The best and easiest side dishes

The best dishes don’t have to be complicated or involve tons of complicated ingredients, and for Pete’s sake, they don’t need to be made in a store.

Here are a few of my favorite simple side dishes, that require very little time and only a few ingredients each. And like nearly everything I cook, they are highly adaptable to whatever is in your kitchen.

Cheesy Greens Gratin

This is a great way to use up those leafy greens you got in your CSA box, or picked up at the market even though you weren’t sure what to do with them. You can use any type of chard, kale, spinach, or other hearty, leafy green vegetable. All of those green vitamins will help you not feel so bad about the three kinds of cheese and cream inside.

  • 2-3 lbs leafy greens (chard, kale, spinach, etc.), chopped
  • 2 cups sour cream or Mexican crema (basically a thicker, saltier sour cream)
  •  1 cup crumbled feta cheese or cotija cheese
  • 1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
  • 3 tbs. butter
  • 1 cup panko crumbs
  • 1 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
  • salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to 400. Mix together all of the vegetables, cream, cheese, and salt and pepper, and place in an oven-safe glass dish. Mix the panko and breadcrumbs together and sprinkle over the top, and place thin pats of butter over the crumbs.

Bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, or until the crumbs are browned and the mixture is slightly bubbly.

cheesey greens gratin

 

Crunchy Fresh Vegetables with Fish Sauce

This is another one that is *mostly* healthy but can be a little high in sodium if you’re not careful. Fish sauce is an incredible ingredient, because it packs a metric ton of flavor into a few little dashes of liquid. However, it also contains about 70-80% of your daily recommended intake of sodium, so when you add the butter, or the pepper at the end, be sure to NOT add any more salt. It would put the sodium level straight over the top.

And, as with most of my favorite recipes, you can adapt it to whatever fresh produce you have on hand. Personally, I love this recipe best with fresh, crunchy green beans or snap peas, but you can also make it with Brussels sprouts,  broccoli or baby broccoli, or even okra.

  • 2 lbs. fresh, crunchy vegetables like green beans or snap peas
  • 2 tbsp. fish sauce
  • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • cracked black pepper

Trim your veggies and start to melt the butter in a heavy pan. When the vegetables are cooked slightly (about 5 minutes), add the fish sauce and pepper. Serve immediately.

green beans with fish sauce

Stuffed Mushrooms

Two words: People Pleaser. If you’ve been invited to a nice party, a potluck, or even just over to a friend’s house to watch a football game, you should bring these. They take very little time to make, and they will disappear even faster.

  • 15-20 whole cremini mushrooms (about 4 lbs.)
  • 1/2 lb. bacon, cooked and crumbled
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 tbsp. garlic paste (or 2-3 cloves of crushed fresh garlic)
  • 1 cup panko or other breadcrumbs
  • 2 cups grated cheddar cheese

Remove the stems from the mushrooms and place, face-up, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Mix the onions, bacon and garlic paste, and gently spoon it into each mushroom (You will have extra mixture, so stuff them as full as you can. It’s OK if they overflow a little.)

stuffed mushrooms

Sprinkle grated cheese and crumbs over each mushroom, and drizzle extra virgin olive oil over the whole pan. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the cheese is melty, the crumbs are crunchy, and the mushrooms are tender. Serve and eat immediately.

Kitchen Sink Cold Orzo Salad

I really love traditional orzo, made with barley. If you can find that, use it. But if not, any type of orzo (with wheat or other flour) will do just fine. This recipe also needs a spicy cold cut of meat — I used my own homemade pastrami, but feel free to use storebought pastrami (if you must) or any cured, salted meat product, like a cold salami.

Like any other “kitchen sink” recipe, this is with everything but the kitchen sink … I pretty much always have a squash or a carrot or a piece of some sort of vegetable in my fridge. Feel free to substitute what you have on hand.

  • 1 12-oz. package of orzo, cooked to manufacturer instructions and then cooled
  • approx. 1 1/2 lbs. of pastrami or other salty cold cut
  • 3 small yellow squash
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 1 tsp. dried marjoram
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 cups olive oil
  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • 2 tbsp. spicy mustard

Whisk together the mustard, vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper, and marjoram in a small bowl and set aside. Chop the squash, carrots, and meat.

Gently toss the cooked and cooled orzo with the vegetables and meat, and coat the entire mixture with the dressing. Pour slowly so you don’t drench the salad. Chill for an hour and serve cold.

orzo salad

Drunken Yams

No explanation is needed. Instead of just roasting your sliced potatoes, sweet potatoes, or yams, give them a shot or two of your favorite dark liquor.

Bourbon is recommended, but another type of whiskey, Scotch, brandy or rum will do just fine. If you REALLY want to kick it up a notch, sprinkle a bit of sriracha over those boys, too.

 

drunken yams

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Summer Favorites

If you are a regular reader of this blog, thank you.  Sometimes my daily or weekly food projects aren’t much more complicated than “hey, I smoked this tasty chicken,” so I don’t always do a full blog post on everything I make. I do not post often enough, so I thought I would remedy that by sharing with you some of the foods that have been pleasing crowds at Casa de Starbright all spring and summer long.

Also, if you are so inclined, I encourage you to check the links on the right of this page and follow me on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter, which are updated far more often.

First up is the old standby: beer-can chicken. I do this all the time. It takes only a couple of hours to smoke, and every time it’s perfectly juicy and tender. if you have a vertical smoker like I do, you don’t even need one of those fancy racks … just manipulate an empty aluminum can snugly into the inside the bird, make sure you can see the tab through the top (see picture below) and then when you set the whole thing on your smoker you can work the chicken’s legs around so it’s sitting up on the can. Then you fill up the can with the liquid of your choice (pretty much anything except really strong liquor as that will just be a fire hazard), coat the outside with a dry rub and a bit of oil, and smoke it til the internal temperature is at least 160.

beer can chicken

This is the chicken I smoked on the Fourth of July, alongside a homemade pastrami brisket (just a corned beef brisket coated in brown sugar, black pepper, coriander and paprika, and then smoked), and a foil packet full of garlic, onions and other items.

I usually have a packet of something random smoking alongside of my meat. If I have a few extra cloves of garlic or jalapeno peppers, those will always get smoked. Sometimes if I have a huge surplus of onions or other fruits I will smoke those for a BBQ sauce, and sometimes I will also smoke the sauce ingredients with the meat the sauce will be used on, which is always delicious.

Here, I smoked a nice rack of baby back ribs … this is the “after” photo when they came off of the smoker, and before smoking they only had a very basic dry rub. On the top rack of the smoker I had a few small foil packets, containing red onions, whole heads of garlic, and two ripe peaches.

baby back ribs

After about an hour I took the fruit, onions and garlic off the smoker, and put it all in a pot on the stove with a large can (14 oz.) of crushed tomatoes, 2 cups apple cider vinegar, 2 tbsp. kosher salt, 2 tbsp. brown sugar, and 1 tbsp. each of black pepper, oregano, paprika, cumin and chipotle chili powder. The smoked peaches and onions had the same smoky flavor as the ribs, so it wasn’t too sweet, and the sauce complimented the meat perfectly.

ribs with peach BBQ sauce

And a couple of days later on some BBQ chicken breasts, served with roasted corn and some warm greens.

peach BBQ sauce with chicken

Of course, one cannot forget the cocktails! Homemade tepache is getting to be one of my favorites … it’s so simple, it’s delicious and unique … and it impresses the hell out of your friends when you tell them you just made your own alcohol.

tepache

Check out my first blog post here about tepache, back when I was just discovering it, but know that this is just as adaptable as any fermented drink like beer or kefir … adapt it to your tastes and style. I’ve tried it with a whole pineapple (you can re-use that boozy fruit later) or just the core and peel, and I’ve also added whole peaches to the mix. Te-peach-e is definitely something you should try.

I’ve also tried making it in my Korean fermenting crock, and lately with my new Farmcurious airlock cap set (see below), and if you are into fermenting at all, I would definitely recommend one of these cap sets. It makes fermenting anything really simple.

tepache fermenting

Of course man cannot live by meat and boozy fruit alone, so we must also make somewhat healthy snacks. I guess. Sorta healthy. It has fruit in it.

I subscribe to a number of websites wherein people send me samples of things. Like, all the time. At any given moment I have no less than a dozen sauces, glazes, toppings, jams, jellies, pickles, and various other things in jars, most of which I have not made myself. One of those jars happened to contain a salted caramel sauce for desserts, so I decided to see what it could do with some grilled fruit.

Grilled fruit skewers

Pineapples and blueberries happened to be both ripe and in my kitchen, plus a single slightly underripe peach. They made very lovely skewers, and were topped with the salted caramel glaze right at the end for a little extra sweetness. It was perfect.

Grilled pineapple and blueberry skewers

I also got to enjoy a number of awesome food festivals so far this summer, including a Greek festival  … where I may or may not have bought a hunk of homemade feta cheese the size of my head. There were no witnesses who are talking. However, I did entertain my guests with many, many, many feta cheese dishes for the next few days, including this  … well, can you even call this a “recipe” or a “dish”?

Slice a watermelon. Crumble some really good feta on top. The end.

watermelon feta

Seriously, that’s really all there is to it, and I could totally eat that entire plate right there. The slightly salty flavor of the feta is so perfect with the melon. I have also seen a number of variations on this dish, but all of them seem way too complicated to me. One called for freezing the slices of feta, then coating them in breadcrumbs and frying them, then serving those fried cheese squares in the most picturesque, Pinterest-worthy plating with the perfectly molded hunks of watermelon you’ve ever seen.

However I am a simple girl. Like my adorable niece right here. All she needs is some fruit to match her outfit, and look at that smile! She doesn’t even need the cheese! (But don’t omit the cheese unless you are also a baby.)

Moxie

This summer, I also started cooking with orzo for the first time, and I think it is going to be my go-to starch for cold salads from now on. Orzo is actually made of barley, so it’s extremely healthy for you. It also cooks up in no time, chills really quickly, too, and then takes whatever flavor you give it. And it holds its own with hearty veggies. What more can you ask for?

Orzo salad

This tasty salad is a 1-lb packet of orzo, boiled about 6 minutes in salted water, then cooled, and tossed with extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, green peas, diced carrot, sautéed yellow squash, sliced red onion, and bits of leftover pastrami.