Siding with barbecue

When it comes to barbecue, foodservice directors are balancing authenticity with innovation in their side dishes.

3 bean salad

There’s perhaps no cuisine Americans are more passionate about than barbecue. They wait in long lines for the best pulled pork sandwich, host entire festivals and competitions around brisket and debate the best barbecue joints in nearly every food publication in the country.

But you can’t have barbecue without sides, and they can be as varied as the meats they accompany. For example, Timothy Gee, executive chef at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., believes old standards are best.

“[When it comes to barbecue], I see most trends thrown out the window,” Gee says. “It’s one of those things that’s all about comfort. Classics are always the way to go.”

The hospital recently partnered with a local barbecue restaurant as part of its visiting chef series. Once a quarter, the hospital offers the restaurant’s smoked meats alongside traditional sides of mac and cheese, collard greens, baked beans and cornbread, all made in-house at the hospital.

“It’s a very popular concept and a great way to give our customers something different,” says Gee, who says sales average more than $20,000 dollars every time the event is offered, a nearly 10 percent increase over a normal day’s revenue.

Other operators, such as Mike Folino, assistant director of nutrition services at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio, say their customers prefer modern variations of such sides. He says the most popular barbecue side dishes  jalapeno cheddar corn muffins and a chipotle three-bean salad.

Get creative, keep it authentic

“The world expects more than baked beans and coleslaw, so we need to always be thinking outside the box,” says Folino. He also likes to mix up preparation methods, such as serving roasted or grilled corn versus steamed, and offer different types of grains, such as using orzo in a salad instead of a more traditional pasta such as penne.

Craig Tarrant, executive chef for the Compass Group at Microsoft Corp. in Redmond, Wash., can relate. His team recently launched a house-smoked barbecue concept called ‘Q,’ which offers a rotating menu on a three-week cycle reflecting Texas, Memphis and Carolina barbecue.

“Regional authenticity, even down to the beverages and desserts, is key,” says Tarrant, who varies his sides according to which region of barbecue is being served.

For example, when Carolina barbecue is featured, sides include sweet potato salad, bacon-braised greens and corn on the cob. When it’s Memphis barbecue week, sides change to potato salad, pit-baked beans, Hoppin’ John and cucumber salad. For Texas style, sides feature whole roasted red potatoes, creamed spinach with bacon, cowboy beans and southwestern corn salad.

“These sides were intentionally chosen to reflect popular foods of the area, and to best complement the flavors of the woods and unique barbecue sauces used in each region,” says Tarrant.

Research, then serve

Before introducing barbecue to their menus, Tarrant recommends that operators do their homework. He says books are a good place to start, but “the best homework is eating the food.”

“Go to barbecue competitions, speak to the pitmasters, taste the foods and learn the subtleties that make each region’s barbecue distinct,” says Tarrant.

Enhance the smoke or cleanse the palate

Barbecue side items typically fall into one of two categories. They either enhance the smoky barbecue flavor,  like pit-smoked beans or sides like cucumber salad are intended as palate cleansers to temper the meats, Tarrant says. He suggests tasting sides on their own and then with the meats to better understand how the flavors interact.

Equally important is variety, especially since some customers, such as vegetarians, may opt for sides only. Folino says he offers four a la carte side choices daily. “Our focus is on offering an overall balanced plate in regards to the entire flavor profile,” Folino says. “We use a mix of textures, color and flavor to complete our dishes.”

Add portion control

The challenge with traditional barbecue sides is the high calorie count, says Gee, who focuses on portion control by limiting portions to no more than four or five ounces.

Folino’s team works to make traditional favorites healthy without sacrificing flavor. “It’s all about subtle changes and being creative,” Folino says.

For example, Wexner Medical Center’s three-bean salad is made with cumin and cilantro for maximum flavor with minimal caloric impact. Similarly, vinegar-based slaws are served instead of mayonnaise-based versions, and smoked turkey replaces the fatty pork in collard greens.

“It’s all about subtle changes and being creative,” Folino says.

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