Review: Starters, Salads & Sexy Sides by Caren McSherry

Today I have a cookbook review!  My friend Sylvia of @bestlovedcookbooks on IG and I test and review a cookbook kindly donated to us by Caren McSherry, chef and owner of the Gourmet Warehouse in Vancouver BC.  


Trish: Here is a truth about me: I am not a gourmet cook, though I often feel like it would be a nice thing to present amazing food on an elegant platter to guests.  Starters, Salads and Sexy Sides made elegance the star!

I am a truly capable home cook. I can put dinner on the table for the family in record time, and it’s the staples of cooking that get me through: a starch, protein, and veg. Stews and soups also feature. I  make some creative food, like homemade veggie sausages and I have a ton of ways I can use nutritional yeast.  Also, I love to ferment.  I always have homemade sauerkraut, and kimchi on the go. I even made my own tempeh! I can get fancy once in a while: sandwich cookies, a layer cake, a Swiss roll. The fancy often looks pretty amateurish, but I’m seriously okay with that.

What’s your cooking style, Sylvia?

Sylvia: I would definitely say that like you, Trish, I’m a very capable home cook. I’m great at opening the fridge and coming up with a dinner plan on the fly. I don’t usually enjoy making “fiddly” food and when my heart isn’t in it, it shows up in the way the food tastes. Having recently returned to work after years as a stay-at-home parent, I’ll readily admit I can get into a rut trying to get food on the table that my kids will all eat.

Trish: Main courses can be easy to choose, right? A featured vegetable, or tofu, fish, poultry... But I’m basic when it comes to sides, and I never make appetizers.

Sylvia: I differ from you there! I get bored making the same sides over and over so I try to spice things up a little in my kitchen, maybe with a different seasoning or a slightly different cooking method, with mixed results. I have made entire family meals just using appetizers, which my kids love since there's lots of choice, but it can be very labour-intensive, so it’s more of a weekend endeavour.

Trish: Enter Caren McSherry’s Starters, Salads, and Sexy Sides. She has an inspiring CV. She’s a chef, having attended the Culinary Institute of America and Le Cordon Bleu, and is the founder and owner of The Gourmet Warehouse in Vancouver BC. Not only that, but she apparently owns over 1000 cookbooks!

We often neglect the side dishes, and here’s where McSherry steps in: “For me, and for most of the cooks I know, the biggest challenge is not what to make for the main course, it’s what to serve with the main course…the dilemma lies in which salad to choose, what side dishes to prepare and of, course, what delicious little starters to make to get the party started.” Her cookbook is divided into three sections: starters, salads and side dishes to complement the main.

How confident do you feel in choosing a showstopper side dish?

Sylvia: Showstopper? Probably not very. I make lots of inventive sides, but my repertoire is probably not showstopping!

Trish: Me either! But when I occasionally branch out and make a sauce, an unusual dip, or a pickle it’s often what shines. Those accent dishes get rave reviews from my guests and family every time. As I read through McSherry’s book, I bought into the concept, and was excited to try the recipes.

The book is gorgeous, with bright, beautiful photographs of almost every recipe. Sylvia and I decided to split the cooking duties, and then come together with our spouses for a wonderful dinner. We quickly decided that we did not need a main course: we would create our meal from the starters, sides and salads.


Trish: Do I dread them? Not really, but I rarely make them. I’m known to throw a bag of tortilla chips into a bowl with some jarred salsa. And cut up veggies! In the introduction to one recipe, McSherry says, “Don’t even consider the crudite platter with dip-we have far more creativity than that!” Game on!

First, I chose Forbidden Rice Cakes with Smoked Salmon and Crispy Capers. This took a lot of my skill as a cook. The dramatic visual of forbidden rice pan-fried into surprisingly sturdy and tasty cakes topped with creme fraiche and lox was amazing. Never in a million years would I have thought that I would deep fry capers to finish a dish, but it was easy and the resulting crispy fried capers were amazing! I fermented my own creme fraiche. These rice cakes were the dish that made me feel like I was a contestant on Top Chef Canada. And so tasty.

Then, I chose Mini Tomato Tartes Tatin because the recipe seemed so improbable, and something I would never make. But I dutifully layered savoury ingredients into a mini tart pan, and topped each one with parmesan stuffed puff pastry. Cooled and popped out of mini-muffin tins, they were flavour bombs! I even made my own balsamic glaze.

Sylvia: I took a slightly different approach for my appetizer. I chose the Spicy Asian Glazed Tofu, not because it challenged my skill-set but because it was the dish that I most wanted to try. It was a simple two-step process of frying the tofu until crisp and then tossing it in the pan with the Asian Glaze, which uses Spice 2.0, a Gourmet Warehouse chili paste. My finished dish was not the prettiest, but it was delicious. It’s a recipe I’ll come back to again and again and will double to use it as a main with in a rice bowl.


Trish: I make salad all the time. I chop greens, add assorted veg and a protein, top with vinegar and toss. Yum! But I never fuss with salads. I don’t “compose” them. This cookbook taught me that a salad that takes a bit of work can be worth every minute.

I chose Layered Beet Salad with Burrata because it looked so pretty! I cooked beets, stacked them with Boursin cheese smeared between layers, and made the most elaborate composed salad platter I have ever attempted. I used Burrata cheese for the first time and was shocked when the firm outer layer yielded a runny, rich interior. I had to call Sylvia just to make sure that was supposed to happen. I drizzled olive oil and my homemade balsamic glaze, and dusted with finishing salt. The result: A true showstopper!

Then, I made Wild and Forbidden Rice Salad because I could use forbidden rice in a second recipe. I love repurposing an ingredient for multiple dishes from a cookbook. The salad had an inviting orange tang, and though perhaps less exotic than some of the other recipes, was a nice starchy addition to the table, and would work very well as a hearty potluck dish.

Sylvia: And I chose the Layered Nicoise Salad. My children don’t often eat fish so it was a great opportunity to try something outside my wheelhouse. The tuna was crusted in sesame and seared on the outside, leaving a slightly pink interior. The salad was composed of layers of greens, sliced baby potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, boiled eggs, peppers and olives.  The sliced tuna finished it off.  It was definitely the most beautiful of the dishes I made from the book and also the one that could be assembled well in advance.

Sexy Sides:

Trish: Caren writes, “Boiled potatoes, steamed broccoli, or canned creamed corn do not constitute a sexy side in any way. Sexy sides have layered textures, riots of flavour, colour, and creativity, and they demand second helpings!” I’m in big trouble here, as my most common side is steamed broccoli. I’m not giving simple steamed or stir fried veg a pass–they are the workhorse of a busy household dinner–but after cooking some of her sides, I have to agree, I’d want second helping of these side dishes.

I chose Charred Miso Broccoli. I charred broccolini on my grill pan, a first for me, then tossed it with an amazingly easy miso dressing. I draped the charred spears on a white platter and finished them with a splash of artfully scattered garlic chips. I have to admit it, it beats steamed broccoli hands down.

Sylvia: I chose two side dishes. The first was Green Beans 2.0, which used Spice 2.0 again– like Trish, I love using an ingredient more than once. It was so simple and yet truly tasty. Green beans are sautéed until beginning to brown and then tossed with a sauce using the chili paste, soy, ginger and garlic. It’s definitely a dish I’ll make again.

The second was Whole Roasted Cauliflower. I’d never heard of anyone roasting a whole cauliflower so I knew this was a recipe I had to try. The cauliflower is lightly steamed and then roasted in the oven, then covered in a parmesan cheese that makes the dish. It’s quite impressive when brought to the table and tastes even better than it looks.

Trish: We cooked for a day, then feasted. We calculated we could have fed twenty people for dinner, grazing on our masterpieces. So much food! We ate like kings for a couple of days afterwards. We asked our spouses what their favourites were. Alan liked the spicy beans, the layered beets, and the tartes tatin. He’s a sucker for bold flavours.

Sylvia: Mike, interestingly, chose his favourite dishes as the layered beet salad and the tofu. Amazing, because he doesn’t like beets or tofu.  

Trish: I think it goes to show that good food prepared in a thoughtful and interesting way can be a transformative experience. That’s something this cookbook teaches.

My highlights were the showstopper Layered Beet Salad, the Forbidden Rice Cakes, and the Crispy Capers (yes, the smallest, most esoteric of preparations made everything shine with flavour!). How about you, Sylvia?

Sylvia: I have to say the tuna from the Nicoise Salad was a definite highlight, which one of my kids later called “exquisite.” And now that I've had experience using Spice 2.0 in two sauces (though you could use any chili paste living in your fridge), I’m curious what other veggies it would enhance.

Trish: Thanks for cooking with me, Sylvia! The cooking experience was fun, and it was good to be challenged. I had to do finicky things. I fried capers. I made garlic chips. I made my own balsamic glaze. I cultured creme fraiche. I assembled delicate, beautiful appetizers and salads. It all looked amazing and tasted great, even sometimes unique. I gave myself a day and a half to prepare things, and that made the experience wonderful.

I feel quite empowered knowing that I can use Starters, Salads and Sexy Sides to entertain a group of people for a dinner party with confidence, and even aplomb. And that is the magic of this cookbook. We both highly recommend it.


Now it's your turn!  Any cookbooks that challenged your skill set?  Leave us a comment and let us know!