Veggie-ful Rotini-and-Cheese

So, I don’t really know anything about the demographics of the writers of other food blogs, but I’m guessing I fall somewhat outside of the norm. This probably true even if we do ignore, for the moment, the obvious traits that distinguish me from the average person in nearly any environment– you know, the 2nd-generation-Caucasian-American-Buddhist thing and the whole pesky queer-person-with-a-gender-outside-the-binary thing.

You see, being a foodie typically requires a budget that allows for extravagances and the time to dedicate to preparing beautiful recipes that are more “created” than they are “cooked.”

Yeah, right. I wish I could do that, and nothing else. However, it is good for you, kind reader, that I can’t, because it means that the recipes that I am posting on this blog are, more often than not, simple enough to make amidst the cold, cruel realities of modern life. Yaaaaaay.

I work two jobs: one full time, one part time. I don’t do this solely for the joy of being of service to the world: I actually really need the money from both jobs. My boo and I have to do grown-up things like budgeting our money and simplifying expenditures. I’d love to dine on truffle mushrooms and crème fraiche, but the reality is that the pragmatics of the Working Trannies’ life make that pretty much impossible.

Sometimes, I get sleepy, and achy, and grumpy, and whiny, and don’t feel like making dinner at all. But when you combine the pressure of Lee’s first year of law school with the fact that I enjoy cooking, well, you get a situation that involves me cooking a lot.

Sure, we could just go out to eat. However, there are two major downsides to eating out on a regular basis: the first is that it gets really expensive really fast.

Furthermore, when you eat out, the truth is that you don’t really know what you’re eating. Chances are you didn’t research the restaurant’s suppliers, and you are probably eating produce from another continent that been sprayed in chemicals and trucked across the nation, deprived of sunlight, and lacking about half of the flavor and nutrients that it once had. Add to that the fact that you have no proof whether or not one of the kitchen employees decided to save a little time by cutting out that pesky “wash-and-rinse-the-produce” step, and who knows anymore whether the benefits of eating that meal really outweigh the costs.

So I do what I can to feed us well. Every once in a while, on a weekend when I don’t have to work, I’ll gild the lily and really go all-out on a meal. The rest of the time, I just want to make something that’s affordable, nutritious, and home-made in whatever time I have available.Of course, the fact that I love to cook does make me willing to spend more time at it than some people would, but the fact remains that I have limited time to work with when it comes to cooking, especially if I want to have dinner ready before midnight (which I usually do).

One important disclaimer: when I think about how healthy a food is or is not, there are some criteria that I consider more personally important than other criteria. I am not terribly worried about low-fat, low-calorie considerations. In fact, I think that the cultural obsession with low-fat and low-calorie diets has resulted in so many people eating pre-prepared, chemically altered, packaged “foods” that have been designed not by nature, but by a lab. Nitrates, nitrites and sulfates abound. Partially hydrogenated substances that are the biological equivalent of pouring sand into a watch are guzzled down gullets with enthusiasm. People no longer know how their food was grown, whether it is in season, where it came from, or what’s in it.

If you do choose to substitute one of the ingredients in my recipe for a more low-fat or vegan alternative, well, do what you have to do. But I would suggest making sure that you educate yourself as to the exact ingredients of what you’re adding, and consider where the ingredients were produced.

I am going to reiterate something I wrote in an earlier post: “The energy we take into our body has a direct, undeniable connection to the energy we have to use in the world, and it is my hope that the forward-thinking revolutionary queers will all be filled with the best possible fuel for changing the world.” It would be very sad if our culture and our community lost their connection to our sources of life-sustaining energy. Don’t let that happen to you. 

What I do consider when making meals that will nourish is whether or not the food is in season, whether or not it is growing locally, and whether or not the foods that I am going to prepare create a well-balanced meal.

Some tips for this recipe: don’t overcook the pasta. Given the baking time that happens after you cook the noodles, make sure they are al-dente, or even a little shy of al-dente. Unless you want to eat cheesy mush. Which just isn’t as good as cheesy pasta.

Change the vegetables that you put in it based upon what is fresh where you live. Right now, Lee and I still have tomatoes growing in our backyard, which is nice. Once tomatoes go out of season, they go out of the recipe. It’s just that simple. Winter tomatoes are gross, while imported tomatoes are grown in an unappetizing pesticide marinade. Blech. There are many things I enjoy putting in my mouth: crunchy tomatoes and pesticides are not among them.

Use whatever shape and size of pasta you want, other than lasagne noodles and manicotti shells, which just wouldn’t work for this recipe (but will be used in future recipes, I promise!). Just make sure you don’t overcook them.

If you want to add some fresh herbs, I suggest tarragon, basil, or dill, approximately 2 T (chopped coarsely) per batch. But don’t feel obligated. Sometimes just a simple mac-and-cheese is all that is called for, without pretension or adornment.

With that said, what follows is a delicious, economical dish that is simple and quick to make. It is not low-fat. And yet, it is still nourishing. Enjoy.

Adapted from my grandmother’s recipe.

 Veggie-ful Rotini-and-Cheese

  • 1 pound rainbow rotini (or other pasta), cooked just short of al-dente
  • 1 pound sharp cheese, shredded (the tried-and-true standard is sharp cheddar, but feel free to experiment with other cheeses, or to substitute 6 oz. goat cheese for some of the shredded cheese)
  • 2 1/2 cups light cream or whole milk
  • 3-4 T unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 8 oz. baby ‘bella mushrooms, chopped coarsely and sauteed
  • 6 oz. baby spinach, chopped coarsely and sauteed just until it is soft and dark green
  • 2 plum tomatoes or 1 heritage tomato, sliced very thinly
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. Put the cheese, cream or milk, and flour in a large, heavy-bottomed saute pan. Melt over low heat, stirring constantly, until the cheese is melted and the mixture is hot. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Stir in the mushrooms, spinach and tomatoes.
  3. Mix the sauce into the pasta until it is evenly distributed. 
  4. Pour the pasta into a large baking dish or two medium baking dishes. 
  5. Bake in the preheated oven 25-30 minutes, until the top is lightly browned and slightly crunchy and the sauce is bubbling happily. 
  6. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving. 
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