7 Easy Sides — and What to Pair Them With
Sometimes it helps to work backwards.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come home from work, heated some olive oil in a skillet, added diced onion and minced garlic — and then stood in front of my stove, praying to the dinner gods for inspiration to strike like a bolt of lightning. Once the garlic hits the pan, it’s never long before my bottomless pit of a 9-year-old makes her way to the kitchen (because, honestly, who can resist that aroma?) asking what I’m cooking. My answer is always the same. “You’ll see” I say enthusiastically, hoping she’ll believe that something really special and delicious is on the way.
If you’ve ever stared into a refrigerator full of ingredients with no plan, wondering how to get a family-friendly meal on the table, you’re not alone. I've totally been there. And, I find that sometimes, rather than sautéing onions and garlic without a plan, it helps me to work in reverse — and come up with a side dish first. With sides, there are a seemingly infinite number of possibilities (because eating plain rice or potatoes, for example, would be boring). But when it comes to proteins, the choices are a bit easier to narrow: you can season very simply and cook using one of a few basic methods and still get some really tasty results.
So, when I’m stumped and totally without a plan for dinner, I pick my protein second — I can always cook it in a really basic way if I need to.
Want to give it a try? Here are some easy side dishes that my family loves — and the proteins that we pair alongside.
Rich, creamy and surprisingly easy to make, risotto is the perfect way to elevate chicken breast. Whether you go for a colorful recipe chock full of veggies and herbs like Giada’s Dirty Rice-Inspired Risotto or a simpler version made with little more than some freshly grated Parm, risotto always has tons of flavor because the rice is cooked in chicken stock.
Oven-roasted veggies are pure magic — cauliflower included. Try it with beef, to lighten up the classic steak-and-potatoes combo. Cauliflower is just as filling and, when you top it with cheese like Ina does, it has all the savory flavor of a classic steakhouse side.
There’s only one way to make crisp-skinned potatoes more delicious: add a runny egg yolk. That’s why these salty, seasoned spuds bring breakfast-for-dinner to mind. Pair with ham steaks and over-easy eggs for a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
Yes, my family eats (and enjoys) broccoli — smothered in cheese and topped with crispy, toasted breadcrumbs, of course! We like this easy broccoli gratin alongside pork chops or pork tenderloin. The mildness of the main dish really lets the sharp Cheddar flavor of the gratin shine.
Full disclosure: I’m obsessed with polenta. It doesn’t matter if it’s cooked in the InstantPot until rich and creamy or if it’s cut into rounds and pan-fried to crisp, golden perfection. Polenta is incredibly versatile but, because it of its natural sweetness, it brings balance to really spicy or savory proteins, like Italian sausage.
It’s amazing how cooking brings out tons of toasted, caramel flavors in this butternut squash recipe. A super-easy side dish that works with so many proteins, I find it hard to resist a Thanksgiving-inspired meal — so I serve with turkey breast.
Spaghetti in Garlic Oil
A flavorful (but lightly sauced) pasta like this one always makes me think of one protein: shrimp. This small-but-mighty shellfish has some natural sweetness so, just like pasta noodles, it doesn’t need to be smothered in marinara or Alfredo sauce to be delicious.