Flash in the Pan: The sides of December

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Making a side dish for a holiday get together is a rite of the season, and one for which we should be grateful. Because if you aren’t making the sides, you might be roasting some poor bird, or a soy-based approximation of some poor bird.

A side dish is less work than a main event that nonetheless offers a back door to glory. The beast-roaster has more at stake, and more to lose. The right side dish can sweep in like a dark horse and steal the show.

Here are not one but two side dishes to double your options, or your odds, at potluck dominance — depending on your inclinations. One of these dishes is no less than perfect (and I do mean perfect) oven-baked potatoes. These potatoes are the perfect combination of crispy brown exterior and smoky, puffy insides — like tater tots but made with chunks of whole potato.

The other side dish du jour is a colorful salad of ancient grains and pomegranate seeds. Each of these recipes can stand alone and will easily fulfill your obligation as a dinner party guest. But if you want to climb a little further up the holiday tree of glory, you can toss side number one into number two, thus combining the potatoes into the grain salad. Then you have a little bit of everything, all at once, like a true Christmas sweater of side dishes.

Uncommonly Good Potatoes

My son paid his highest compliment to these potatoes, calling them “restaurant fries.” He’s not wrong. There is chemistry involved, as the potatoes are parboiled with baking powder and salt, which makes them irresistible when subsequently baked.

1 gallon water
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
2 pounds of potatoes, cut into inch-chunks
1/3 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 more teaspoon salt

Heat the water on high with the salt and baking soda. When it boils, add the potatoes and boil them for 20 minutes. Drain the potatoes and spread them on a baking sheet. Let them steam and dry while the oven preheats to 425. Add the olive oil and spices. Stir everything around to coat evenly. Bake for 15 minutes. Test, and unless irresistibly browned, spread out on the pan and pub back in the oven another five to 10 minutes until puffy.

Ancient Grain Salad

The grains in this dish should be chewy but not jaw-testing or crunchy. I use spelt here because it’s relatively soft after a reasonable amount of cooking. Farro fits the bill as well if you can get it. Kamut needs a tad more cooking but is also great in this salad.

I use a pressure cooker, which shaves a lot of time off. If you don’t have one, set aside a few hours of cooking until the grains are soft enough to use.

2 cups farro/spelt/kamut
1 tablespoon beef-flavored Better than Bouillon or similar high-end substitute
5 cups water
1 medium onion, minced
3 tablespoons oil
1/2 cup crumbled feta
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Seeds of ½ pomegranate
1 orange or red bell pepper, diced
1 cup pecan halves, toasted five or so minutes in a hot pan
½ cup chopped cilantro, arugula, parsley or other green leaves

Add the spelt, water and stock to an Instant Pot or similar pressure cooker. Cook for 20 minutes. When the valve drops open, drain the spelt but keep the stock for later.

Sauté the onions in the oil on medium heat until they are translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the drained spelt, crumbled feta, cider vinegar, lemon juice and a cup of the leftover stock to a pan with a tight-fitting lid. Stir it together and cook on low for about 20 minutes with the lid on so the grains can absorb a little more and soften. When the excess water has left the pot, let the grain cool to room temperature.

When ready to serve, toss in the diced peppers, pomegranate seeds, pecans and greens. And, if you wish, those perfect potatoes from the other side.

(Flash in the Pan is food writer Ari LeVaux’s weekly recipe column. It runs in about 100 newspapers nationwide, nourishing food sections large and small with complete protein for the belly brain.)

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