Whether you’re planning your Labor Day menu or just looking for a great weeknight meal, these are some of the best summer side dishes worth building the whole thing around. From spicy stuffed poblanos to a bright watermelon salad, they’ll almost overshadow the main course—but you won’t mind.
Barring a steak Frites feast or Korean barbecue blowout, meat is not always the main attraction at a great meal—not even at a summer grilling bash, if you can believe. The focus may not necessarily be a vegetarian equivalent of a meaty main, either. A great summer side dish can grab center stage instead, stealing the spotlight because it’s just so dang delicious. If you’ve got a stellar side dish on your hands, give it a little stage time for crying out loud. Start with said sexy side and plan the rest of your meal around it with complimenting flavors.
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To find a side dish so compelling that it motivates the character of your whole meal, start with season and region. If it’s summer, you’ve got a bounty of potentials to choose from: corn, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, summer squash, green beans, beets, avocado, celery, cabbage, peas, and radishes (phew). Plus there are the usual carb-tastic players: potatoes, rice, pasta, bread. And remember the rule that a good quality cheese improves almost everything. (That’s our rule, at least.)
As you set out the plates on the table, watch out for that shining side dish stealing a little thunder from the rest of the lineup. But that’s fine with us. A truly sensational summer side dish elevates the whole production.
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If you thought fresh summer corn on the cob was plenty flavorful enough, well, that’s true. But there’s a way to make it unexpectedly better, so much so that the grilled steak or burgers won’t be the talk of the meal. It might be even better to have a Mexican-style main dish, such as tacos, tamales, chiles relleños, enchiladas, or fajitas to go with this side. Speaking of this side: Slathering each cob with mayonnaise, spice, crumbly Mexican cheese, and tangy lime juice is a combination that might not come to mind at first. But oh, does it work. There’ll be explosions of flavor in your mouth! Don’t take it from us that it works. Try it. Get our Grilled Corn with Cayenne, Lime, and Cotija recipe.
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Grilled watermelon combines two of the best things about summer: cooking out and feasting on fresh, juicy fruit. Lots of summer fruit is great grilled, but there’s something especially appropriate about placing watermelon on the fire. Pair its smoke-kissed sweetness with salty, sharp feta cheese and refreshing mint for a sparkling summer salad that will outshine pretty much anything else near it. For that reason, you should keep your main course on the simple side; think grilled shrimp or grilled chicken, with understated seasonings, maybe with a Greek bent (lemon, thyme, oregano) to complement the feta. Get our Grilled Watermelon, Feta, and Mint Salad recipe.
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We recently had a religious experience at NYC’s new Middle Eastern and Mediterraean outpost, Lamalo. The reason was their flavorful take on the traditional Greek potato dip, skordalia, where blanched russet potatoes are blended with almonds, oil, raw garlic, bread, and spices. It is absolute heaven and absolutely worth building a meal around, working well as a side or a dip (ease up on the almonds and oil for a side dish). What’s more? Lamalo shared the skordalia recipe in full. Try serving with some kabobs or simple lamb burgers with mint and feta, and if you do…please invite us! Get the Skordalia recipe.
Summer tomatoes are the best because this is when they’re in season, and freshness is never more important in a vegetable’s taste than in a tomato. Have you tried those bland, watery types of tomatoes at the supermarket? Gather some ruby red tomatoes, or any vivid color if you can get your hand on the less common heirloom varieties. This is the time to harvest your garden or peruse the local farmers market. The salad is also useful as a vehicle for using up your almost stale Italian or French bread. It has to be that crusty kind though, to hold its own in the savory anchovy-laden lemon-garlic vinaigrette. Crunchy cucumbers and freshly torn basil provide even more texture and fragrance. Get our Panzanella Tuscan Bread Salad recipe.
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Really, a dish doesn’t have to be complicated to be the highlight of the meal. For example, our popular cucumber salad, which possesses one of our favorite textures of all time—creamy. To get that creaminess, you have to salt the cucumbers and let that salt draw out the excess water that’s inherent to cucumbers. Then the sour cream can do its magic. Fresh herbs, in this case dill, are the final touch that makes this simple salad wake up your senses to the bounty that summer provides. This would be a great side dish to salmon, fish, crabs, lobster, chicken, pork, or even beef. Get our Creamy Cucumber Salad recipe.
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Potato salad, roasted potatoes, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, fried potatoes: We’re familiar with all these tuber techniques. Grilled sweet potato wedges? Not so much. Thick wedges of the vibrant orange potato are boiled, cooled, rubbed with a spicy-smoky mix of cayenne, cumin, and oil, and then grilled. The cooling sour cream, lime juice, and cilantro sauce can be dolloped on top or served as a dip. This is not your average preparation of sweet potatoes. It’s a summer version that couldn’t be further from the winter holiday variety with all that brown sugar, marshmallows, and cinnamon. It’s motivation to think of what other dishes you’d like to grill to accompany this sure-thing. Get our Grilled Sweet Potatoes with Sour Cream and Lime Sauce recipe.
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Don’t even think about it. It’s tempting. You might want to make this the main dish in your meal because it looks like it’s got it all. You’ve got your protein (black beans), your vegetable (poblanos and tomatoes), your carb (basmati rice), and your cheese (what, that’s not an essential food group?). But this would be great with chicken or even a marinated skirt steak and salad. You cut and gut the seeds and membranes out of the poblanos just like you would with a Halloween jack-o-lantern pumpkin. Poblanos are very mild peppers, by the way. Inside those peppers go the rice, tomatoes, scallions, cotija cheese, sour cream, cilantro, and cumin. You secure the pepper lid back on with toothpicks and bake until the poblano skin is all blistery and wonderful. Get our Stuffed Poblano Peppers with Black Beans and Cheese recipe.
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