How to Pair Foods
For some reason, I like to have three components to each meal. I don’t know why. Maybe because I grew up in a meat+starch+veggie household? I don’t adhere to that exact equation anymore, but my variation is probably closely linked.
Our plates often have whatever the main dish is, plus a large portion of vegetables. Sometimes there’s a starch in there, dividing the main portion in to a smaller serving.
Here are a few examples of some meals that we’ve eaten recently and how I came up with the parings.
I like to start with whatever portion of the meal I’ve been inspired by. If it’s asparagus that’s the star, then I’ll figure out what would go well with it. The asparagus is a bit crunchy, so the texture of the bulgur wheat was a nice addition. The fennel, when roasted, was tender and almost creamy. And the bright crunch of the mâche finished it off, making for a complete meal.
In this pasta dish (the pasta being ribbons of sweet potatoes and greens), I topped it with a fried egg with the yolk still runny. When we cut into the yolk, it would create a sort of creamy sauce for the pasta.
With something as simple as a Grilled Cheese Sandwich, I like to pair it with things like raw veggies (sometimes with dip) and fruit. Their cold, crisp crunch is a nice contrast to the hot, crispy sandwich. There might be soup, for dipping, or a cold glass of milk.
When we eat soups, there’s usually some sort of bread as the side. Then maybe a glass of wine becomes the third portion.
In general, I like the three (or four) components to bring something unique to the dish. We wouldn’t want to have everything crunchy (our jaws wouldn’t thank us) or mushy, sweet or savory, rich or bright. We want some variety. That’s why I like to eat a juicy Burger with crispy French Fries, or a Stir Fry topped with nuts, or a Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Tomato Soup and a side of Salt and Vinegar Potato Chips. Well rounded meals are the best.
So, how do we do this? Well, some of it comes with experience. Trial and error has taught me that a big salad needs more than just lettuce and zucchini. The textures are too similar. I want some crunch from nuts and seeds, maybe croutons too. And some bright citrus will go a long way towards making a boring salad a great one.
Beyond texture, there are the flavors to think about. If you’re serving something super savory, a sweet note might be good. Think a Grilled Steak. Just on its own, sure, it would be delicious. But, what if you served it alongside a Butter Lettuce Salad with a dressing made of balsamic vinegar, honey, and olive oil. Then added some asparagus that’s been tossed with bright lemon juice… See what I did there? A meal has been transformed.
If you’re serving a Creamy Cauliflower Soup that’s so smooth and velvety, some crispy Cheddar Biscuits would be a great paring. Just regular bread could be fine. But, think about the two options: bread that’s pretty soft, which is essentially the same texture as the soup, or biscuits that have some crunch and bold cheddar flecks. I know that I’d prefer the latter.
You can also consider things like the color; what you want the dish to look like. It doesn’t matter to everyone, but some people have a hard time eating foods that are too bland looking (think cauliflower or oatmeal). So, simple things like some green herbs in a cauliflower soup, or raisins in oatmeal can make a big difference. It’s also said to be good for us to “eat the rainbow”, when it comes to fruits and veggies. So, adding a variety of colorful things to your meal can be a healthy way to add more fun to your plate.
In general, the key is to think about what you’re making. It doesn’t need to be overthought or fancy. Remember, grilled cheese? Being considerate of your food can lead to an overall better meal experience. Think contrast (flavor, texture, color) that compliments. When you end up with a variety of textures, complimentary flavors, and great colors on the plate, it’s sure to be a winning dish.
When in doubt, The Vegetarian Flavor Bible (or the original version The Flavor Bible) is a great resource for menu planning. After my knives and cast irons, it’s quite possibly my most oft used kitchen tool. And there’s always friends, family, or your social media community to go to for suggestions.