Off to a Great Start
07/22/09 - 15:53 Filed in: Retrospective
I realized recently that I am having a really, truly incredible year pursuing my grilling & smoking hobby. Since then I’ve been thinking about the reasons for this great year. I think I have come up with some of the reasons why, which I shall share in this blog entry. I wanted to understand why so I could try to keep it up. I also figured I’d share my findings and perhaps some of the things that have helped me, will serve to help others up their game too. First some background though.
The other day when I was typing a description for the OLD FASHIONED ROAST PORK dinner I mentioned how the roast pork was the best I have every had, as were the mashed potatoes I made from a new recipe. This triggered a feeling of deja vu where I remembered typing those words before a month or so ago regarding an impromptu grilled rack of lamb dinner (see ORANGE-POMEGRANATE RACK OF LAMB) I served with grilled green beans (see GREEN BEANS WITH LEMON OIL). Not wanting to sound like a broken record (repeating the same thing for those too young who only know CDs) I thought about it some more. Was this meal really that good and if so how is it you have two of the best meals you have ever made and ever eaten twice in a one month period? Well they both were really that good which got me to thinking about the great run I have been having this year. One evidence of the run I have been on is this website which is 3 1/2 years old now and has doubled in size (amount of content) in the last 9 months. I am analytical by nature and started thinking of the reasons for what made this year different than the others before it. Some of these items are new and others are old ones that have just help to reinforce what has been going on. So here are 10 items that have come together to help me have an exceptional year. They are in no particular order:
1) Working From Home = More Time: Since I am now working from home more often I regain the 4 hours or so every day that was spent commuting back and forth to Cambridge. Not only do I have more time, I have more energy because I can spend these 4 hours on more enjoyable tasks. I now have 3 extra time blocks I can put towards grilling related tasks.
- My two hour morning commuting time can now be used to go out shopping for food for that night’s supper. Another way to use this new time block is to get something started for later that day. The other morning I started prepping to make a grilled beef stew at 6:00AM and had it in the pot by 9:05AM. I can fire up the smoker early and get a cook started. Being home I can run out once in a while to feed the smoker more wood or charcoal & mop or turn the meat.
- Lunch time can now be used for quick runs to the supermarket or to throw together a brine or marinade for that night’s supper. Now that I am grilling more I also have some great leftovers for lunch the next day.
- My two hour evening commute time can now be used to make supper. Most nights now I am having supper at the time I would have only just been coming in the door. This earlier start helps in several ways. I don’t have to rush to make something that is quick so we’re not eating at 9:00PM. Also I am grilling in the light for more of the year now. It sure makes it easier to grill in the daylight and now I am doing that for more than about 2 months in the middle of the summer.
- Now this is not necessarily something you have total control over, but if you are lucky enough to be able to work in some work at home time in your job, perhaps you can also work in a cook too.
2) Grilling More Often: The more you do something, hopefully the better you get at it. I am finding I am doing more and thinking about it less than ever before. Several other things on this list have helped push me into grilling more. I have wanted to make more than just the main meal and so I have been making veggies as well as soups and salads. This naturally means I am grilling more with every meal. Now that I have the time I am able to grill more. The picture at the top of this blog shows part of the page from my recent updates page where I list the newest picture entries. I have grilled or smoked something 9 out of the last 10 days, . Now my recent entries doesn’t always reflect this because I have been also revisiting favorites from the past. But all of this grilling has improved my skills.
3) Trying New Things: This comes into play in several ways and has been going on for several years.
- When I started grilling & smoking more seriously I began to try things that in the past I probably would have turned my nose up at. I was a bit surprised when I found I actually didn’t mind, or better yet liked some foods I would have turned my nose up at in the past. So I decided to have a totally clean slate. I would try anything at least once. This included items that I historically didn’t like in the past. So I have been revisiting both individual items and whole food categories that I traditionally did not like. People who have known me for a long time are shocked to see me making salads, granted they are grilled salads, but salads of any kind being made by me voluntarily is a bit of a shocker. I am also grilling more veggies including ones I “hated” in the past. So far I haven’t totally disliked anything and am discovering some new things to like
- I am also trying new types of cuisine, both U.S. regional and world cuisine. It wasn’t too long ago that meals in New England were a pretty structured and bland affair. I find I love Southwestern cuisine, Southern BBQ not to mention Asian, South American, & Middle Eastern dishes. This is very exciting because there is a whole world of exciting combinations of foods and spices waiting to be discovered. I wrote about this at length in my WORLD CLASS GRILLING blog entry earlier this year
- Trying new things includes making my own items such as a BBQ sauce or condiment when a recipe calls for you to either make their version or use your favorite store bought variety. Some recipes don’t even give you that choice, they have a companion recipe for a sauce or condiment. I realized how I’ve evolved in my cooking the other day. I bought a cookbook called ‘Witchcraft for making sandwiches. My dad borrowed it first and gave it back to me shortly after saying there was nothing in there for him. There was some ingredient or stumbling block in each recipe. When I looked through it I spotted a recipe for a pastrami reuben that seemed like it would be right up his alley. Upon closer inspection I saw the recipe called for a mustard sauce using another recipe in the book. This recipe in turn called for a pickled mustard seed ingredient from a third recipe. This is what hung up my dad and which I realized no longer phased me. Not too long ago I would have probably not bought the book because it called for you to make too many of the ingredients yourself. Now I realize that is what elevates many of these recipes to something really special.
4) Using the Best Ingredients: Something I have been doing for a while now has helped elevate my cooking and that is using the best ingredients I can lay my hands on. When a recipe called for a fresh herb or spice I used to use a jar spice. When it called for fresh squeezed lemon juice I’d by a bottle of it. Along the way I discovered there is a big difference in flavor when you use fresh herbs & spices and fresh fruit juice. Even more importantly others have noticed the difference without my saying anything.
5) Trying to Cultivate Relationships with the People Who Sell You These Great Ingredients: I have found it is very worthwhile to try to get to know some of the people who you buy your food from. Whether it is the butcher, the fish monger, the people in the produce department if they answer a question for me and then inquire about what I am making I will tell them about it and if I have pictures of it on my iPhone, I’ll actually show them. Or if they say let me know how this turns out, I make a point of trying to seek them out next time I am in. I’ll tell them how it turned out in words and often pictures. They realize I am serious about this and often they are very passionate about what they do too. This helps in many ways. They are often a fountain of knowledge. I recently got a very detailed lesson in how to tell a fresh pineapple, a topic I knew nothing about, from someone I see all the time in the produce department. A butcher tipped me off about Icelandic lamb which is the best lamb I’ve ever had. It is available only a few months of the year and I was totally unaware of it. I have also had these folks go out back to get me something fresher or better. They will see me looking at something (and I am often debating in my mind whether to get it) and they will say “Oh you don’t want that, let me get you something better out back”. It is well worth striking up a relationship with the people you buy your food from whenever possible.
6) Using the Best Accompaniments: One of the things that have elevated some of my meals is having the time and the willingness to make some of the other parts of the meal from scratch. Grilling veggies has made a great meal even better and elevated a couple to the highest levels. Not only was my OLD FASHIONED ROAST PORK the best pork roast I’ve ever had, the recipe I found for the best mashed potatoes truly was the best mashed potatoes I’ve ever had. When I grilled a rack of lamb, ORANGE-POMEGRANATE RACK OF LAMB, that turned out to be one of the best I have ever made what elevated the whole meal to a best-ever status was the grilled GREEN BEANS WITH LEMON OIL I made with it. I took some bread baking classes in order to make my own hamburger and hot dog rolls (see New Directions Big Improvements blog entry) and this has helped improve my hamburgers. Making my own pizza crust to go with my grilled pizzas has helped make my grilled pizza so good, my dad chose it over going out to his favorite pizza restaurant for Father’s Day this year. These secondary items (homemade mashed potatoes, grilled green beans, fresh baked hamburger rolls and home made pizza crust) have all taken the meal they were part of and elevated it to a new level. These events all happened this year and it was almost as if the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.
7) Having Great Recipes: I didn’t really know anything about cooking so I really can’t just make up a recipe myself. For a long while I was stuck at grilling burgers, dogs, steaks all the time because the only cookbooks I found assumed a higher level of cooking knowledge than I had. When I found Stephen Raichlen’s HOW TO GRILL this changed everything. As I have gotten more knowledgeable I find I am better able to gauge the various cookbooks and recipes within them. But if you are just starting out get either HOW TO GRILL by Stephen Raichlen or WEBER’S WAY TO GRILL. Armed with some good recipes you will soon be advancing your knowledge base and making some great meals. Once you learn a little bit you will be able to tell which recipes are good ones for you, but until then start with a known and trusted source. It is important the recipes be written for where you are at knowledge base wise. There are now books I feel comfortable using, because I have a higher base level of knowledge. Earlier I would have probably had mixed results because I wouldn’t understand the meaning of the directions. I am also now starting to take recipes off the internet and am starting to make adjustments to them based on what I have learned so far.
8) Keep Pushing the Envelope: While this could go under the “Trying New Things” entry, I am putting it in it’s own category. What I am talking about here is trying to stay out of a rut or getting too comfortable that you don’t grow. It would be very easy to find a handful of things you are good at and do them all the time. But one of the fun things for me has been forcing myself to learn about new food items or food types. These days the only time I remake a specific item is by request. If I ask someone what they would like me to make for their birthday for example. The other time I may do something twice is if I am not sure I’ll get it right the first time or I’m not sure if the person I am going to make it for will like it. I’ll do it up once to get the bugs out and taste test it to see if I should make it for them. Only then do I spring it on my “victim”. By trying to always look for new recipes, it has allowed me to discover all kinds of new food and have some great taste experiences I might have otherwise missed.
9) Having the Right Gear: By now I’ve assembled quite a collection of gear, some essential, some nice to have. This all adds up to letting me do more in a given amount of time and hopefully enjoy it more too. I have detailed in various blogs through the years some of the cool tools I’ve picked up along the way and I won’t repeat it here. If your interested visit my blog archives for the last 3 years. But it is nice at this point because most anything I decide to do I generally have the right tool for the right job. Now before you start saying all that gear can be expensive let me say this: Yes there can be a bit if upfront cost, but it you cook at home more and eat out less that saves quite a bit of money. Money that can pay for those cool tools.
10) Fun Factor: I’m having fun making it and other’s are having fun eating it. Both of those count for a lot. A good deal of what I make is served to friends or family. It is fun being able to share some of this great food with them and helps justify making it to begin with. Both my parents are getting to try new things they’ve never had before and most likely would not have been exposed to otherwise. My parents are tired of the same old thing after all these years and sometimes say everything starts tasting the same. A lot of what I am making is new to them, uses new spices and is certainly not bland. I still make things that are their favorites too, but making much of it from scratch and using fresh ingredients helps elevate it from the ordinary. One of the things that helps make it all worth it is to have one of your parents say: “This is the best steak or burger or roasts or pizza or fill in the blank, I have had.” After all the things they have done for you, it is nice to be able to do something nice for them.
So there are the reasons I came up with for what has made this year my best year ever for Grilling & Smoking. Some are recent, some I’ve known for a while. I have a feeling if I keep practicing Item Number 8 “Keep Pushing the Envelope” the best is yet to come.
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