600th Picture Post - How I Got Here
The BISCUIT BREAKFAST PUDDING from this past weekend marked my 600th Picture Post on this site. This caused me to think back to where I was before I started this site and where I have come. The idea for a blog entry came to mind where I might encourage people to push themselves to do more. Many folks see pictures of what I have cooked and say: “Wow that is great, but I could never do that it is too complicated”. To that I say: “Nonsense!” I will talk about the steps that got me to the level I am at today. As part of this blog I will talk about where I was prior to getting my first serious grill in 2003. You will see if I can do it, anyone can do it.
THE BEGINNING:Right up until 2003, I was a weekend warrior and a very basic one at that. My repertoire, such as it was, consisted of: burgers, dogs, steaks, chicken breasts, ham steak & kebabs. That was it. I grilled during the “official” New England grilling season from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Mostly on weekends, occasionally on weeknights if it was still light out. I tried ribs once and it was my worst failure to date. I have documented that elsewhere on the site and it was many years before I tried ribs again. I tried grilling in the cold weather, but up until 2003 the grills I had tried it on were simply not up to the task. As you can see, you don’t get more basic than the level I was at 12 years ago.
MY FIRST SERIOUS GRILL:In 2003 I got my first “Serious” grill, a 6-burner Kenmore Elite gas grill, complete with a side burner, infra-red rotisserie burner and smoker drawer. Once again I have told this story before, about getting this grill at a great sale price. I told myself that if I was going to spend this kind of money on a grill, I needed to up my game and do more than 6 types of food on it. After I got the grill assembled I went out to the bookstore looking for a “serious” grilling cookbook to go along with my “serious” grill. It also needed to be something I could understand. The cookbooks for the grill I had purchased to date seemed to assume you were already a knowledgeable cook. They were written in a way to get an indoor cook started using an outdoor grill. They assumed a knowledge of indoor cooking I did not have. Essentially I wanted a Grilling for Dummies type cookbook. The cookbook I came home with, HOW TO GRILL, by Stephen Raichlen changed my grilling life forever. It was exactly what I was looking for. It assumed no advanced knowledge and taught you how to make great grilled meals. It had over 1,000 pictures breaking down all of the information into the basic steps. At this time I also found Raichlen’s Barbecue University show on PBS, where he was making recipes from HOW TO GRILL and some of his other cookbooks. I also had found his Barbecue Bible website with lots of grillers ready to exchange ideas and advice. With this help I slowly started expanding my repertoire. I got the grill in late October and I had enough successes using Stephen Raichlen’s recipes, that I decided I would make a rather big leap and make my first Thanksgiving turkey ever, and smoke it on my new gas grill.
FIRST TURKEY:Those of you starting out, don’t get overwhelmed with where you want to be 5 years down the road. Tackle this whole grilling thing one bite-sized chunk at a time. You just need to find good recipes and force yourself to try something a little harder each time going forward. A good example of this for me was my first turkey on the grill. I had never made a turkey before and never paid attention when someone was cooking the turkey in the Kitchen. I had seen the recipe for a smoked turkey in HOW TO GRILL and had watched him make it on Barbecue University. I wanted to give it a shot. To say I was scared was an understatement. I didn’t want to become a holiday horror story trotted out every year… “Do you remember when Jimmy tried to cook his first turkey on the grill and we ended up calling Dominos for pizza?” These days if I was making something that pushed the limits of my skill set that much, I would do a trial run ahead of time to work out any kinks. This was a case where making a whole Thanksgiving dinner was getting to be too much for my mother and I decided to take over those chores. I would not just make the turkey, I would make it on my new gas grill with the smoker drawer. I was really scared I had bitten of more than I could chew. But I read the recipe over many times until I knew it by heart. I had taped the Barbecue University episode where Steven Raichlen made the turkey and watched it several times. On Thanksgiving day things went fairly smoothly with three exceptions. First the prep took longer than I planned on - a problem I still have from time to time today. But as you make more recipes you will get a better feeling for this. The second thing was placing the probes for my Maverick ET-72 grill thermometer. To be honest I still have trouble with this to this day. Third and last is turkey seems to have a plateau where it slows way down in the cooking process. At first the turkey rose steady and fast. I was getting ready to call my guests to try to get them there an hour sooner. But then somewhere in the high 120’s (53 C) the progress slowed to a crawl. In the end the turkey finished about 30 minutes later than planned. This turkey was one of the moistest, tastiest turkeys any of us had ever had. Forcing myself to push my limits had proven to me that I could make more than burgers and dogs on the grill. Plus I now had the basics of cooking turkey under my belt. The next time was much easier and relatively stress free. These days I don't really think about it beyond wondering what recipe to use.
MORE TIME FOR COOKING = LESS TIME FOR OTHER THINGS:I was suddenly spending more time cooking on the weekends. My turkey success had given me the idea that I should make a dinner for my family more often, not just for holidays. I started having them over late Saturday afternoons for a grilled meal. I had been doing a lot of bicycling for the prior 3 years. I was working towards doing a Century ride (100 miles/160 km) and had gotten myself up to where I could ride 75 miles 120 km) without much difficulty beyond some sore muscles. I was also bringing my camera along and pursuing my other hobby of outdoor photography. I would take long rides through scenic areas and capture some of the best views on “film”. The meals I began making were more complex and were taking more time. Suddenly I didn’t have time for an all day ride on Saturday. I made the decision going forward it was better to make a family dinner on the weekend than go riding for myself. Doing the family meal gave me a foolproof excuse to use the grill. Where my mom wasn’t up to doing big meals this solved that issue too. Giving up riding seemed to also point to giving up photography.
GRILLING & PHOTOGRAPHY:I have talked about this in other blog entries, But photography began to have a place in my cooking activities. At first I was taking pictures of the food on the grill so I could later look at the doneness levels (good or bad) to help me judge what it would look like the next time. I also started making a point of being sure to take a picture when the food went on the grill. Using the timestamp found on every digital Image became a good record keeping tool. I was able to look back six months or year later and see how long something took to cook. I also began taking pictures of all the ingredients gathered on the counter. This proved invaluable when I was able to put them on my cell phone and view them from a store. I might be shopping for a different recipe and find out I couldn't get the meat I needed. I could go to Plan B and make something else I made another time. By having the picture of the ingredients on the phone, I could do my shopping without having to go home first. Lastly having a picture of how I intended to use the meat would be helpful to the butcher in selecting and preparing the meat for you.
GRILLING + PHOTOGRAPHY + .wwwApple had created the iTools service back in 2000. One of the components of that service was called HomePage. You could select your images in iPhoto and with one button, publish the selected photos to a webpage created on the fly for that purpose. Apple used templates to arrange the pictures into photo albums. That was the predecessor to this site. I started putting photos up for my own uses, such as being able to view them from a remote location. Also I sent the links to some people who were friends, relatives or fellow grillers interested in what I was up to. The feedback I got on the photos was very positive and more than I expected. Now sure they could have just been being polite, but many of them asked me to let them know when I put up more photos. This caused me to start taking more photos and being a bit more careful about things like composition and lighting etc. I also realized by taking photos of my grilling activities, I was back into doing a lot of photography, just a new and different kind.
EXPANDING MY HORIZONS:As I began to grill more I was trying to do something new every time I cooked a family meal. Plus I pushed myself to do more ambitious meals. I was getting new cookbooks and I was now able to understand the recipes better due to what I learned from HOW TO GRILL. One of the things I enjoyed doing was to find a food type I liked in HOW TO GRILL and then explore the region variations in Stephen Raichlen’s Barbecue Bible. I also began to discover the great tastes of world food. I quickly realized that with all of the recipes from around the globe I would never run out of new and exciting things to make. So rather than make the same things over and over, I wanted to try new things every time I could. The only exception to this unwritten rule, was I would let my family choose what I made four them for their birthday dinner or at holiday such as Mother and Father's day. Because my family really enjoyed the new things I was making every week, they often had me make a new meal rather than repeating something I had made for them in the past. They would say I like lamb or I like hamburgers and let me choose a new recipe for those to make for their dinner. All of these items come buying to really expand my grilling capabilities.
ADDING A SMOKER:In 2005 I added a smoker to my grilling arsenal. I had come to realize that my gas grill simply wasn’t made for low and slow smoking. For the best results I needed to be able to smoke low and slow at 225. Photography became even more valuable to me as I entered the world of smoking. This was new territory for me and being able to document my results and compare them with pictures of the same item from cookbooks or message boards proved to be invaluable. I also continued to share these photos with friends and family and also internet message boards.I became more active on grilling and smoking related message boards, as I attempted to learn more about smoking. Having the smoker helped me begin to make more things on the grill too. With the main meat on the smoker, I could do sides on the gas grill. I also could throw multiple items on the smoker and I would often cook up something else simultaneously while I had the smoker fired up.
ENTER iWeb:Apple’s iWeb software was a WYSIWYG software for easily creating websites using pre-designed templates and one push of a button publishing. It came out in January of 2006 and I was intrigued. Personal websites had become a growing trend, as had blogs. The Apple designed templates were visually appealing and looked much better than many of the sites created with the other web publishing software of the day. The release of iWeb also pointed to the future demise of Apple’s HomePage. I decided to create a website for the display of my photos using iWeb. I could do more with the photo pages in iWeb than I could in HomePage by adding captions and descriptions of the page content. Blogs had become a new trend in the last few years and iWeb had a page type for creating blog pages. I was very torn about this, because I really questioned if I would be able to keep coming up with items to write about. To my great surprise all these years later, I am still writing blog entries. If anything, I have trouble these days keeping the length of some of the entries down to a manageable size. So to those of you reading this who refer to this site as “My blog”, the site was (in my mind at least) a website of photo albums that also happened to have a blog as a secondary activity. If you come here to read my blog entries and the photo entries are of less interest to you, that is fine with me. Welcome to everyone no matter what their interest. One of my goals for this site was a way of giving back for all the help I have received (and still receive) along the way.
Having a website and a blog also drove me to do more, both in terms of scope and more grilled or smoked items per meal. Having the photo part of the website increased my desire to try new things. After all, I couldn’t put the same pictures of me cooking the same item over and over again week after week. This gave me another excuse to try new and different things. Also as I learned more, I wanted to do more with my cooks. What once seemed hard and complex becomes easier with experience. I found recipes I had once avoided as being too difficult suddenly seemed very doable. The trick is you do have to give yourself that initial push, otherwise you will simply stay in your comfort zone. I also had the website to keep supplied with new fresh photos. My weekly family meals also gave me the opportunity to try new things. My parents in particular, had gotten to the point where a lot of foods bored them. They had eaten them so many times they had lost interest. I was trying to make new and different things for them. This in turn was causing me to push my boundaries and skills.
Having to come up with blog entries helped me in trying new things too. Being “forced” to come up with new blog entries also forced me to organize my thoughts at the same time. Analyzing what I was doing for a blog entry also served as a learning tool for me. It helped me see where the next step was and encouraged me to do more. One blog entry I do every year’s end, looks back at my grilling related activities for that year and also sets goals for the next year. These goals are something I can review the next year to see if I indeed pushed myself to achieve them. If I had achieved my goals, this would suggest a next step for the following year, If not, the goal went back on the list for the coming year. This has been really helpful in identifying and achieving new goals and also gets me out of a comfort zone. I wanted to do more multi-item cooks and more baking. Both of those items were on the list for a number of years, and at first I was only partially successful achieving them. These days I routinely do multi-item cooks and bake both bread or rolls and desserts to go with it. I no longer have to push myself to do this, it has become natural. I pick the main dish and then I just automatically start asking myself what bread, dessert or side dish will go with it.
BIG GREEN EGG(S)-Kamado Type Grill:Getting my first kamado grill, in my case a Big Green Egg, really changed my grilling activities in a huge way. I intended for the Egg to supplement and extend the life of my gas grill and smoker. Instead purchasing a Big Green Egg hastened their demise. The Egg was just that much better than the other two grills. Once I used it I never wanted to go back. I suddenly had a world class grill, smoker and outdoor oven. I was using my Large Big Green Egg so much, that in 4 months I added a second Egg to spread out the load. Then a year later I added a third Egg because I was suddenly baking all the time too. The added capabilities of the Egg caused me to want to learn more and do more. The Egg was a better girl than my gas grill in many regards. To my surprise the Egg had equal levels of temperature control compared to my gas grill and could reach higher temperature. Even more importantly, it was not affected very much by weather conditions. The 6 burner gas grill had the advantage of multi-zone cooking and more grilling surface area, but getting a second Egg solved some of those issues. The additional capabilities offered by the Egg caused me to want to expand my horizons again. The Egg was a better oven than my kitchen oven. This caused me to start using it all the time for baking and was the reason behind eventually getting a third Large Big Green Egg dedicated to baking related tasks. The ability to easily reach high temps in any weather caused me to want to learn how to stir-fry. Also I routinely make high temperature grilled pizzas without giving it a second thought. It is also very easy to do a Chicago style deep dish pizza on the egg.
BOTTOM LINE: Quite a few people tell me they enjoy looking at the food porn I post on this site. And often the next thing they do is make an almost apologetic statement that they can’t do that level of cooking. I'm sorry, but I know from personal experience that is simply not true. If I can do it anyone can do it. Back in 2003 I knew next to nothing about outdoor grilling and cooking in general. I cooked the same small handful of items. To be honest I was scared to try anything outside of that comfort zone I had reached. If you told me back in 2003 what I would be doing in 2015, I would have bet money that you were wrong and you must mean somebody else. Getting a more advanced grill was the start for me. I wanted to learn more so I could use all of the capabilities it offered. The rest, as they say, is history. It is not something you do overnight, but consists of a series of steps where you build on what you have learned. By doing it this way, it is indeed possible for anyone to learn the necessary skills. I am going to list some of the things that helped me expand my horizons. Not all of them may apply to you, but many of them will or you can use variations suited to your situation.
STEPS TO GROWING YOUR GRILLING SKILLS:There are a number of things that have proven to be key to the growth of my skills.
- You must REALLY want this and not in some halfhearted fashion. Don't just say you like to be a better griller.
- You must find ways to constantly push yourself in the direction you want to go. Wishing you can do more on your grill or smoker isn’t going to make anything happen. You must really want it and take tangible steps to make it happen.
- Learn from your failures and build on your successes. I feel we often learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. Analyze what went wrong so you don't repeat that the next time. If you have a success, don't just except it and move on. Take the time to analyze what went right and how you can repeat that going forward.
- Get a good cookbook suited for the beginners level. Many cookbooks are written as if you already have a certain knowledge level. If (like I was in 2003) you are a total beginner, much of the content of more advanced cookbooks will go right over your head, In the links below this blog entry I will post links to some good beginner’s cookbooks and the reviews I have written about them.
- Take advantage of resources on the Internet to learn more. You may also find cooking classes to help you advance your cooking skills. Better yet, see if some grilling or barbecue classes aren't offered in your area.
- Get a grill that does not limit you. If you are looking at a conventional gas or charcoal grill or a charcoal smoker, you don’t have to get the flagship grill or smoker to start. But don’t necessarily settle for the cheapest model either. The limitations imposed by the cheapest model maybe what is preventing you from having success with your cooks. Get something that will work for you now and will let you grow into some of the more advanced features later.
- Also if you do spend more money on a grill be sure the extra money is going toward something that will be a real benefit. The price increases on stainless steel have decimated the mid-level grills. What is being sold as a mid-level grill, Is simply the entry level grill with some extra useless bells and whistles. These bells and whistles are intended to make the grill more attractive on the show floor but have little use in day-to-day grilling.
- The exception to not going for the top-of-the-line grill right away is the kamado grill. If you want to get a world class grill, smoker and outdoor oven, then you should seriously consider a kamado style grill such as the Big Green Egg. You will pay more for it than some other grills, but it is a grill, smoker & outdoor oven in one model. Plus it will last 30 years or more and in the case of the Big Green Egg there is a lifetime guarantee on the ceramics. A kamado may be a bit harder to learn in the beginning, but in the long run it is easier to use and you can use it year round. So if you want to do it all, you might want to simply start off with a kamado grill. In the long run you will spend less money and be able to do more as you're grilling abilities increase.
- Set reasonable goals and advance in baby steps. Start off with the basics and build on what you are learning. If you start off simple and progress in logical steps. you will most likely be successful. Nothing feels better than success, it encourages you to do more. You will feel confident and the next level will look a lot less intimidating.
- Do not try to go too fast. This is the inverse of the last comment. Many people will crash and burn if they try to do an advanced cook with a beginner’s skill set. A few failures will cause many people to quit, thinking they simply can’t do this task. Often it isn’t that you WON’T be able to do it in time. The case is you CAN’T do it right now with your current skill set.
- Dry Runs can help you attempt more advanced cooks than you might be capable of. This is contrary to the advice listed just above, about not going to fast. There are times where you may want to try something more advanced than your current skill level for a special occasion or holiday. It is just human nature to want to do a special meal for one of these type events. Try one or more dry runs ahead of the actual event. By doing a dry run you can see if you can really pull it off. By doing it in a low stress atmosphere, you can take your time and relax, which will increase your odds of success. If it works for you, be sure to remember all of the steps leading to success. If you have a few correctable issues, learn from them and you will most likely succeed when you cook it for the actually event. If your issues are a mystery to you and you failed then you have two choices. Another dry run or cook a different dish for your special event. Better to find out ahead of a special event whether you can deliver on what you promise.
- Set achievable goals. Make a list of the items you want to achieve in the next year. Make sure they are reasonable and are things you can push yourself to achieve. You can review the list during the year to see how you are doing and remind yourself of your goals, At the end of the year review this list and see how you did. Create a new list for the next year based on your progress. Carry over unachieved goals and add any new goals for the coming year. There is something about having it in writing, that gives it more weight.
- Be sure to have fun! Hobbies are supposed to be fun, so set reasonable goals for yourself that you can achieve while still having fun. If you want to grow, you can’t just coast along. By the same token if you don’t enjoy what you are doing, you will soon give it up. Ambitious but realistic expectations will allow you to achieve your goals and still have fun.
CONCLUSION:I really can’t believe what I am doing these days vs, 2003 when I first got serious about this hobby. I was lucky in some ways. I had the convergence of multiple items help me achieve several goals together. Kismet if you will. I wanted to get serious about grilling and be more than a weekend warrior. This took additional time, which would take away from the time I devoted to outdoor photography. By switching to food photography I was able to continue with photography and this photography helped me with my cooking. My mother wasn’t up to doing big holiday meals. This caused me to take over the task as well as my learning to do it on the grill. I also took this as an opportunity to start doing weekly family meals. This gave me an excuse to use the grill and was an incentive in learning to make new types of dishes. It also gave me time with my family and made sure they were eating well. Lastly the first version of this website using iWeb was published in 2006. This gave me an outlet for the photos I took to document my cooks. It also gave me an incentive to try new recipes so I could post more photos on the site. All of these items came together and helped me advance in this hobby. Your mileage and circumstances may vary. But I am proof anyone can do this. You can do it too with the right approach. You may want to take a look at your own circumstance and see if there aren’t other things in your life that might be redirected to help you advance in your grilling. Just don’t let me hear you say you can’t do it. Anyone can do it, you have to want it and take the right steps to make it a reality.
STARTER COOKBOOK BLOG ENTRIES:Here are reviews I did of some cookbooks that are great starting points for beginners to grilling and smoking. The be auty of these cookbooks is there is also material in there for more advance people too.
HOW TO GRILL 2008 Blog Entry where I review the Stephen Raichlen cookbook which got me started down the road to serious grilling.
WEBER’S WAY TO GRILL 2009 Blog Entry where I review another great cookbook for beginners and intermediate grillers alike, It will get beginners headed down the road to serious grilling.
SLOW FIRE 2014 Blog Entry where I review Ray Lampe’s (Dr. BBQ) excellent cookbook for learning the basics of low and slow smoking.
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