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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Food swaps and the best open-faced sandwich of all time

A fun, informal setting. A party with fellow foodies, lovely people from your own community who want to share their knowledge, their recipes, their food, their lives — with you. You walk away (if you’re like me, you’re skipping and dancing happily), with delicious homemade and homegrown food, and you don’t need to have a dollar in your pocket. How, you ask?  Food swaps.

They’s springing up all over the place. If you don’t have one in your town, start one. It’s an amazing community event. It encourages sharing, cooking, talking and eating. The ingredients are more likely to be healthful and organic. In addition to the one I started in San Diego, if you’re in California, I know of swaps in the East Bay, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Fernando Valley, Santa Monica, Ventura County, in Colorado there are swaps in Denver, Pike’s Peak and Manitau Springs, and others in Seattle, Austin, DallasPortland OR, Columbus OHBrooklyn NY, Queens NYAlbany/Saratoga Springs NY, Minneapolis, Royal Oak MI, Ann Arbor MIBoston, Trenton IL, Fort Lauderdale FL, Coventry CT, and even in London.

I first heard about food swaps from Kate Payne’s blog, and I was surprised they didn’t have one in a food-centric town like San Diego, so I organized one myself. The first two events were sparsely attended, but an article in the local newspaper packed the lists for our third get-together, and my score from the July 16 San Diego Food Swap was stellar.

Fresh-baked bread. Homemade ice cream in three flavors. Homemade and authentic empenadas. Salsa, pickled onions, cochinita pibil (spicy pulled pork slow-cooked in banana leaves). Pomodori al forno (fresh tomatoes and basil in olive oil, to be served on crusty bread with a nice goat cheese), habanero pepper jelly, and zucchini chutney. Homegrown and organic zucchini squash, kale, swiss chard and radishes. Homemade lemon bars and coconut macaroons. Caramel corn and lavender cookies. Fresh, soft pretzels. My contribution to the party was granola, spicy pickled carrots, carmelized onion chutney and cherry/orange/vanilla jam.

The delicious possibilities are endless. The first was made right on the spot … some fresh, hot, crusty bread, with some salsa, cochinita pibil, and a couple of pickled onions. Greatest open-faced sandwich of all time. Deal with it.

La Familia Aguilar’s Cochinita Pibil

My dear friend Belinda’s dad made these for a birthday party a couple of years ago, and I have been bugging her ever since to make them again. It is a time-consuming process, but totally worth it!

  • 15 lbs of pork, cut into large chunks ( it is recommended you get bone-in pork and cook the bones with the meat for added flavor)
  • 2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 1 cup freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice
  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 head of garlic
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 2 tbsp. oregano
  • 2 habenero chiles
  • 1 packet of banana leaves *
  • 1 tbsp achiotte seasoning *

(*The banana leaves and achiotte seasoning are available at your local hispanic foods market.) Blend together in a food processor the garlic, chiles, juices, vinegar, achiotte, oregano and salt and pepper, and pour over the chunks of pork in a large bowl. Cover and let it marinate for 2-4 hours. Add the bay leaves. Line a large baking pan with banana leaves, laid horizontally and vertically, and add the pork mixture (including the bones), tucking the leaves over the pork (this was described to me as “like you’re tucking a piggy baby into bed,” haha) and bake at 350 degrees for 4-6 hours. Feel free to periodically check for moisture and spiciness; and it may be necessary to add another cup of orange juice (and possibly more spices if you like) at about the third hour of cooking. When it’s ready, you will know because your entire home will smell like mouth-watering pork and the meat will be tender enough to shred with a fork. Remove the bones and serve warm. This freezes beautifully if you have any left over.

Pickled Onions

These are a perfect compliment to the cochinita pibil.

  • 1 whole red onions, sliced into rings
  • 1 cup vinegar (any kind)
  • 1 cup water
  • Pinch of oregano
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Simmer gently in a medium pot until onions are soft. Serve immediately or put into hot jars and seal in a pressure canner.

But there’s more. Ever since I saw the RSVP for the food swap when a participant signed up with “pomodori al forno” and I had to look it up, I was dying to try it. I am normally not a huge fan of fresh tomatoes — I love them cooked, in sauces and whatnot, but I prefer to leave them off of a sandwich or a salad — but these were delicious and juicy and bursting with all of the flavors of fresh herbs and olive oil. Then at the actual swap, a stranger came walking by with fresh (and huge!) zucchini squashes. We were all out on the lawn, under a big shady tree, and we were chatting, laughing, and generally enjoying ourselves when this gentleman was clearly jealous and wanted in on the fun. Score!

I decided to use the zucchini and the pomodori al forno together, with some spicy italian sausage, fresh basil, goat cheese, panko bread crumbs, sauteed with onion, bell pepper and mushroom and then baked at high heat in the oven.

Food Swap Vegetable Casserole

Most, if not all, of these ingredients can be substituted for other ingredients depending on your tastes. This was just my creation based on the fresh vegetables I got at the swap, including the pomodori al forno, which was made by someone else. Essentially pomodori al forno is ripe, sliced tomato cooked in the oven on high heat with good olive oil, fresh basil and various spices. This jar of pomodori al forno was definitely made with love.

  • 1 large zucchini squash, chopped
  • 1 jar of pomodori al forno
  • 2 links of italian sausage
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 cup sliced mushrooms
  • 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
  • 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 tablespoon nutmeg*
  • 4-6 ounces of your favorite goat cheese or other creamy cheese
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Place the sausages in a large pot and add water until the sausages are covered; sprinkle olive oil on top. Cook on high, turning occasionally, until water evaporates and sausage is cooked and slightly browned. Remove sausage from pot, add chopped zucchini, onion, bell pepper and mushroom. Cut the sausage into chunks and add to pot, season everything with salt and pepper. (*Often, homegrown squash and zucchini, particularly the larger ones, can be very bitter. Taste a piece of the squash when it starts to soften and if you find it is too bitter, sprinkle a small amount of sugar and/ or ground nutmeg to balance out the bitterness of the huge gourds.) Remove from heat when vegetables are soft. Mix in the goat cheese and panko crumbs, and transfer to baking dish. Layer the pomodori al forno tomato slices on top (and sprinkle the herb-y olive oil from the jar on top of the casserole). Delicious!