Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Day 44 - Making a Casserole

I have never made a casserole. Another bout of nasty weather meant I had to get creative with my “I have never...” plans for the day, which led me to the idea of making a casserole dish for the first time. While it is not the most exciting experience in the world, I figured giving this basic culinary practice a try was likely a good idea. After all, there are some basic cooking skills everyone should have, and knowing how to throw random ingredients into a dish and bake them is an act that is probably on that list. In turn, I tracked down a recipe for Zucchini Rice Casserole with some help from Rachael and set to work making my first ever casserole.

Where's my Slap-Chop?
My first attempt at a casserole started with a flurry of activity organizing and preparing my ingredients. As I clumsily tried to find the best way to work through my preparation and cooking process, Rachael quickly offered to help me work through my recipe. Although I was grateful for the offer, I knew any assistance I received would take away from my opportunity to have the full experience. As a result, I told Rachael I wanted to try to do it on my own from start to finish. Understanding, she stated she would only assist by cutting up the onion required by the recipe, given raw onion was listed as an allergic trigger in the paperwork I received during my recent visit to the allergist. After making quick work of the onion, Rachael watched as I made a mess slicing vegetables and using a slap-chop for the first time. With plant matter and vegetable juice rapidly consuming the surface of the countertop, Rachael gave periodic statements of uneasiness regarding the disarray I was creating. My hand and forearms coated in vegetable debris, I took a step back from my mess after chopping the last of the peppers and zucchini. With only the first step of the recipe complete, it was obvious it was going to be a long and messy night.

Following the first step, I prepared a pan of rice and simmered a few cups of chicken broth as called for by the recipe. I loaded my vegetables into the pan containing the rice and eventually mixed the steaming chicken broth into the rice and vegetable concoction. Happy I didn’t burn myself in the transfer of the broth, I covered the ingredient-laden container with aluminum foil and placed it into the oven for the required baking time of 45 minutes. I felt like I was on the right track with my cooking experiment as I continued preparing the other components of the recipe, which called for a cheese sauce and cooked turkey sausage. Over the next 30 minutes I continued my trend of making awful messes as I prepared flour, milk, and cheese for a saucepan. Doused in white powder from an unfortunate incident with the bag of flour, I poured the ingredients into a saucepan and simmered it down to what I thought was an appropriate thickness.

Just as I completed the sauce mixture, a timer signaled me to pull the pan containing the rice, vegetables, and broth from the oven. With anticipation, I opened the oven door to see how my culinary creation had advanced. Upon pulling the pan from the oven and removing the foil cover, I was greeted by a mess of half-cooked vegetables and rice floating in a liquid hovering at the brim of the pan. Baffled at the sight of the unappealing slop, I extended my arms and attempted to position the pan on the stove. Liquid and small bits of vegetables poured over the edge of the pan as I set it across two burners, splattering across the stovetop, my torso, and the kitchen floor. Frustrated, I scratched my head and let out a a few choice words. “How the hell can somebody mess up a casserole?” I asked looking over my mess.

Slop, anyone?

In a state of confusion I went back to my recipe and quickly read through the list. From what I saw at first glance, it appeared I had done everything correctly. Coming to terms what I thought to be a total failure, I let out a defeated, “Oh well...” and proceeded to the bottom of the step-by-step instructions. There I found a line advising me to add the cheese sauce to the already full pan. Figuring I had nothing left to lose, I decided I would proceed as called for by the recipe. In turn, I dumped the cheese sauce into the already full baking pan and slowly mixed the contents as more liquid spilled onto the stovetop. Once finished, I took one more look at my instructions. I ran my finger across my computer screen as I read the lines immediately following my previous step. I was stunned when the recipe said to let the casserole cook uncovered for a mere 10 minutes more. “This can’t be right,” I said to myself as I looked back at the overflowing pan of cloudy liquid.

Last ditch effort...

Convinced I must have missed a step somewhere, I went back to the top of the recipe and read through it one more time. I carefully read each line as I looked for some indicator I could still rescue my first attempt at a casserole. Finally, midway down the page I saw a line tucked in the bottom of a small paragraph. My hand struck my forehead in disbelief as I read instructions to bake the pan of rice, vegetables, and broth for a second 45 minute period after the foil cover was removed. I felt a brief moment of relief as I realized I had only cooked the mixture for half of the time required to let the vegetables and rice fully cook. However, the feeling faded quickly when I remembered I had already mixed in the cheese sauce and sausage that was supposed to be added in the second to last step.

Hesitant, I placed the baking pan back into the oven and reset the timer for 45 minutes. After closing the oven door I stood still for a moment, wracked with worry that my early addition of the cheese sauce would create a burned, sticky mess of vegetables, sausage and rice. Eventually committing to letting the rest of the casserole experiment play out, I left the kitchen and busied myself with random tasks. As the minutes passed, a faint smell of crisping food began to fill the air. At first, I ignored the smell, choosing instead to get caught up with some family members and to finalize plans for the weekend. I remained in my blissful state of ignorance until about 30 minutes into the second round of baking. With a strong burning smell now filling the air, I decided I had to check on the casserole to ensure I wasn’t about to burn my house to the ground. Raising from my position on the couch, I walked into the kitchen and put on some oven mitts in case I needed to perform an emergency extraction of the baking pan. Turning to the oven, I leaned forward and grabbed the wide, white handle on the front of the appliance. A wisp of rolling smoke escaped toward the ceiling as I slowly opened the oven door. Lowering the door further, I closed my eyes until I felt the oven door come to rest at an open position.

Not too shabby...
Scared of what I might find inside, I opened one eye to check on the casserole. Much to my surprise, the dish looked good. It wasn’t on fire, it wasn’t burnt, and it even looked edible. Still concerned about the burning smell, I looked over the oven to find its source until I noticed a small stain of burned liquid on the bottom of the oven. Determining I had spilled some of the broth mixture during my earlier efforts, I eliminated the possibility of any fire hazard and let the casserole cook for the rest of its required baking time. A little more than 10 minutes later, my casserole emerged covered in a light golden brown and smelling of delicious spicy peppers. Following the addition of a cheese and jalapeño topping, my first casserole was ready to eat, and, considering the ordeal had taken more than three hours to complete, I was more than ready to eat it.

Saved it!
With the clock well passed 9:00 pm, Rachael and I sat down a nibbled away at the casserole. While it wasn’t a culinary masterpiece, the casserole was a spicy mixture of vegetables, rice, and sausage that appealed to my palette. As I ate, I reflected on the night’s events and thought about my food creation. Not only had I averted disaster, I made a edible and tasty dish that would provide Rachael and I meals for several days. Considering how the experiment could have turned out, I felt a sense of accomplishment in the wake of my first attempt at throwing random ingredients into a dish and baking them. I’m not sure when I will give it a try again, but at least I can rest knowing the task of baking a casserole didn’t get the best of me... The only thing left to do now is clean up the aftermath I left in the kitchen.

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