Archives For BBQ

Some friends were competing in Tough Mudder Seattle yesterday.  This was their reward.

Fajita Flank Steak

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The Sabbatical

July 25, 2011

I’m now about four weeks into an eight week sabbatical.  I’ve been pretty quiet about the time outside a few close friends because it seems self-serving to blurt out, “Hey look at me and how cool I get to go on Summer vacation”.  But a friend noted I was over thinking and should share what I’m up to with friends and family here.

The Decision
Nearly three years ago, my boss and VP shared a reward that is highly unusual beyond academia – the Microsoft Sabbatical. Officially known as the “Microsoft Service Achievement Award”, the goal is to give senior staff some time off to decompress, reflect, or pursue interests and bring insights beyond work.  I’ve held onto the award waiting for the right time to use it, postponing a decision.  Truth is, I’ve lost vacation time at the end of every year for the past five as I find it difficult to take the time off.

Sometimes work and personal life collide in a way you can’t imagine.  During AdWeek NY last Fall, I was speaking on a NextGen TV panel when my phone was going off like a hornet vibrating in my pocket.  I stepped off the stage, and into a nightmare.  Over the next two months my mother (at a young age) would suffer two strokes, a medically induced coma, intubation, and extended stay in ICU with multiple system failure and a jaunt through our medical system across three hospitals, and three rehabilitation centers, a loss of her motor skills and independence requiring relocation closer to family.  Thankfully through the combined help of family, friends, and amazing medical professionals she’s doing much better.

So in January my wife and I decided it was time to stop planning and “Just Do It”. My first challenge in planning is I don’t do well with, “Downtime”.  I need projects and goals I can set out that are largely measurable.  This is what I came up with:

  1. Reconnect with Family near and Far - Whether it’s building Star Wars Lego kits with my 8yo, celebrating my boys’ birthdays or teaching my sons the right way to do a cannonball off the diving board.
  2. Road Trip the Midwest to visit Family and old Friends – Go back to my University, tell my sons silly stories, catch up with old Professors/friends.  Visit my in-laws, nephew, and do a BBQ tour of Kansas City.
  3. Learn to Cook (Better) - I love BBQing, the laid back nature and the intensity of competition cooks that can earn six-figures touring the nation.  I’m hosting a class with friends organized with Konrad Haskins, KCBS Grand Champion, KING5 and HGTV featured chef, and owner of BBQ Institute.  People fly from Europe just to take his class, and I’m lucky have him in my back yard before he moves permanently to Texas.
  4. Host my Mom and Make Memories – After years of scheduling and medical challenges, she’s finally going to see where we’ve lived for nearly three years.
  5. Read more - I have a stack of Cormac McCarthy and some classic SciFi waiting for me,  too often back-burnered for the latest business books.
  6. Learn to Paraglide – A likely one-time activity negotiated with my wife in exchange for not becoming a single engine pilot.
  7. Get into my best shape yet - After picking up running a few years ago, I dropped 20lbs and have maintained but want to improve muscle tone a bit.
  8. Do an extended trip to Hawaii - The first week is family reunion, the second week with great friends right on the beach.
  9. Get PADI Certified for Scuba Diving - Finish my online courses and do my dives in Hawaii.

Observations so Far: My Top 5 Tips for a Good Sabbatical
 I found very little advice outside of Jeff Sandquist’s reflections when doing my research so here are my Top 5 observations for having a good sabbatical from the midpoint:

#1: Don’t Deny, rather Explore and Expand your Passions
Most friends I’ve spoken with equate a sabbatical with disconnecting  from tech.  In response I’ve joked that I bought this book, for my Kindle ;).  But for me digital media is a passion point, one I’m enjoying trying new and old things I haven’t found time to play with otherwise, even competing products such as OSX Lion and games on platforms other than Xbox.   You’ll also find me on Twitter a bit more, and more accessible for coffee with old friends and co-workers but this is a small fraction as I’m planning, organizing and prepping many activities that have nothing to do with tech.

#2: Budget Time and Money Ahead
Work with your family to schedule time – family time, downtime, and be supportive of your spouse.  This is as much a reward for my wife who can go do Tae Kwon Do or get a mani/pedi without stressing over who will watch the kids.  For the big ticket items – airfare, hotels, course costs you have to be realistic and budget.  I have a spreadsheet I use for this purpose.

#3: Be Realistic
You’re not going into a chrysalis and going to come out a changed person.  But you should allow time to explore new ideas, perspectives and actively engage in introspection.  A sabbatical should not be a midlife crisis – rather a personal checkin and opportunity for a personal and professional tune up.

#4: Spend some time Giving Back
It’s been important to me that I look back on this as a productive time for others as well. I’m involved with some non-profits including the Capt. Jason Dahl Fund volunteering with fundraising activities to benefit deserving students pursuing a career in aviation.  I’m also finding time to give blood – as a universal donor I try to do this as often as I can.

#5: Get out of town for some, but not all of the time.
The feeling of walking through your front door and being home brings a level of appreciation for everything you have.  We’re doing it twice – the first time was with our trip to the midwest and again with Hawaii.  Even the kids have been more appreciative (and polite!) since returning home to their friends and their own beds.  Conversely you have to get out and explore a bit outside your home zone for an extended period to really start exploring new perspectives.

I’ve been good and only checking in once with my assistant at work against my boss’ orders to stay disconnected.  I’m deeply appreciative of this time off and what it’s already meant for my family and for the amazing team I have that enables peace of mind during the time off.  I can’t wait for the next chapter!

(Ed. Note: Fixed some dates and typos from a previous draft)

I have another addiction beyond digital media – BBQ and Grilling and yes, there’s a difference.  BBQ is generally speaking cooked “slow and low” over smoke with chicken, pork, ribs, and brisket being the most popular types/cuts of meat.  Grilling is done fast and over direct or indirect heat and cook time is generally measured in minutes vs. hours for BBQ.  Both are experiencing a renaissance in interest as well as technology. From BBQs that tweet on Twitter, to decidedly low-tech solutions with big taste results for the casual gas grill owner.

Background

Hello, my name is Sean, and I’m a BBQ addict.  My journey started in college when I learned what good BBQ is about going to school in-between Kansas City and Texas.  Then, in 1998 after finding mass-market BBQ in Seattle, I started buying Lloyds vac-packed, pre-cooked and sauced ribs and bringing them to friends’ parties (cringe).  This was the low point in my addiction. From there in 2000, I started reading up and playing around with an electric smoker.  After seeing my electric bill, I moved on through multiple smokers and grills – propane, natural gas, charcoal, and lump all have seen time in my “pit”.  In the past four years, I’ve really taken delight from feeding our friends throughout BBQ season from Memorial Day to Labor Day here in the states and have helped to organize a local event.  But the reality is I grill and BBQ year round – Prime Rib roasts for Christmas, Turkey for Thanksgiving and everything in-between.

My Outdoor LabA few friends have suggested I compete in local BBQ competitions and I’m flattered.  These weekend-long events often involve cash purses up to $10,000 – not bad for a weekend of camping and cooking in a parking lot.  I’m not really equipped to do this and figure I’m still backyard quality.  Then a few weeks ago, a friend signed up to become a Kansas City Barbecue Society certified Judge and suggested I do the same.  There we met 75 other people like us, all looking for the best BBQ the area has to offer.  As a result, I ended up judging the NW barbecue Championship last weekend, ate some great BBQ, and learned a lot throughout the experience.  I’m still learning, but have set my sights on a new prize – judging in the Kansas City American Royal Invitational with a $30,000 purse which draws over 300 teams and 60,000 people each year.

Grill Tech Essentials

Here’s my list, just in time for Father’s Day and open grilling season.  I’ve also included links to some of my favorite products to aid in discoverability.  Many of these items you can find at local outlets as well.

Outset QS77 Stainless Steel Wood Chip Smoker Box
Aluminum foil will work in a pinch, but the best approach is a dedicated smoker box.  Fill with wood chips (not chunks) that you’ve soaked in water for roughly 30 mins.  Then put this on your grate or directly on the burner of your Gas grill and infuse chicken, ribs, steaks etc. with great taste.
Charcoal Companion Cabernet Wine Soaked Oakwood Chips
Smoke imparts a distinctive taste and can really open up the flavor of any meat.  The challenge is pairing the right wood smoke with the right meat/marinade/rub. One of my favorites and most versatile is oak wood.  It’s not overpowering and you can find wineries and distilleries that run their oak wood casks for aging through a wood chipper.  Wine barrels impart a stronger secondary “flavor profile” than Jack Daniels or others.
Splash-Proof Thermapen Instant Read Thermometer
This one is a must-have and worth every dollar for any cook who takes food safety seriously (and you should).  NSF-certified and calibrated, it instant reads the temperature of just about anything.  I use it for testing doneness of chicken, pork, tri-tip and even boiling water and grate temperatures on the grill.
Pre-Seasoned 15 Inch Cast-Iron Skillet
Cast iron is incredibly easy to use on the grill or campground and get a bad rap for being difficult to clean. I’ve been really happy with the Lodge Logic pre-seasoned skillets and found them to be the opposite – just scrub with water and once dry, throw a little cooking oil on a paper towel to re-season. Awesome for fajitas, veggies, bubbling cheese dips in a smaller skillet and everything in-between.
Hot Handle Holders/Mitts
If you’re getting the skillet, be sure to get these.  I made that mistake only once grabbing a hot handle.  Easy to use, not much more to say about this one.
Weber’s Way to Grill: The Step-by-Step Guide to Expert Grilling
A great how-to guide and cookbook, you don’t need to own a Weber in order to learn from this book and time-tested recipes. 

These are just a few suggestions, and don’t forget the fire extinguisher.

The Next Stage: Improving the Outdoor Kitchen and BBQs on Twitter

This summer I’ll be working on improving my outdoor kitchen, getting more organized and trying new products and recipes. In my next piece I’ll go to the extreme end of the geek BBQ spectrum with the latest rage – a computer-controlled BBQ system that tweets status of your cook on the Web.

Also if you’re in the area, be sure to check out the PNW Eggfest happening next weekend, stop by and say hello.

Ed. Note: This is a departure from my usual sporadic musings.  Please feel free to share topics, questions, or feedback on whether this is of interest as a topic here or a separate blog.