"Hey guys, we're having a [variety of outdoor cookout-y shindig] on [date] at [place], and we'd love for you to come! We'll have beer and [variety of greasy meat], and [dude] has agreed to whip up a batch of his famous [really fatty and gross but also kind of delicious side, probably with little pieces of bacon in it]. Bring a side dish to share, and an appetite, and we'll see you then!"
This is how the mad side-dish scramble begins: Somebody claims guacamole duty; somebody else nabs green salad; the cynics claim the soda gig, those bastards; somebody's boyfriend, the guy with the middle-part and ponytail who makes everybody listen to his frighteningly thought-through disquisition on the inferiority of epic-fantasy television adaptations versus their print counterparts, that guy, ugh, why does he insist on going by his World of Warcraft handle—that guy misses the point entirely and insists on bringing a crock-pot of meatballs, because it is his only move and the closest thing to a social grace he possesses.
Here is the thing about that guy ("Ahem, I prefer to be called 'Xephron, Draegynlörd,' if you don't mind"), though: That guy is on top of shit. The Google Glass... uh... es? that he hasn't removed from his face in two years, if nothing else, keep him marvelously up-to-date on opportunities to bring crock-pots of meatballs to social functions; within 17 seconds of the invitation going out, ol' Xeph had hoisted the meatball flag for all to see.
Whereas, by contrast, you missed the entire side-dish scramble until three days later, busy as you were working, commuting, sobbing while commuting, and not wearing a ridiculous faceputer that makes you look like a remedial Borg. And now all the fancy side-dishes are taken! Dammit.
Except, if you are lucky, the macaroni salad. Macaroni salad is great for this sort of predicament: If, like most people, you have a refrigerator door full of random condiments, you already possess like 74 percent of the ingredients of even the best macaroni salad; all you'll need to shop for is some elbow macaroni and a few easy-to-find vegetables. And your macaroni salad will taste good enough that no one will know you threw it together at the last minute with random (figurative) shit from your refrigerator door! Moo-hoo-ha-ha-ha.
So, quickly! Make macaroni salad. There's still time for you to do that, and get in a shower. Oh boy do you need one. Let's get started.
To begin, boil two pounds of elbow macaroni in a big pot of salted water. Getting some salt—some flavor—into the macaroni is smart: What happens, otherwise, is that you make dressing for your macaroni salad while the macaroni is cooking, and you taste the dressing on the tip of a spoon and add salt and taste it again and go, "Ooh, that's good and salty," and then you combine it with the cooked macaroni and other ingredients and taste the finished product and go, "Wait, I thought I added salt to this, why doesn't it taste like anything?"—and then you have to go through the whole tedious ordeal of adding salt to a huge batch of macaroni salad, stirring it through the whole batch, tasting, going, "Fuck, that's still not salty enough," and repeating, until the horrible moment you realize you've added too much salt and now it tastes like getting rolled by a wave at the beach, and you have to fix it either by cooking more macaroni or adding more mayonnaise or staying home from the shindig altogether and reckoning with your utter, utter failure to become a functional grownup-type person.
Either way. Suit yourself. Salt the water, or reckon with the void.
You have some other stuff to do—making dressing and chopping vegetation, primarily—and you can do this while the macaroni cooks if doing so suits your preference for efficiency and multitasking and so on. Remember that you won't be able to combine this stuff with the macaroni until that macaroni has both cooked and cooled to room temperature, though (otherwise the hot macaroni will do gross things to the dressing and vegetation). In any case, at some point the macaroni will be done cooking; strain it in a colander, and then run the cooked macaroni under cold water for a minute or two to cool it down.
Also, make macaroni-salad dressing. This'll be real-deal by-God mayonnaise and other stuff; if you have a hard time with mayonnaise, you can work around that by substituting a functional non-fraidycat's tongue for the lousy one you've been working with. But first, a word on macaroni-salad dressing.
People (notably, I) have a weakness for the yellowish, sweet, thoroughly disreputable macaroni salad you find at your typical deli counter or supermarket or wherever. It's that weird good-bad/bad-good quality: You know it's conceptually awful, you know that its sweetness should trigger your gag reflex, you know that your enjoyment of it probably is like 90-percent nostalgia, developed during a time when your taste in food could be characterized by your then-belief that gummy worms were a good topping for chocolate ice-cream ... and yet you enjoy it anyway. And you think to yourself, hey, I'm making a batch of macaroni salad—I can make it sweet and good-bad/bad-good like the stuff you get at the store!
This is an understandable impulse, and a dangerous one. When you are dealing with such things as mayonnaise and (eventually) red onion and cucumber, the line dividing ooh-this-is-really-good-sweet and oh-god-I-am-gonna-fucking-puke-sweet is a fine one, and difficult to find, and usually the way you find it is by discovering that you have bounded over it and made something absolutely horrific that no one on the surface of the earth other than Britons will have the slightest interest in consuming.
That is to say, go easy on the sweetness, here. Dump two big scoops of real mayonnaise into a bowl; to this, add tablespoon-or-less-sized quantities of worcestershire sauce, powdered mustard, paprika, black pepper, and whatever non-balsamic vinegar you like (red wine or white wine or apple cider or malt or white or champagne or whatever). Also, a dash of your preferred hot sauce. Stir this stuff together, and taste it on the tip of a spoon. Adjust as necessary, in tablespoon-sized increments, tasting as you go.
Does it need some salt? Sure. Add a small pinch. Does it maybe need another dash of vinegar to wake up your palate, or some more worcestershire to deepen the flavors? What the hell, why not. Does it need maybe like the eensiest wee little smidge of sweetness, like maybe a femtogram or single solitary quark of sugar or honey or simple syrup or whatever? Maybe. Mayyyyybe. Hold the bowl of dressing near a vessel of sugar. Say the word "sugar" aloud. Read Sugar Ray Robinson's Wikipedia biography in the kitchen. Taste the dressing. Does it make you want to vomit? No? OK. That's probably sweet enough.
Adjust the other stuff, tasting as you go, until the result makes you want to eat an entire spoonful of it. Nobody's looking. Do it quickly.
Once you've finished monkeying around with the dressing, set it aside and chop vegetation. One or two big seedless cucumbers (use a potato peeler to get the skin off first); two whole red bell peppers (minus the seeds and interior shit); an entire red onion. The cucumber and pepper can get a nice big hearty chop; these will add some crunch and pretty color to your macaroni salad. The red onion should get a pretty fine chop, so nobody's biting into huge hunks of raw onion when they eat your macaroni salad.
Decide for yourself whether to go for more vegetation, here. Some finely chopped parsely will add some attractive green to your macaroni salad, and not much else; redundant as they may seem, some thin rings of green scallion will brighten the flavor a bit, if you like; dicing tomatoes is very literally the worst thing a human being can do, but if you have some good tomatoes and were looking for an opportunity to make yourself miserable for the sake of others, go ahead and dice 'em.
So now your macaroni is cooked and drained and cooled; your dressing is made; your vegetation is chopped. Assemble macaroni salad! Dump the macaroni into the biggest bowl or bowl-like vessel you've got; dump the vegetation on top of it; pour the dressing over everything, and toss and toss and toss this stuff with a pair of big spoons or tongs or, fuck it, your hands, provided you wash them before and after. Toss and toss and toss, until all the various things are distributed evenly among each other, and there, lo, macaroni salad.
Wipe the rim of the bowl with a paper towel to make it look nice and neat. Plunge a big serving spoon into the squelchy mass of food. Off to the shindig.
You don't get to decide what to serve your macaroni salad next to: Its function is as a potluck contribution, and it ought to pair pretty well with just about whatever else is on the menu. Even the meatballs! One thing it goes very splendidly with is: Cold beer. Pair it with some of that. Hell, lots of it.
Your macaroni salad is: Creamy and cool, mild, satisfyingly heavy; thanks to the textural variety, no two bites are exactly the same, and so you keep coming back for more of them. Is it the absolute best thing? Maybe it is not the absolute best thing. It is good enough—and hell, that's not nothing, even if it's the absolute least you could do.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.
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