Brainstrummings from a Bug-Eyed Bookworm

Tiff is a PhD student in English literature at UC-Berkeley. She takes no prisoners, bars no holds, holds no bars.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Baby Love has Passed Away

Even though cockroaches have outlived whatever big thing killed all the dinosaurs, and even though they can apparently survive nuclear war (click here to see the levels of radiation that they can withstand), I've managed to kill one of my pet cockroaches.

Baby Love was found dead yesterday evening, near the dry cat food he was apparently consuming at the time. It had been noted by his owner that he hadn't moved, but she attributed this to sluggishness caused by the cold weather and natural roach behaviour.

Baby Love was the smallest of the three male cockroaches comprising his colony. He is survived by his tank-mates, Sugar Pie and Honey Bunch.

And so let us mourn the passing of this bright-spirited roach.

Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more,
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forced fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due;
For Baby Love is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Baby Love, and hath not left his peer....

John Milton, Lycidas (with alterations)

Friday, December 01, 2006

Adventures in Casserole Baking

Casseroles have always been very foreign to me. In Asia, casseroles are not common fare. In fact, I would dare assert that one would be very hard-pressed to find casseroles or casserole-eaters in Asia. In fact, conversation between a casserole-aficionado and an uncle (middle-aged to elderly man) in, say, Singapore, might go something like this.

Casserole Aficionado: Excuse me, my good sir. Would you happen to know where I can find a casserole?

Uncle: Hah? Say again?

CA: A casserole.

Uncle: Hah?


Uncle: Sorry, ah. I catch no ball.

I became acquainted with casseroles only within the pages of books, like the Ramona Quimby series. These "casseroles" were apparently often made out of leftovers and were not greeted by their eaters with much enthusiasm. From the "roles" part, I envisioned them as a sort of large pastry with miscellaneous fillings in them (old string beans, tuna), baked in an oven.

Only when I came to the States for college did I encounter first-hand the casserole in all its humble glory. "That's a casserole?" I exclaimed.

"Yes," responded whoever I was with.

It blew my mind. It was completely different from anything I had envisioned..."anything" being a large, heavy pastry with miscellaneous fillings inside it, baked in an oven.

So in short, for me, the casserole retains an aura of mystery and appeal that it...doesn't for other people. So when I set out to make my own casserole a few days ago, I felt as if I were embarking on an adventure. A pathetic, not very impressive adventure, to be sure, but some sort of new experience nonetheless.

Why Casserole Baking Intimidated Me
In general, I am very wary of using ovens to cook savoury foods or anything not involving dough. The preparation of Asian food, in general, is very hands-on. Stir-fry is hands-on: you peer at it, you poke it to test doneness, you taste it and add more soy sauce if necessary. Deep-frying and braising is hands-on. Even cooking things in a big pot is hands-on: at least you get to open the cover every now and then to see how things are simmering along. One exception I can think of: rice in a rice-cooker, and maybe steamed desserts/buns.

Putting food in the oven puts it out of your control for an extended period of time. You could keep opening the oven to prod at it, but it's probably not a good idea. It's mind-boggling. You put the food in, and leave it alone, and it comes out ready for consumption, without you meddling with it at all in the process! For breads, cakes, desserts, etc., I have no problem, for some reason. For main dishes, meat, vegetables? How bizarre.

So in any case, I thought to myself, Tiff, you've put this off long enough. Face your fears like a woman. Do or do not, there is not try. Now is the time! Seize the day! Try making a chicken, rice, and broccoli casserole! See the recipe? It tells you to leave it alone, by itself, in the oven for a whole hour and a half....but you can do it. And it will turn out edible. You can do it!

Little did I know what PERIL and DANGER awaited me in this, my first attempt.

Exploding Casserole Dishes
Note to self: don't accidentally leave glass casserole dishes lying on burners which one thinks are turned off.

My roommate and I were using the kitchen at the same time, and when she took her saucepan off the burner to drain her pasta, I put the dish on the same burner, thinking that it was off. Seeing that the casserole dish was on the burner, she thought it was off already.

So there I was in the kitchen, mixing the uncooked rice with the other ingredients, when all of a sudden. WHAM! I feel myself pelted with a shower of glass shards, and the next thing I know, I'm standing barefoot in a kitchen completely surrounded by sharp pieces of glass, and thankfully, only a small cut on my right hand. (Thanks be to God for all good things given and terrible accidents avoided!) Marisa (roommate) came to the rescue, handing me a pair of shoes and helping me pick up all the glass bits.

This would have been sufficient warning to any savvy-type aspiring casserole-baker. "Turn back! Turn back!" this incident would have shrieked.

Being too stubborn to be dissuaded, after cleaning up the kitchen, I borrowed a casserole dish from my neighbours.

Not Exactly Blackbirds
Does anyone remember that old nursery rhyme?

Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing.
Wasn't that a dainty dish to set before a king?

Something similar happened with me. Except that the surprises in my casserole weren't exactly blackbirds.

So, after an hour and a half, my casserole was done. Taking it out of the oven, and removing the foil cover, I surveyed it proudly. It a chicken, rice, and broccoli casserole. Nor particularly impressive, or incredibly appetising...just the way a casserole should be.

Now, I had tried to convince myself after the Great Explosion of the Dish, that none of the glass had found its way into the bowl in which I was mixing the casserole ingredients...despite the fact that the counter-area around where the bowl was standing had little glass pieces all over it. In fact, I had done a sort of little stirring and peering to reassure myself of the absence of glass before I poured it into the casserole dish.

It was about seven or eight bites into my portion of casserole when I realised that I really shouldn't have tried to be so optimistic. My teeth hit against something crunchy...a little too crunchy to be either chicken, rice, or broccoli. And removing the blob of chewed-up casserole from my mouth with my finger, I discovered two small pieces of glass.

Can YOU find the hidden bits of glass?

And THEN, as if I hadn't learned my lesson, I continued to eat the casserole. And whenever I came across more suspiciously crunchy mouthfuls, I just spit them out and continued eating. So, I finished what was on my plate. But I felt so psychologically ill afterwards, that I decided to just pick out the chicken chunks and throw away the rest of the casserole.

Will She Try Yet Again? Will She Persist in this Casserole-Baking Madness?