The trick is to smoke the meat and not make the meat smoke

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Since I have been writing this blog, I’ve been doing a Year-In-Review entry at the end of December where I do a Top Five type list. While I still plan to do this, when I began reviewing the past year in my mind I realized it was a truly exceptional year in many ways. A Top Five list with a picture and a brief description just wouldn’t do this year justice. This blog entry will attempt to describe what has been my best year ever Grilling & Smoking. I‘ve already covered some of the specifics in an earlier blog entry from this year entitled OFF TO A GREAT START. The blog entry below will be more of a big picture entry in terms of the causes and will describe 5 meals that turned out to be some of the best meals I’ve ever had.

When I began thinking of some of the items to include on my Top 5 list I quickly realized this year was different. There were so many items that came off the grill or smoker this year that were simply great meals. But what set this year in a class by itself was the fact that until recently I have been saying that 3 of the best meals I’ve ever eaten came of the grill or smoker this year. I say until recently because Thanksgiving this year was meal number 4. As I was writing this blog another meal came to mind that may be the 5th spot and is at least in the Top 10. Think about it 5 of the top meals I’ve ever eaten, all in one year. There are many causes for what happened this year, here are a few.

Now before you think I am totally full of myself, let me set a couple things straight. First I do not consider myself this great chef. I am still learning about cooking and still have much to learn. I certainly can’t create good recipes from scratch, I don’t know enough about ingredients and the science of cooking. What I have been both lucky at and good at, is finding some great cookbooks and then choosing some great recipes to make. I was always good in science labs where you had to follow directions and mix ingredients together in a precise fashion. Secondly I have a distinct advantage. The food I am making is fresh and is served hot off the grill. There are tens of thousands of chefs out there who are far better cooks than I. Often when I have their food in a restaurant, it has been held and not served fresh. It is hard to beat something fresh off the grill or smoker. So I know my place and have no illusions about it. This past year and these great meals are the result of my picking some great recipes by great chefs and not screwing them up.

One thing that made this year stand out is I have been diversifying in what I make. While I still make the old favorites, I have been trying new things. A few years ago I wiped the slate clean and said I was going to try everything at least once more. I’d found that I actually now liked some of the things I’d disliked in the past. I’ve been trying new things and revisiting others for a couple years now. This year I got more into world cuisine which opens up a whole new world of tastes and combinations of ingredients. I described this in the blog entry
WORLD CLASS GRILLING, so I won’t go into it in depth here. I also started getting into grilled soups and salads (see SOUPS ON ). If you had told me when I started this site, that eventually I would have a section on my site for Soups and another for Salads I would have laughed at you. I would have bet money against it. When I started this site I tended to shy away from any type of world cuisine and made recipes that were good old American cuisine. Now I actually seek out interesting looking international recipes first when I buy a new cookbook. There are so many great regional recipes out there to try. Of course once again the key to it all was when I said I’d try everything at least once.

One of the biggest changes that made this year possible was going out on my own allowing me to work from home almost everyday. Not having a two hour commute freed up 4 hours of extra time out of every day. This allowed me to get in grilling and smoking time during the week instead of being limited to the weekends. Also having more control over my schedule has allowed me to get in more cooking. I could start early or work late if needed to get in some prep time during normal work day hours. More grilling and smoking meant better grilling and smoking as I was learning more and improving with more practice. This is the first year that I am starting to feel comfortable about some seasonings. Now when I need to season to taste I actually have half a clue about which spice to add. This type of thing can only be learned over time and repetition. This year I probably got in 3 to 4 times more grilling and smoking. While I was sometimes so busy I had to use that extra 4 hours of former commuting time to get more work done, even this helped out eventually. The overtime I put in during what would have been my commuting time let me save up some money for the slow times. This allowed me to get in some extra grill time in the Spring when there was little work. There was one period where I grilled or smoked 18 out of 20 days. Most of these were also new meals I had never made before.

I also have been trying to make multiple courses on the grill or smoker. Having the extra time and being willing to try new things has certainly helped here. Plus the comfort factor I have been gaining has allowed me to do more, because I don’t have to sweat the basics as much. I don’t mean I can take them for granted, it is just that I know what to expect for the main course and this frees me up to try side dishes. Any of these sides I am making from scratch are going to make for a better meal. In the past I might have pulled something out of the freezer and microwaved it. Instead I am learning to use fresh veggies and spices to make a home made side dish. That is going to improve any meal. I also started baking more fresh hamburger or hot dog rolls and making my own pizza dough which is bound to improve the meal.

So much for the causes, once again for more background details on the causes see:


Now a little bit about some of the specific meals:

Ham steak is my favorite meal, but I never would have thought of marinating a ham steak. This recipe used a sweet and spicy marinade that used sliced jalapenos as one of the ingredients. It was a real eye opener in several senses of the word. Since this meal was easy to make on the grill, I decided to pair it with some grilled sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are a natural with ham. I thought the sweet potatoes were going to be good on the grill, but they were melt in your mouth good with exceptional flavor. The resulting meal was the best ham steak I have ever tasted, and since ham steak is my favorite meal this made it my favorite meal ever. I had no idea that a marinade would do this much to ham steak and the sweet potatoes were over the top too. I love ham steak, but I never knew ham steak could be this good.

Talk about a happy accident. My TiVo happened to grab an episode of the PBS series Cook’s Country as a “TiVO suggestion”. The TiVO does this when it detects a pattern in the type of shows you tell it to record. It then starts making it’s own suggestions. Since this cooking show was not about BBQ I almost erased it without watching it. I noticed it had a recipe for a pork roast so I started running it in the background one day while I worked on the computer. I was surprised to find their pork roast was basically a slow cooked roast done low and slow in an indoor oven that could be adapted to the smoker. The show’s host even said at one point this is like BBQ without the smoke. More importantly he also said it was the best pork roast he had ever tried. I figured doing it on the smoker would only make it better. I also decided potato buds out of the box just weren’t going to cut it and I started researching the best mashed potato recipes. I finally settled on Alton Brown’s Perfect Mashed Potatoes and bought a food mill to make them. I expected this pork roast to be tasty and the mashed potatoes to be a cut above the boxed kind. Well it turned out this was the best pork roast and mashed potatoes any of us had tried - ever. It caught us all by total surprise. It was an amazing meal and totally unexpected in terms of how good it was.

ORANGE-POMEGRANATE RACK OF LAMB & GREEN BEANS WITH LEMON OIL: This meal shares several points with the other two above. First it was a meat and a homemade veggie. The vegetable course was looked at as something to try that would be good with the particular meat. I didn’t have high expectations for the particular meal. This last item was particularly true for this meal. I had been given some racks as a thank-you gift. They were Costco’s Kirkland brand and while I figured they’d be real good, I never expected the them to turn out the way they did. I picked a new recipe I hadn’t tried before for these chops and I decided it was time to try some grilled green beans as well. When I brought the meat and veggies in from the grill, I expected a good meal. When I bit into the lamb chop it was so surprisingly good I let out an inadvertent “mmmmmm”. My guests were seconds behind me doing the same thing. Everyone looked at each other in total shock. These things were the most tasty & tender lamb chops any of us had ever tasted. Then there were the green beans. I’ve ordered grilled green beans at several great local restaurants, but I have to say these were the best-ever. I just couldn’t believe how good this meal was.

I covered this in a recent blog entry so I will only sum it up here. I’d already been lucky enough to slowly work my way into a turkey recipe that my guest and I agreed was the best turkey we’d ever had. To this brined and smoked turkey recipe I added an herb paste which improved it even more. This year I made a batch of Alton Brown’s Perfect Mashed Potatoes and my mother did her homemade stuffing and squash. Everything this year was made from scratch and the bird was the best ever. Roast turkey dinner is one of my Top Five meals which means this years version was one of the top meals I’ve ever had.

I returned to making grilled pizza this year and improved upon it by making my own pizza crust. Working from the home office made this possible. My dad often wanted to go to Pizza Hut for his Father’s Day meal and the big attraction there was their soft cheese bread sticks. After trying a meat lovers version of my grilled pizza a month before Father’s Day, he shared that he might like to come to my place for pizza this year instead of Pizza Hut. He added it was too bad “my restaurant” didn’t serve breadsticks. Imagine my surprise when I got a newsletter from the King Arthur Flour Company where the featured recipe for the month was “soft breadsticks just like you’d find at Pizza Hut”. The pizzas I made were my best ever. More importantly after 3 prior attempts at the breadsticks, everything came together this particular day and I turned out the first versions of the breadsticks I was totally happy with. My dad who is not one to compliment things unless he really likes them gave this meal an 11 or 12 on a scale of 1 to 10. He also asked about a take out menu and the number to call for take out. This made me feel good where I was able to give him this on his birthday. But while writing this something occurred to me: I really like pizza too and while perhaps this meal isn’t in my Top Five of all time, it is definitely in my Top Ten.

As I was writing this entry I was thinking my Top Five list of this year may have to add some additional categories. I mean the list above would have be the Top Five of this year if I am saying they are some of my top meals ever. There have been some wonderful recipes coming off the grill this year that deserve some recognition. But I will figure that one out and if you are going to have a problem, having too many good things to fit on the list isn’t a bad problem to have.

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