Side dishes have been on the sidelines for too long.

Cookbook author Tara Mataraza Desmond noticed that while talking to friends about Thanksgiving a few years back.

“I was making a turnip and rutabaga gratin, right before Thanksgiving, emailing some friends and asking what they were making, and no one was talking about the turkey; it was all about the sides. That threw a spotlight on the fact that sides have a major part of the meal, but by virtue of the name, ‘sides,’ seem secondary,” said Desmond in a phone interview from her home in Philadelphia.

Desmond, who cooks for her husband and three children, started planning her home-cooked meals from the side, instead of from the main dish, and ended up writing “Choosing Sides: From Holidays to Every Day, 130 Delicious Recipes to Make the Meal” (Andrews McMeel Publishing LLC, 2013).

“I think it’s an obvious but often overlooked way to approach a meal. Go at it sideways. Start with a colorful, flavorful side dish, and plan the meal from there. It not only strikes inspiration in you as a cook, it makes meal planning easier.

“It’s so much simpler than starting with a chicken, and trying to construct a meal from it. Think about summer’s backyard grilling — it’s all about the sides, and then you throw something on the grill,” Desmond said.

She’s right. Summer meal planning may start with something from the farmers market or backyard garden that’s fresh, or from an urge for potato salad. “Choosing Sides” includes a classic vintage potato salad with a mayonnaise dressing, plus a non-mayo Red Potatoes with Cider Mustard and Candied Bacon (see recipe).

“My husband is not a creamy potato salad guy. He doesn’t like mayo, and I love it, but a potato salad is an American classic, no matter what, and is a great side all year. I knew that sour, sweet, crunchy combo in a vinegary red potato salad would be a favorite. I created it for my husband and anyone else who doesn’t like mayo,” Desmond said.

Desmond observed that making side dishes a priority makes sense if you eat less meat, (her first cookbook was “Almost Meatless,” Ten Speed Press, 2009), cook some of the ancient grains that have become popular (e.g., quinoa, faro, bulgur), or subscribe to community-supported agriculture (CSA) and get a farm share box full of vegetables each week in the summer and fall.

“It’s increasingly common that people are getting big, bulk boxes of food, and if they approach their meal from that box, it’s a lot easier to create a balanced plate.

“People are becoming more enthused about food, and don’t just want a singular hot and steamy ingredient sitting beside a hunk of meat on the plate. We want something exciting and delicious on a Wednesday night,” she said.

“Choosing Sides” makes it easy to branch out into more interesting side dishes than the usual salad, potatoes, bread, buttered noodles and steamed broccoli, carrots or green beans that many of us return to, time and again.

Side dishes can be simple or complicated. “Choosing Sides” has a chapter devoted to weeknight dinners that are easy and quick side dishes for busy evenings, plus chapters for holiday feasts and intimate gatherings that require more effort.

Desmond includes charts with suggestions for main-course pairings, which comes in handy if you often find yourself wondering, “What goes with that?”

If you know you’re serving beef, for example, she lists dozens of side dish recipes in the book that would work, from Chipotle Black Beans to Broccoli Sesame Crunch (see recipe).

If you find a side dish recipe in the book that sounds delicious, you’ll be pleased to see that each recipe has a list of “alongside” suggestions for the kinds of foods that would complement it.

For Ginger Honey Carrots (see recipe), Desmond’s “alongside” list recommends five-spice rubbed roasted chicken, tofu-fried rice or lamb and chickpea curry to spark the cook’s imagination.

“My biggest thing in creating this cookbook was to help people achieve a balanced, delicious plate by coming up with beautiful side dishes that also help improve nutrition,” Desmond said.

Local restaurants and grocery take-out counters have caught on to the allure of great side dishes.

Executive chef Chris Tate at Scanlon’s Restaurant inside the Athletic Club of Bend prides himself on side dishes that make meals memorable, like his Warm Grain Salad with Pakistani Curry Spice (see recipe). It is also served over spinach salad as a more elaborate side dish.

“A side dish should accent the flavor of the main protein or food you’re accompanying it with. It shouldn’t just be on the plate for looks. The side dish can help round out the flavor profile of the whole meal. Like a piece of grilled chicken is a neutral flavor, so the side dish should balance that and contribute to a feeling of, ‘Wow, that’s a great dish.’ It should create a food memory,” Tate said.

When Tate started working at Scanlon’s about three years ago, he said the food was richer and heavier than it is now.

“We’re connected to a health club, so I started from scratch and rebuilt the menu around a healthier food lifestyle: more Mediterranean, and more healthy alternatives. Our Warm Grain Salad is good with a hamburger or as a side for a grilled piece of fish. Side dishes, even when they’re healthy and low in fat, can be the star of the plate sometimes,” Tate said.

Devore’s Good Food Store on Bend’s west side is Central Oregon’s oldest natural foods store, featuring organic and locally sourced items. Mary and Bob Devore will celebrate 37 years in the same location in May.

Devore’s take-out deli is well known for its wide variety of side dishes, including salads, soups, dips and spreads and casseroles (the key lime pie and other homemade desserts are not to be missed either).

Katie Hahn Klaassen is Devore’s production manager. She shared Devore’s Coconut Rice Salad with Cashews and Mangoes (see recipe), telling us it’s a great side dish, cold or warm.

Klaassen is a food science major from Central Washington University who also attended the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in Cambridge, Mass. She told us what she thinks makes a great side dish.

“The biggest thing is balancing the plate with textures and flavors. If you have something that’s rich or fried, you want to pair it with a side dish that’s bright or tangy to cut that richness. Same with texture: If you have a smoother texture on your main, make a nice, crunchy side. Our coconut rice is a bold-flavored side, so it’s best with a paired down, or more basic main dish. Olive oil and salt and pepper on grilled chicken or a pork chop would go really well with it, or a simple garlic, tamari, black pepper marinated tofu — something simple. You wouldn’t want a bunch of flavors fighting with the rice salad,” Klaassen said.

So, let’s give the sides a little more love and attention. You’ll boost the flavors, textures and nutrition of your meals and have more fun cooking, too.

— Reporter: