Raising the Bar
07/07/09 - 14:49 Filed in: Multi-item Cooks
This year has been interesting as I’ve had a couple of my goals for the year combine to create a synergy where one goal has helped me to achieve another. It has been about 6 years since I got more serious about grilling and it became a hobby as opposed to dabbling on weekends in the warm weather. At this point while it would be easy to settle in and be happy with what I have learned thus far on the grill or smoker, I have continued to set new goals for myself. This year was no exception. I’ve wanted to do more multi-item cooks. I also wanted learn more about grilled veggies. Well I hadn’t given it much thought but veggies are side dishes so grilling veggies is an easy way to learn about multi item cooks. One of my other goals was to continue to grow and try new things. Well grilled veggies were certainly a new thing for me, but it goes farther than this. For a while now without my knowing exactly why I have been in a mindset where I am constantly in search of new recipes to try. In fact I am almost disappointed when for one reason or another I have to revisit an old favorite. Before I let this drift of too far let me say this blog will be about some of the lessons I have learned grilling veggies and preparing more meals where the main course wasn’t the only item coming off the grill. It will be short on pictures, but hopefully long on useful information.
Before I get specific with a list of items I’ve learned or in some cases had to relearn, let me just give an overview. Grilling veggies is very rewarding. You get an intensity of flavors you simply don’t get with many of the other preparation methods. The high heat of the grill gives you a high degree of caramelization of the plant sugars giving you great flavor, plus you get the smoke flavor from the grill. This year I also wanted to get into other types of dishes besides the main course. Grilling veggies lends itself to different courses fitting right into my wish to learn to make other courses bedsides the main meal. This year I have added new sections to this site for Kebabs, Soups & Salads plus Sandwiches. Grilling veggies can sometimes be the easiest thing you do on the grill. Many recipes call for grilled peppers where you basically can’t overcook the peppers. You are going for a charred skin which you eventually peel off. The remaining pieces of pepper are flavorful and infused with a great smoke flavor. When making soups or salads many of the veggies get chopped or puréed so you are less concerned with appearance than you might be with a main dish. Veggies can often be grilled ahead since they end up in a soup which can simmer while you finish your other grilling or the soup can be reheated, or a salad that can be served at room temperature or cold. Often the extra time allows the various flavors to meld. It has been an interesting learning experience. In addition to learning some new things, old lessons have been reinforced.
This is a list of items I have learned in grilling multiple items or whole meals. As I said, some are old some are new.
- Timing is everything: If your goal is to have all or your food be ready at the same time you must plan ahead. The thing you don’t want to have happen in the middle of cooking is to find out two recipes need you to be in two places at once. You are supposed to be out grilling some meat while you need to be inside chopping up some veggies to throw on the grill. What I often do is create a reverse timeline for each of the items I want to make. I start at the end first with the time I want to eat and work my way backwards. I take the time I wish to eat as the starting point. Then I take the time it will take to carve the meat, the resting time, the grilling time, the prep time, the marinating time, the pre-prep time etc. I apply a time to each of these items in terms of minutes and time of day. Then I do this for the next item and the next. I do these time lines by hand quickly on a piece of graph paper where the grids represent a certain time interval. Doing the graphs one above the other allows you to deal with the overlaps where you’d need to be doing two things at once. I adjust the timelines to make it so I only have one task to do in any one time block. Be sure to leave 5 minutes open here or there to give you time for catchup or a breather. This timeline then tells you when you must actually start. Depending on what you are making your timeline may stretch out only a little or a lot. If you are doing 3 items that each take 2 hours, your timeline may stretch to 6 hours or more or only expand to 4.5 hours. One of your items may have a marinating time, where you can be working on one of the others. Or while your meat is resting for 15 minutes you could be grilling something else.
- Be Sure to Leave Enough Time: Now I will admit I have a weakness in this department in that everything seems to take more time than I expect. This becomes even more critical in a multi-item cook. I find I have to start even earlier than I think. What I often do is start early with the idea that if I have any free as a result of this early start I can goof off at the end. Rarely if ever do I get to use this end time. Somehow things just seem to take longer or the phone rings or you need to empty the dishwasher. In my case I actually combine two hobbies: Grilling and Photography. I take pictures of what I make and use them on this site and as a reference for the future. These pictures add time for me. Once I have made something once, I know how long it will take so I have something to go by. But until I get better at gauging the time for new meals, I try to start early.
- Pre-Cook Some Items: I have noticed more and more recipes indicating that all or part of the recipe can be pre-cooked and used X hours or Y days later. Part of this may be because I am making more items like salads and soups where the flavors may actually benefit from the extra time. Also there are parts of the recipe you can make ahead such as the rubs or marinades.
- Make Items Out of Sequence: It may be more time efficient to do all of your chopping for all of your dishes at the same time and then store the items you don’t need immediately.
- Have Extra Grilling Tools & Food Prep Items: When you are making one item it is relatively easy to clean up as you go. When you are making multiple items (or two grilled meals in one day) there often isn’t enough time to clean as you go. So I have 3 sets of measuring cups, 3 sets of measuring spoons, multiple mixing bowls, 20 small glass bowls, 12 bigger glass bowls etc. This allows you to have some of these items be in the dishwasher and you have backup. I have 5 sees of tongs which serves several purposes. Once again you can have some of these items in the dishwasher and still have backup. Also there are some food safety reasons for having multiple sets of tongs: you can use one set for the uncooked meat and one for the finished product. For me I have found unless all of your items have a resting or marinading time there is little time left for clean up as you go when doing a multi item cook. So I have back up. I am actually going to get more of the glass bowls I use to hold the measured ingredients. I have been starting to go through all of them lately and I find these bowls even more helpful in multi-item cooks. You are busy and it is easy to make mistakes. These bowls help prevent this. If a rub has 10 items I set out 10 bowls. When they all have something in them I know it is time to mix the rub. This beats pouring them into the bowl and then realizing you’ve left something out, but you aren’t quite sure which item.
- Have Several Good Sharp Knives: A sharp knife makes your chopping tasks go faster and you are able to get a finer chop easily. I have a nice set of Wusthoff Classic series knives and have since added several specialized knives. If money is tight you don’t need a big set of expensive knives, put the money into getting several good quality knives. You will want a chefs knife (or a similarly sized Santouku knife), a paring knife and a serrated knife for items like tomatoes which have a skin enclosing a soft inside. I had a set of a few mediocre grade knives before getting the Wusthoff knives. They were better than the supermarket grade knives I owned before that, but getting the Wusthoff knives was an eye opener. My prep time got shorter and I had better control allowing me a smaller slice or dice when I needed it. Be sure to use a sharpener to keep your knives sharp.
- Use Your Grills Side Burner: One way to be in two places at once is to try using your grills side burner. While you are grilling some meat you can be sautéing some veggies, or making a mop sauce, glaze or reduction sauce you will need later. Having said that I’d say experiment with your side burner before you really need it for a mission critical task for an important meal. I’ve had several grills with side burners and they have their quirks and limitations. I’ve had some side burners that seem to have one cooking level, despite having a knob with low medium and high settings. Generally it seems to be all or nothing in these cases. Often you don’t get the extremes with a side burner, a high high or a low low. I had one grill where if you were using all 4 main burners, the side burner looked more like the flame from a cigarette lighter. A side burner will often take longer than your indoor burner. A side burner can be adversely affected by the wind. These are all things to know beforehand, so you don’t get into trouble during an important cook.
- Use a Remote Read Thermometer: A remote read thermometer allows you to be in two places at once. If you have something on the smoker or indirect grilling on your grill, use a remote read thermometer. You can be in the Kitchen doing something else while still keeping an eye on the temps at the grill. You should still go out periodically and check on things, but it does free you up from having to babysit a meat. For more on remote read thermometers here is a recent blog entry: REMOTE POSSIBILITY.
- Use Grill Tools To Make You More Efficient: Items like grill baskets allow you to make more efficient use of your time. I’ve made some grilled potato wedges both directly on the grill grate or in a grill basket. Far quicker and easier to turn a grill basket full of 36 potato wedges than turning 36 individually. For more on grill baskets see my recent ANOTHER NEAT GADGET blog entry.
- Keep the Grill Grate Clean and Lubricated: I just wrote a blog on this entitled STAYING IN GRATE SHAPE. A clean grill is even more important when you are grilling multiple items. A well oiled grill grate is going to make your life easier. When you have a lot of items on the grill you do not want to have to fuss and carefully pry each item off the grill grate. You may tear off that great charred skin you are looking for and you may burn some of the other pieces that you couldn’t get to in time.
- Use Any Timers You Have at Your Disposal: I have written several blogs about the iPhone as a BBQ aide. Right now I am talking about using it as a timer both out at the grill and in the Kitchen. You can use it as a count up timer and a count down timer and an alarm all at once. You can set multiple alarms on it too. If I am going to be really busy I will often set alarms to remind me to turn marinading meat in the fridge, light the grill or smoker or start my prep. The count down timer can be used to time a meat that is resting. Your oven or microwave probably have a separate Kitchen timer in addition to the timer used to time cooking. I have even been know to use the remote startup feature to pre-heat the oven for me so I can stay out at the grill.
- Bigger is Better: If you plan on getting serious about your grilling you will probably want to make more on your grill. Where I am going with this is you may want to consider a larger grill. Prior to my latest 6 burner grill, I used a 4 burner or 3 burner models. I got my 6 burner on sale for $200 off which helped. After using the larger grill for 6 years now I am hooked. I would never want to go back. Here are some of the reasons. Multi-zone fires are very easy. By setting the burners to Low/Low/Medium/Medium/High/High I can have a 3 zone fire. Indirect cooking is easier too, I can set the burners to On/On/Off/Off/On/On and put my meat in the middle. With indirect cooking done with the heat sources on each side you don’t have to worry as much about the wind. If the heat source was on one side only, the wind could potentially blow the heat away from the meat and your meal could take hours more. Don’t ask how I know this. A 6 burner grill gives you plenty of room to maneuver. If s grill gets too crowded you can waste time trying to turn the food because you need to be careful about how you grab each item. With the extra real estate I can usually leave enough room to make turning the food easier. In the cold weather you don’t want to put food near the outer edges of the grill grate where you may get temperature losses. Having the extra grill area allows you to keep all of the food in off the edges. Lastly if you ever do have a big crowd to grill for, you will have more room to work with. I debated whether to put this item because 6 burner grills aren’t cheap. I would never recommend taking the money you were going to spend on a 4 burner grill to buy a 6 burner model at the same price point. I’m saying spend the extra money to move up to a 6 burner of equal or better quality than the 3 or 4 burner model. Over the life of the grill the price difference is not significant and a good quality grill will last a long time. Plus I really can’t put a price on the extra convenience and flexibility I get with 6 burners and more surface area to work with.
So there you have it. Some of the insights and lessons I have learned trying to do more. I’ve been trying to learn about new food items, grill more than one item for a meal and do more food items from scratch. I’m sure I will revisit this topic in the future as I learn more. So far it has been a lot of fun and my meals are improving. You can’t ask for more than that.
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