Mint jelly and mashed potatoes are more like afterthoughts than sides dishes when served alongside lamb. Thoughtful side dishes complement the lamb, and never serve only to take up space on a plate. Diversity helps you avoid the boring, and world cuisines have the excitement you need to take your next lamb dinner to the next level.
Lamb distinctly harmonizes with Mediterranean-influenced vegetable dishes. Mediterranean styles of serving dinner — Provencal, Greek and Turkish, for example — incorporate vegetable side dishes before and during the main course. Lamb dinners in the Mediterranean commonly start with a mezze of cold vegetables, such as sliced red onions, cucumbers and tomatoes drizzled with olive oil; this classic combination cleanses the palate and primes the appetite. In Greece, lamb side dishes include arakas me anitho — or tomatoes, red onions, artichoke hearts and peas served warm with olive oil and dill. In Turkey and Croatia, dolma, or stuffed bell peppers slow cooked with olive oil and served cold or at room temperature, are called on to keep lamb company thanks to the wide array of ingredients you can add to them. Dolma stuffed with rice, pine nuts, onions, currants and oregano is a common fixture at Turkish lamb dinners.
South Asian Spice
Much of South Asia relies on lamb as the primary protein in the diet. Malaysian rendang, or lamb shank curry, and Indian masala raan, or braised lamb shanks, represent the spiciness inherent to South Asian lamb — and also the variety of vegetables sides that impart taste sensations ranging from soothing to spicy. Khichdi, jasmine rice cooked with lentils and served with tomato chutney and ghee, provides classic Indian flavors that work with lamb without contrasting with it. Sliced green okra sauteed with onions and tomatoes, known as bhindi masala in India and bamies latheres in Greece, and palek paneer, fresh cheese heated though in a spinach puree, also accompany lamb in South Asia. The latter provides contrast to temper the heat of the main dish.
Middle Eastern Feasting
You’ll find no shortage of herbs in Middle Eastern lamb dishes, especially those of Iran, where aromatics such as saffron, rose petals, orange zest, caraway seeds, cinnamon and mint perfume lamb dishes and dining rooms alike. Iranian side dishes served with lamb usually echo the fragrances. Morasa pulao, or jeweled rice, comprises saffron-steeped basmati rice embellished with orange zest, raisins, currants, pistachios, carrots, onions and advie pulao — 2 parts ground cinnamon to 1 part each ground nutmeg, rose petals and cardamom. Rice and vegetable tagines, such as long-grain white rice mixed with sauteed broccoli, tomatoes, spicy harissa, chickpeas sugar and coriander, offset acidic lamb dishes with a touch of sweetness.
Traditional lamb side dishes find their roots in numerous diverse cuisines, pulling from French, English, Australian and Scottish influences. You may find honey-glazed turnips, warm potato salad with parsley and vinaigrette and butter-braised leeks with thyme on the French dinner table when serving lamb. A melange of pearl barley, wild rice and red rice flavored with mint, garlic and parsley is a British lamb side with roots in Eastern cuisine. You can make your own vegetable sides match seamlessly with lamb by echoing or contrasting the flavor sensations. For example, if you have a hearty dish of lamb shanks braised in red wine and tomatoes, serve a mild, nonacidic side, such as butter-poached white asparagus flavored with thyme. If you want to accentuate a lamb dish, choose complementary flavors. For example, when serving spice-rubbed lamb cooked on the grill, serve roasted herb potatoes and caramelized onions to support the smokiness of the dish without distracting the palate.
References and ResourcesThe Guardian: The 10 Best Middle Eastern recipes
The Professional Chef, 9th ed.; The Culinary Institute of America