Step Up Your Sides
Whether You Go Classic Or Spruce Things Up, Get Creative With Side Dishes For Steaks
“Yeah, I’d like a New York strip, medium rare.” “Would you like any sides with that?” “Nope, just the steak, alone, on the plate.”
When was the last time you overheard this conversation at your restaurant? Never, right? That’s because sides are more or less a given when having a big steak dinner. Like a glass of Cabernet or a martini, side dishes are part of the total package. And some are absolutely necessary.
“There are classics that are revered for most guests,” said Chris Pandel, executive chef at Chicago’s Swift & Sons. “They’re looking for things like mashed potato, creamed spinach, some sort of baked potato-style item. Those are always ubiquitous and understood to be served at a steakhouse.”
Other sides that seem to be found fairly often alongside steaks, especially in the last decade, are mac and cheese and Brussels sprouts. And people go crazy for both. How you prepare them is up to you — you can combine different cheeses, add truffles or lobster to mac and cheese; bacon or duck fat to Brussels. But whatever you do, don’t take them off your menu.
“In Dallas, people expect you to have mac and cheese on the menu,” said Nicolas Ocando, executive chef at Hibiscus in Dallas. “Anytime I try to remove it, I get pushback. Personally, I like to give customers what they want so they keep coming back!”
At New York’s Lambs Club, chef Geoffrey Zakarian tweaks his Brussels sprouts dish a bit. He does them shaved with duck confit, pecans and pumpkin seed vinaigrette. With this dish, it’s all about balance. “Brussels have a lot of sulfur so they need to be balanced with crunch and the sweetness of pecans,” Zakarian said.
While you can and should have your classics, it’s alright to get creative and mix it up. Oftentimes, creativity comes with seasonality. Depending where you are in the country, you can only get certain vegetables at certain times — and you should make the most of it. In spring, that means taking advantage of items like peas, ramps, fiddlehead ferns and asparagus while fall is all about root vegetables like beets and parsnips and, of course, potatoes.
“I grew up picking fiddlehead ferns in the woods in Maine. People in Dallas aren’t used to seeing them, but if they do get exposed to them it’s usually a component of an entrée. By putting them in the side section [like I do], it gives more exposure to more guests.”
– Nicolas Ocando , executive chef, Hibiscus
“I grew up picking fiddlehead ferns in the woods in Maine,” Ocando said. “People in Dallas aren’t used to seeing them, but if they do get exposed to them it’s usually a component of an entrée. By putting them in the side section [like I do], it gives more exposure to more guests.”
Ocando does a hard sear on the fiddleheads and serves them with charred cauliflower florets and puree with caramelized pearl onions in maple syrup and pine nuts, with a drizzle of brown butter. In summer, he’ll do a chilled carrot dish served with pickled ramps, fresh currants and a Green Goddess dressing. And he’s also put out crispy spaetzel tossed with tarragon, thyme and parsley that offers a nice play on texture with the crunchy exterior and soft interior.
In addition to seasonality, Pandel likes to work vinegar and citrus into his recipes. He said they help play on diners’ palates so it won’t get fatigued, since steak tends to be a rich meal, oftentimes with one-note in the flavor department.
“We look for elements to brighten it up,” Pandel said. “A touch of yuzu for acidity or sherry vinegar. Vinegar is my instant go-to for any vegetable prep. Chiles, citrus juice, sambal paste for background heat, fresh herbs like mint are kind of unexpected and make a pop.”
Last fall, Pandel took advantage of sunchokes being in season. He baked and then crushed them before pan frying them with mint, ricotta salata, olive oil and lemon juice. “It hit all the same notes as a crispy potato,” he said. “It was light, refreshing and unctuous.”
When all is said and done, you want to have a nice variety of side dishes. Don’t think of them as a second thought. It’s a way to enhance a vegetable or starch and bring out more balance and variety to the main event: the steak. No matter if you stick with the classics or have more fun and play around with unique vegetables, different seasonings, sauces or spices, it’s all about accenting the red meat and offering guests a delicious, well-rounded, flavorful meal.