I like the way restaurants are serving interesting side dishes these days. French fries aren’t enough any more. We want artichokes, risotto and smothered greens. I am the same way at home. Sure, I still love a baked potato and salad, but I like creamy grits and crisp asparagus even more.

When it comes to holidays, most hosts serve the traditional centerpiece of meat that can be ham, turkey, leg of lamb or what-have-you. The fun part, I say, is in the sides.

I recently stumbled upon a fabulous side in an unexpected location – the fitness center where I try to work off a few calories at the pool. Spending my mandatory $10 at the cafe, I ordered what I expected to be a boring “healthy” lunch to take home. Lo and behold, I was blown away by the spinach and artichoke dressing served under superbly charcoal-grilled strips of chicken. I have got to copy that one, I decided. After getting a few hints from an Emeril recipe on the Internet, I eliminated the heavy cream and set out to master a dish that wasn’t only delicious but also good for my health.

For several years now, our family has taken a break from the kitchen on Easter Sunday and enjoyed a hotel brunch after church. No dishes; nice afternoon nap; can’t beat it. But, being the cook that I am, I will honor a holiday, even if it’s a day early or late. Cooking, in my mind, is half the tradition when it comes to holidays. So I set out to look for other special sides to an Easter dinner.

It had been a while since I’d made a soufflé. They always scare me and are too last-minute for my organizational instincts. But I found one, carrot at that, and not only is it succulent but it also holds its puff while you get dinner on the table. I can never resist strawberries that burst into beauty just in time for Easter. Freezes set back this year’s crop a bit, but there will be plenty around, even if some are flown in from California. (Ours are sweeter and redder.)
A nest! It was the perfect idea from my husband, Doug. Easter nests of puff pastry, filled with chocolate fondue for dipping strawberries. Ooh la la. I stole the recipe from the puff pastry people, and my grandchildren went nuts over it. It is so simple that it can be made at the very last minute; the “nests” require 20 minutes in the oven while you melt chocolate with a little cream and honey. We dipped strawberries, banana chunks and marshmallows, and it was a major hit for the adults as well.

I don’t know what your meat choice is for Easter, but I think these sides would go with any that you pick. They are easy enough and might leave you a little time for a nap.

Spinach-Artichoke Dressing

2 10-ounce packages frozen
      chopped spinach
About 4 inches stale French
      bread (about 1 1/2 cups,
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons extra virgin
       olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 minced garlic cloves
1 can quartered artichoke
Salt, freshly ground black
      pepper and Creole
      seasoning to taste
1/4 cup grated Parmesan or
       Romano cheese, plus some
       for topping

Thaw frozen spinach and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, break up bread into small pieces and cover with chicken stock, egg and lemon juice. Set aside to soak.

Heat oil in a medium saucepan and sauté onion and garlic over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add artichoke hearts and sauté another 1 or 2 minutes. Add spinach and seasonings and sauté, stirring, for about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in bread mixture and 1/4 cup cheese.

Turn into a casserole dish. Sprinkle with extra cheese and bake at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes or until bubbly.

Serves 6.

Carrot and Squash Soufflé

1 medium butternut squash
2 teaspoons olive oil
3-4 medium carrots
2 teaspoons chopped fresh
      rosemary leaves, rinsed and
      removed from stems
1 tablespoon minced shallots
1 teaspoon butter
3 egg yolks
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground
      black pepper
5 egg whites
1 teaspoon lime juice

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter an 8-cup casserole or soufflé dish.

Cut squash in half lengthwise, clean out seeds and rub with olive oil. Place on a baking pan and roast in oven until fork tender, about 20 minutes. Stem and scrape carrots and cut into half-inch rounds. In a small saucepan, cover carrots with water and simmer until fork tender. Drain and measure out 1/2-cup. When squash is done, spoon out and measure 1/2-cup. Save any extra squash and carrots for another meal.

Place squash, carrots and rosemary in a food processor and purée.

Sauté shallots in butter until softened.

In a medium bowl, beat the egg yolks until thickened. Stir in seasonings, squash mixture and shallots.

In an electric mixer, beat egg whites until soft peaks almost form. Add lime juice and a dash of salt and beat until stiff. Fold into the squash mixture. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, or until puffy.

Serves 4 to 6.

– Adapted from Soufflés by Ann Amernick and Richard Chirol

Chocolate Fondue Nests

1 1/2 cups semi-sweet
      chocolate pieces
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 10-ounce package frozen
      puff pastry shells
Assorted fruit and dippers (strawberries, banana chunks, kiwi slices, marshmallows, pineapple chunks, grapes)

Place chocolate, cream, honey and vanilla in a medium saucepan and set aside until ready to serve.

Slightly more than half an hour before serving, heat oven to 400 degrees. When oven is hot, place pastry shells on a baking pan and bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until puffy and brown. Meanwhile, heat chocolate mixture until smooth, stirring occasionally.

To serve, place dippers in a serving platter with a container of toothpicks in the center. (Or, instead of toothpicks, give each guest a skewer.) Place a pastry on each of six serving plates, removing the top and putting it on the side of the plate. Fill each shell with chocolate and serve, letting guests select their own dippers.

Serves 6.