with simple things that are stated above as classics but mabey employ similar cooking methods as well to both protiens and sides at the same time to help you discover things like texture and pairings. Example would be braising lets say a chicken along with some root vegetables such as carrots and parsnips. Sometimes if you apply certain tekniques (cant spell very well thats why i cook...) it often leads to the "suitable" sides, a guideline if you will. Then maybe you will develop what is "proper" for a dish to start off with in a classic manner. Search for how each one of your "sides" can be cooked and use it to your advantage with your main. Once you get more tekniques under your belt and find that many sides you are using that are being prepared in the same manner as the main, you will find yourself then searching- and thats where the mother of invention kicks in. Again start with the classics, build up a recipie arsenol, then you can mix and match. i think that trial by error (at least for me in the first few years) was the best because i started with a strong foundation- learned how different sides were prepared, planned my dishes from that (w/main) and then eventually expanded. Take the time and you will not be disappointed. Pick up an old Escoffie book on recipies or La Gastronomique and you will see what i am talking about with the old recipies and how europeans used tekniques pairing the dishes to THEIR advantage & so that your not doing 10 things at once to start as a beginner. In those books they even detail sauces and other (side) substitutions for the main so i defininatlely reccomend them. Good luck and sorry for the bad spelling --- i chose to NOT work in an office so.... ....... ........ ........

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I think that you just have to close your eyes, and picture yourself eating the main dish, and ask yourself, or ask your "mind's tastebuds" what you taste going with that dish. You've got to have some idea of what you think you'd want to eat with it, no?

Overheard at the Zabar’s prepared food counter in the 1970’s:

Woman (noticing a large bowl of cut fruit): “How much is the fruit salad?”

Counterman: “Three-ninety-eight a pound.”

Woman (incredulous, and loud): “THREE-NINETY EIGHT A POUND ????”

Counterman: “Who’s going to sit and cut fruit all day, lady… YOU?”

Newly updated: my online food photo extravaganza; cook-in/eat-out and photos from the 70's

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