Side dish or dessert? Side dish or dessert? You’d think with only two choices, making one would be easy, but whenever I hear that option, my head starts swimming with all the possible dishes I could make. First, I lean toward dessert, because within the narrow confines of my family I am known for some pretty good ones, whether elaborate or simple. But then I start panicking about all the possible things that can go wrong, most of them having to do with accidental burning or insufficient rising, overworked crusts or underbaked centers, or missed ingredients—in a dessert, the littlest thing turns into a disaster.
The dessert disaster scenario takes only seconds and I start thinking about side dishes. Now, that’s a gigantic category encompassing appetizers, salads, vegetables, each one of those its own abyss. I’ll have to admit that what first popped into my head was a corn-black bean-mango salsa, but did I want to bring chips or turn it into a pasta salad? Not really. I quickly fell back on the old standby macaroni salad because it’s easy to make and hard to ruin, but with visions of seeing 12 different bowls of the stuff, I had to figure out how to make mine stand out or at least compete well with the others so as not to be faced with taking home the only untouched dish.
A quick trip around the web showed me the right dressing to go with the bacon, so I’m taking Bacon Ranch Macaroni Salad with homemade ranch dressing.
Did I mention that this is an academic department get-together? Luckily it’s biology, my husband’s field, and not English, my old field, because the science people are generally more down-to-earth in their food choices. I’m sorry, you know it’s true.
Bacon Ranch Macaroni Salad
After reading way too many recipes on the web, this is what I put together:
Homemade Ranch Dressing
Yield: about 3.5 cups
I’m making this dressing the day before the get together so the flavors are well blended. I found a number of recipes for ranch dressing that all share buttermilk and then vary the numbers and amounts of the remaining ingredients. Basically, you can be pretty creative as long as you have buttermilk.
So here’s what I made—note that my ingredients here are doubled for my salad that uses 1 lb of macaroni. I wanted to keep the dressing simple, because I want room for the bacon and tomatoes to shine.
2 cloves garlic, minced or grated
1/2-1 teaspoon salt, regular or kosher (think about how salty your bacon will be, if adding that)
1/3-1/2 cup minced Italian flat-leaf parsley
2-3 tablespoons minced fresh dill
3-4 tablespoons minced fresh chives
1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 cups mayonnaise (you know my feelings about mayonnaise)
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup buttermilk
Mince the parsley, dill, and chives and set aside. Mince the garlic and mash it into a paste on a non-porous surface. I usually use a small plate or plastic cutting board that does not absorb the juices and allows you to easily remove it all to your dish. This method of making a garlic paste is useful in recipes where you want fresh garlic, but not discernible chunks of it.
Mix everything together—many recipes advise shaking in a Mason jar, which stores nicely if you are making a small amount. Cover and chill the dressing for a few hours before making the salad or make a day ahead.
The Macaroni Salad
Somewhere I read that you can throw uncooked bacon in with the pasta as it boils to initiate that flavor in the salad, so I’m adding two slices to the pasta water.
1 lb macaroni or any small pasta that suits you (I cooked the whole pound, but ended up leaving out about 2 cups of the cooked macaroni)
1 lb thick-sliced bacon, minus two slices for the pasta water, cooked until brown but not burnt, and chopped
6-8 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped (I ended up using 9 eggs after looking at the huge amount of macaroni)
2-3 medium, ripe tomatoes, seeded if you are worried about thinning the dressing, cut in 1/2″-1″ chunks
[optional] 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese (personally, I would use cheese or the hard-boiled eggs, but not both)
2-3 cups of ranch dressing
I mixed the macaroni, eggs and 2 cups of dressing in the morning, added the tomatoes in the late morning after the salad had chilled, and the bacon and extra dressing about two hours before leaving.