This Is How to Put Side Dishes Front and Center

Food & Drink

You’ve seen the commercials. Meat slapping down on the barbecue in slow-mo and getting showered in assorted powders. The reveal of grill marks on a brat. Fire being all fiery underneath. Meat, meat, meat. We get it.

Summer is outdoor entertaining season, and when you’re feeding the horde, it’s not enough to simply throw a few burgers on the barbie and call it lunch. C’mon. You’re better than that. True hosts know how to use their tongs and their wits for greater glory. It’s time for sides to have their moment in the sun. For your next get-together, treat these non-meats like the stars they are.

Corn is the most culturally and economically significant crop of the Americas, and the undisputed queen of corn prep is elote. Elote is a popular street food in Mexico, where you can buy it on the cob or in a cup. The flavors are incredible, which you’ll be thankful for two days later when you’re still finding it in your teeth.

What you need:

  • 8 ears of corn in husks
  • ½ cup of butter, room temp
  • ½ cup mayonnaise or sour cream
  • ½ cup cilantro, finely chopped
  • ½ cup grated cotija cheese
  • 1 tablespoon of ancho chili powder
  • 2 limes, cut into wedges
  • Salt and pepper, naturally

What you do:
Pull the husks of the corn cobs down to the base, but don’t remove them. Detach the silks as well, then smooth the husks back to their starting points.

Soak the cobs in salted, cold water for 10 minutes.

Grill the corn cobs (in their husks) on a closed grill for 15-20 minutes, turning them a few times. You can test for doneness by peeling back a husk and poking at a kernel.

Now you’ve got some choices. Vendors in Mexico often sell elotes with their natural husks for handles. If this is your style, peel the husks and silks back and proceed. Otherwise, you can remove the husks and grab the cobs with your hands, skewers or those awesome corn holders that look like little cobs (what an amazing invention). You can also be bougie and cut the kernels into a bowl, add the other ingredients and stir.

If you’re maintaining the corn’s cobby integrity (which, let’s be honest, feels right for a BBQ), you can dress your cobs on a platter or package them individually on squares of aluminum foil.The latter is a fun assembly line project for kids. Lay out your foil and, in the center of each, add a dollop of butter, mayo/sour cream, cilantro, chili powder, salt and pepper. Pop a cob on top of each and roll up the foil. The ingredients will melt and dance around all up on those niblets and be perfect when it’s time to eat. Serve with lime wedges.

PRO-TIP: Cilantro isn’t for everyone. If folks at your gathering have that particular genetic quirk, swap it out for parsley. They’ll be thankful for, you know, not having to eat something that tastes like soap.

If you’ve got a halfway-decent garden, you’re buried in summer squash and tomatoes right about now. Barring that, you should have no trouble finding some pretty amazing zucchinis and asparagus at your grocery store or farmer’s market. Properly grilled summer vegetables evoke the same prehistoric feeling of elation as any chop or rib. Right?

What you need:

  • 3 zucchinis, sliced ¼” thick, lengthwise
  • 1 pound or bundle of fresh asparagus spears
  • 2 bell peppers, sliced
  • 3 tomatoes, cut in 1” slices (for integrity)
  • 1 eggplant, sliced ¼” thick
  • olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • (optional) garlic salt, Adobo or lemon pepper

What you do:
Preheat your grill for medium heat and lightly oil the top grate. You can also use a layer of aluminum foil for easier cleanup (and better moisture retention), but this works great directly on the grill.

Snap the asparagus spears where they want to snap. If this is your first time, be prepared for the single most enjoyable food prep experience of your life.

Salt your eggplant slices and lay them to rest on a paper towel for a few minutes, then flip and repeat. This will get the excess water out.

Drizzle the veggies with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. You can also use a powdered Adobo, garlic salt or lemon pepper. But don’t overdo it—the natural flavors should be the main attraction here.

Grill your squashes, eggplants and peppers for 3-4 minutes, then flip. Add the asparagus and tomatoes and grill for 3-4 more minutes. Check for tenderness, but don’t let them get limp.

What, you thought you could get through this without some sort of booze infusion? Is this your first time here? If so, welcome. These dressed-up pineapple rings go great with burgers or steaks, but they’ve also got what it takes to step into the spotlight on their own. Pineapples—you’re weird, you’re beautiful. This is your time.

What you need:

  • 1 20-oz can of pineapple rings
  • ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 cup of tequila
  • 2 limes
  • 1 tablespoon of ground chiles—chipotle, if possible
  • Salt and pepper

What you do:
Pour the pineapple juice from the can into a pitcher and ask cousin Linda to make some cocktails.

Place the pineapple rings in a sealable container or plastic bag.

Add the chopped cilantro, tequila and ground chilis.

Take a shot with your Uncle Walter.

Squeeze in the juice of two limes and add a half teaspoon of salt and pepper.

Refrigerate the concoction for one hour, occasionally shaking it up a bit so everyone gets to know each other.

Preheat your grill to medium-high and give the grate a light brush of oil.

Grill your pineapple slices for 4 minutes on each side. While that’s happening, cook down your marinade on the stove until it’s thick and syrupy.

Plate the rings and drizzle with cooked-down marinade.

Cooking outside has been a thing since…before there was an alternative to outside. And while huddling around a fire fills us with eons of nostalgia, we’re living in a new era. For your next summertime get-together, blast your barbecue out of the Paleolithic with some sides—and give them free rein to fill your plate.