Sponsored by Blount Fine Foods
No more pallid peas or crunchless carrots. Savvy chefs and operators are rethinking and remaking side dishes. The millennial trend toward fresh and flavorful has moved from the center to the side of the plate.
Think Organic Creamed Corn with Vermont fruitwood-cured bacon — nitrate free, of course. Or Truffle Polenta. A serving of Chipotle Smashed Sweet Potatoes? Or does Buffalo-Style Mac and Cheese sound like it would appeal to today's customers?
These are all sides on Blount Fine Foods' menu of offerings. The Massachusetts company has embraced the upscaling trend and put its creative culinary team to work on an array of dishes to tempt bored palates.
“What is great about the sides business is that you can make nutritious, clean-label dishes that taste great,” says Bob Sewall, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Blount. Clean label, of course, means a return to “real” food that is made with wholesome ingredients. “It’s all about taking a tired category and upscaling it,” he adds.
Chefs across the country are in agreement. At Tio Pepe, a Spanish restaurant in the West Village in New York, they offer blistered Shishito peppers and grilled spring vegetables. Manager Ramiro Aburto Lopez says that the orders of sides have increased with the new preparations.
Salads are getting more interesting as well. Chefs have been creative with salad offerings for a while, but now they are heeding the call for fresh and local.
Last year Forbes magazine announced the demise of kale. Instead, chefs are using fresh beet greens, chard, turnip greens, mustard greens and carrot tops in sides and salads, the article observes. While these greens have been around forever, they are new to most U.S. menus and palates.
Unusual ingredients give salads a new life. Galway Bay, an Irish restaurant in Annapolis, Md., offers Old Bay Shrimp Caesar and a Corned Beef Ice Berg salad. The corned beef salad has crumbled blue cheese, diced bacon, roasted tomatoes and a balsamic reduction.
Galway’s Garden Beet Salad includes Mandarin oranges, goat cheese, and toasted sunflower seeds, all tossed in a vinaigrette. The oranges add color, the cheese flavor and the seeds, crunch.
Real mac and cheese
Sewall reports that Blount’s Mac and Cheese offerings are “out of control. We didn’t want to be like some of the other mac and cheese dishes, with a ‘cheese- like’ substance loaded with preservatives,” he says. “We spent the time to find a pasta that is clean label and we use real cheese.”
A high ratio of egg white in the pasta prevents the noodles from absorbing moisture, giving them an al dente mouthfeel. The culinary team has created a number of recipes, including Buffalo-Style Mac and Cheese, Hatch Chile, and a Smoked Gouda in addition to the classic dish.
Sewall notes that the popularity of sides is geographic. “In the Southeast or Southwest, they don’t eat fries; they eat mac and cheese,” he says. Creamed corn rules in the Midwest. On the West Coast, organic sides — lots of lentils and chick peas — are in vogue, he says.
The trend is widespread
The upscale sides trend is not only found in commercial restaurants. At UMass, Ken Toong’s award-winning foodservice program offers students a variety of stations, from pasta to antipasti to pizza to salads. Toong, who is executive director of auxiliary enterprises, jokes that students come for the food and stay for the education.
UMass is typical of colleges and universities that cater to student demands for good nutrition and variety. An array of side dishes meets this challenge successfully. The number of combinations of ingredients is almost endless and many of the institutions purchase fresh ingredients from local purveyors. To promote transparency in sourcing, another millennial and Gen Z requisite, Toong has informational signage informing students where the products are from.
Boosting check averages
If upscale sides are bundled with an entrée, the offering is enhanced and operators can charge more for the item. A chicken breast with black truffle polenta and broccoli rabe with white beans will command a better price point than the same chicken breast with mixed vegetables and rice.
The other way to boost the check is to offer a variety of flavorful sides à la carte. Some diners order a number of à la carte sides instead of an entrée. Often diners will order several interesting sides to share. Some operators are offering platters with a choice of sides. This gives diners a chance to sample a number of dishes and satisfies the desire for variety.
As Sewall says, there is no need for the side-dish category to be tired anymore. With a creative culinary approach, operators can satisfy diners’ demand for fresh, healthy, variety and clean label — and boost check averages at the same time.