Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Funky Macaroni Bake (Best Cooked and Consumed in Community)


The recipe for Funky Macaroni Bake, or FMB as it will be referred to from here on in, was one born in the kitchen of the Tacoma JV community on the corner of 10th and I Streets.  Our little kitchen had a window that led out onto a deck with a table and several potted plants, and a beautiful view of the jail, a funeral home, and Mt. Rainier (on a clear day).  The kitchen was also immediately adjacent to the “boys bathroom” and therefore subject to evacuation anytime Jordan came back from a long run and needed to walk in a towel from his bedroom down to the shower.  It was the hub of our community, and even when only one of us was tasked with cooking that evening, we would often all be found in the kitchen offering help, opinions, or an unsolicited glimpse of a hairy thigh in very small running shorts.

I really, really, really love Tillamook!
On our shoestring grocery budgets, and with augmentation from visiting parents or expired items from food pantries, we came up with some really creative recipes that year.  Giant homemade eggrolls, birthday cakes that could only be consumed in geometrical shapes, oatmeal forever, and a lot of veggie stir fries.  But the recipe that looms the largest in our community memory is FMB.  It is the most basic of pasta dishes for the cook who needs to make a lot of food for a lot of people hopefully comprising all of the basic food groups and nutrients.  There is no separate cheese or tomato sauce  — the mixture of cheese and vegetables make up the sauce.  It can accommodate a variety of vegetable or protein combinations very easily.  It can even accommodate a variety of cheeses, depending on your taste or what dairy you have located in your city.  We were able to get 2lb blocks of Tillamook fairy cheaply at our local grocery, and were never without a baby cheese loaf in the fridge.
Sauté those onions!  Add more garlic!

For a community of busy volunteers, each pouring out and breaking open their hearts in their work day in and day out, it was the variability of the recipe that brought comfort.  Even after a hard day, I was often lured out of my room by the temptation of someone making FMB in the kitchen directly below me.  Do we all like onions? No!  Great, let’s all get in here and argue about onions.  And while we are arguing about onions and grating cheese and trying to avoid being hugged by sweaty marathoners, let’s talk about our days.  

Beef!  Corn!  Onions!  Who knows what else?!
Oh wait, you sauté the carrots and corn with the onions and garlic before you add them in?  I never do that.  That is a waste of time.  No!  No it isn’t!  It builds layers flavor!  Well great, come help me stir them in so we can get this in the oven quicker then.  And in the meantime, tell me about your girlfriend/boyfriend at home and how you are doing with being separated and I will try not to feel so annoyed with how often you are using the phone line to talk them on Instant Messenger.


Add carrots!  Add zucchini!  Add mushrooms!  There are no rules!

This openness to new ingredients, techniques, and conversation makes this a perfect recipe to ride out the transition from JV to FJV life.  Wether your housemate is a guy from Illinois whom you have never met before and is now walking around the kitchen in a towel (hand towel? bath towel? doesn’t it matter at that point?) or your fifth grader or your brand new spouse, the endless varieties are designed to please any discerning palate.  Your significant other/kid/grandchild/cat doesn’t like onions?  Great - they get to come help you chop carrots then if they want a say in dinner!  And while they are chopping, how was their scout meeting/math test/day at work?

Is it toasty enough?

Just promise us, whatever you do, don’t forget the Tillamook (unless you are vegan or dairy intolerant)! 


Ingredients:
  • 1 box of elbow macaroni, or whatever pasta shape they had on sale or was expired at the food pantry at which you work
  • 4-6 cups of grated extra sharp Tillamook cheddar, preferably freshly grated off of a 2lb baby loaf that was on sale.  For those with no access to Tillamook please avail yourself of whatever pouch of sharp cheddar was on sale at your nearest grocery outlet
  • One onion, diced
  • One clove or one whole head of garlic, finely minced
  • 1 cup of diced carrots (more or less, depending on how many carrots are left from the 10 lbs you got at the farmer’s market seconds bin that week)
  • 1 bag of frozen corn (more or less, depending on wether it is sweet corn season and you have been the farmer’s market seconds bin that week and purchased 4 dozen for $5 and now have to put at least 6 ears of corn in everything so you don’t waste any)
  • 1 cup of frozen peas
  • 1-4 cans of tuna, preferably recently expired (can also substitute with recently expired government canned pork/chicken/salmon/beef)
  • Literally any other vegetables or proteins you have on hand
  • 1 tbsp or 1 tsp of Garlic powder
  • 1/2 tbsp or 1tsp of Paprika powder
  • Salt/pepper wherever you want

Recipe:
  1. Turn the oven to 375
  2. Cook the macaroni or other pasta per the instructions on the box, but drain it one minute early while still al dente.  Argue with your housemates as to when the pasta is actually al dente, and who has to clean the thrown noodles off the wall and/or ceiling.
  3. In a separate pan, or in the pasta pot after it has been drained and wiped off (if you, you know, only have one pot) sauté the onion and garlic for several minutes until soft and translucent.  Argue with your housemates about how much salt to add.  Make sure you each add salt when everyone else’s backs are turned.
  4. Add in your diced carrots, zucchini, corn, peppers, and any other vegetables you have that are pushing their expiration dates.  Fresh vegetables are excellent here, but if you are an Alaskan JV you may only have access to canned or frozen vegetables.  Don’t worry.  That is why you have a loaf of cheese.
  5. SEASON YOUR VEGGIES!  This is where the garlic powder, paprika and the rest of the salt and pepper come in.  Season those babies!  Argue with your housemates about what other seasonings to use.  This is another place for your creativity to shine!
  6. In your largest bowl, preferably avocado green colored and pushing 20 years of age, mix together the cooked pasta, sautéed onions and garlic, carrots, corn, peas, 2-4 cups of shredded cheese, and your protein (or no protein if it is meatless Monday).
  7. Slop the mixture into your largest casserole dish, or any oven ready pan or bowl that will suffer the concoction.
  8. Top with remaining cheese, and bake until the cheese topping is toasty and bubbly.  Argue with your housemates about how toasty and bubbly you each prefer your cheese topping, and make sure to take it out at the exact point when all people are equally unsatisfied with the level of bubbly toastiness.  
  9. Sit around your dining room table, or out on the balcony overlooking the funeral home, and enjoy.  Complain about something the cook did in their execution of this recipe that you don’t do when you cook it.  This is the only way to achieve radical honesty.
Enjoy!

A Note on Creative Interpretations: friends, since we have now achieved radical honesty, let’s go ahead and broach some sensitive topics.  Namely, dietary restrictions and preferences.  Your housemate hates cheddar cheese.  It’s ok.  They may be missing a piece of their soul, but that is no reason why they can’t enjoy dinner.  Go for an Italian American version of FMB and use provolone or parmesan or an Italian blend.  Add in some oregano and thyme and basil.  Make the traditional cheddar FMB later, on the night they are working late doing inventory at the food pantry or whatever!  
Wait, what’s that?  You have a vegan in the house?  No cheese no meat!!  OK here are some options.  If they are open to this, omit the cheese from the pre-baked mixture, and see if they are OK with putting cheese on only half of the top of the baking dish.  If the answer is a cold, dead stare, then back slowly away and regroup.  Ask them to donate some of their $80 monthly stipend toward buying some substitutes.  Raw cashews for a cashew Alfredo bended sauce, some vegan cheese substitutes (they have come a long way people), or liberal sprinkles of nutritional yeast!  Get creative!

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