Depending on how spicy and smoky the barbecue ribs are, accompanying side dishes can either be sweet and starchy or bright and invigorating. Several side dishes appear as standard, particularly in Southern barbecue, but cooks have plenty of scope to experiment with flavors.
A simple tomato and sweet onion salad offsets a heavy rack of ribs by cutting through the fats and cleansing the palate. Balsamic vinegar, olive oil and a sprinkling of fresh basil provide flavor. Coleslaw is a traditional barbecue side, but instead of a gloppy, mayo-drenched slaw, cooks can substitute with a fresh, crunchy dressing-free salad with sesame oil for smokiness and a smudge of wasabi paste for heat. Likewise, raw snow peas straight out of the pod and thin-sliced red onion in a sesame oil and rice vinegar dressing add an Asian flourish.
Smoked corn taps into the pioneer mood of a barbecue. Season in the husk with plenty of salt and thyme butter for a subtler flavor or pack on the heat with a Mexican-inspired corn dressed with lime juice, cilantro and jalapeno peppers. Vegetable kabobs are the go-to solution for barbecues where vegetarians are guests, but as a counterpart to ribs, dressing them in balsamic vinegar and honey brings out the sweetness and allows for caramelization. An ideal accompaniment to Southern-style ribs, as well as fried chicken, is a bowl of authentic greens, typically collard, mustard, kale and Swiss chard, slow-cooked in a Dutch oven. Cooking the greens in crisp bacon to begin with echoes the rib flavors to come.
Slow-cooked meat and potato is an unbeatable combination, but a standard potato salad can be heavy and overwhelming, particularly when following a rack of ribs. Southern Living magazine recommends perking up the presentation by serving in glasses whose rims have been crusted by lemon juice dusted with paprika. Likewise, subbing out standard potatoes with sweet potatoes, rubbed in hot, smoky spices such as chipotle and paprika and cut into slices rather than chunks, lends an innovative twist. Mac and cheese is another ubiquitous barbecue staple, best when baked in the oven to yield an appetizing crust heavy in nutmeg, cayenne pepper and mustard flavors.
A pot of baked beans at a barbecue is de rigueur, but an underwhelming mass of overly sweet beans bubbling beneath the sauce’s skin won’t inspire. Boost the flavor with some barbecue sauce, mustard and hot sauce, but temper the heat with root beer. For beans that aren’t excessively sweet, try dark beer instead. For an Italian-style dish, cannellini beans cooked over pancetta and dark beer make a thicker sauce than pinto beans. A mouthwatering succotash shouts summer with scallions and tarragon adding the herb notes to a simple-to-make combination of sweet corn, cherry tomatoes and lima beans, although Saveur magazine recommends experimenting with edamame instead.