Sometimes I forget just how long I’ve been creating recipes and photographing food.
Like so many things in life, it’s easy to get wrapped up in a routine, lose track of time and not come up for air until years later, only to find yourself in some daze of monotonous pattern with barely a clue as to how you got yourself there. While there are many routes to take to reach Monotony Lane, I think one of this biggest culprits is when you stop learning, and therefore growing, because you’ve reached a point, not where you know everything, but where you can survive. Unless you are then forced by some external factor outside of your control, you plateau right here on Monotony Lane, where you are comfortable, doing what works, but more than likely not doing your best.
I’ll admit, I feel a bit guilty of that when it comes to photography. When I first started, years ago, I began with a basic point and shoot camera. It wasn't great, but it worked, and, for someone doing a project as a simple hobby, it got the job done. But the more I fell in love with what I was doing, the more I wanted to learn and grow. Since the point and shoot days (of terrible tragic photos that never need to see the light of day ever again and have gone to their internet resting place, RIP), I’ve gone through several camera upgrades, added new lenses to my collection, invested in additional equipment (like lights and reflectors), taught myself Lightroom and Photoshop and practiced shooting as much as I could (sidenote- if anyone is wondering why I charge what I charge for photography, this is part of the reason why). I did this for years, but, as it always does, life gets busy, things get in the way and, while I hardly know anywhere close to everything about taking and editing photos, I had gotten to a point where I was comfortable in what I was doing, and where it was working. My photos were getting complimented frequently, people asked me for tips and wanted to know how I took my photos, and my photography work was far surpassing my blog work. So almost without realizing it, I stopped pushing myself to learn and grow as a photographer. I knew what lighting worked, what colors of props I liked, the food that was easiest for me to shoot and even developed some pre-sets to help cut back on editing. My clients knew what they wanted, and, because I was shooting more for clients than myself, I was doing what they wanted instead of experimenting, learning or pushing the boundaries the way I would have with my own photos. I had unintentionally created a system of taking, editing and posting photos, then repeating the process over and over. This rut (that I didn’t realize was a rut) was where I had been comfortably sitting for the past couple of years.
But slowly I began to get bored. The thing that used to get me so excited had started to become predictable and felt more like a chore to check off a to-do list than something thrilling and fun. Hadn’t I already taken a photo like this 1,000 times before? Hadn’t I already posted something like this just the other week? Wasn’t this the same plate I had used in basically every photo ever? Much like the quote “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine. It’s lethal.”, my routine was becoming lethal, mentally, physically and career-wise.
About the time I realized this is when we moved to LA, which I thought would help shake things up. It did…but only temporarily. Because then I started struggling with some health and digestive issues. Food became increasingly difficult for me to deal with because I literally had no idea how my body was going to react to any given item. I was getting terrible migraines, dagger-like stomach pains and gut issues that had me looking like I was 9-months pregnant at all times (and no, I am not pregnant). I hated how I looked and felt and hated cooking even more because food had suddenly become what felt like an enemy. Of course, part of recipe development and food photography is, ya know, cooking and eating food (Crazy concept, right?!), so, as you can only imagine, this was taking a major toll on what I do.
Somewhere in the midst of all this I had a few client shoots that I severely struggled with. Of course, being the perfectionist I am, this really upset me. Why was I struggling to do something I had been doing for years? Why were these photos not coming out? Why did it feel like I suddenly had no idea what I was doing? I pride myself on going above and beyond for every project I take on, so, needless to say, I wasn’t handling this well.
After I managed to dig myself out of the dark mental hole this self-criticizing had put me in, I convinced myself to take a step back and observe. And what I observed was that I had stopped growing, I had stopped learning and I had settled comfortably into what works. But the truth of the matter was, what works, had kind of also stopped working. So I assessed the situation and came up with what I thought were reasonable actions to push me out of my rut and back into what I love doing. For me, that has meant things like purging my prop closet, organizing it and then purchasing new props (especially ones that I had had my eye on for too long, but always avoided getting because I said they were “too expensive” aka they cost more than a couple of dollars at the local thrift store). It has meant spending 5 or 10 minutes playing around in Lightroom every time I’m in there to edit photos. And it has meant making and photographing foods I would normally avoid/not cook/find difficult to shoot.
Which leads me here to these cherry bourbon ribs. Here’s the thing, I don’t hate ribs, but I also don’t go out of my way to eat them, or cook them, for that matter. Aka this is exactly the kind of food I needed to challenge me. I set out using seasonal flavors that were inspiring me (fresh summer cherries), a no-fail family BBQ sauce recipe as a solid starting point and expectations that were incredibly low (so as not to disappoint my perfectionist self). After testing the recipe a bit and Dave declaring them as “the best ribs he’s ever had”, in between bites of meat and enough cherry bourbon bbq sauce for a whole family, I finally faced my fears and decided it was time to photograph these suckers. They certainly aren’t some of my favorite, or best, photos that I’ve ever taken, but they aren’t terrible either. And more importantly I didn’t hate taking these photos. I faced my fears, pushed past my limitations, let go of perfection, continued to learn and grow, and did something I had been telling myself I couldn’t do. And the top of that rut? I felt myself crawling over it. And you know what? I also felt a glimmer of excitement for something that hadn't excited me in far too long.
I know the excitement and thrill won’t come back overnight. But little by little, photo by photo, it will trickle back in, until, much the same way the fire began to smolder and die out, almost without realizing it, the fire to photograph will be burning bright again. From a health standpoint, I’m still struggling with a lot of the same issues, which is really challenging my beliefs of intuitive eating/everything in moderation and making it frustrating to eat out, enjoy the foods I love and develop and photograph recipes. But instead of dwelling on the struggle, I’m shifting my perspective to a more positive one where I use the situation to embrace cooking foods I might normally avoid and create recipes that I wouldn’t typically think of. More importantly, the biggest takeaway of all of this is the reminder to never get to a point where you think you’re good enough to stop pushing, to stop learning, to stop growing. Don’t settle into what is comfortable. Don’t just exist, live! And don’t be afraid of a challenge, be it a work project, a health issue or something you don’t understand. Whatever it is in your life that you may be feeling stuck, frustrated or bored by, I encourage you to take some time to step back, adjust how you’re looking at it, evaluate on how you can continue to drive yourself forward, and then make actionable goals to do just that. Everything begins and ends in the mind. Everything you want is on the other side of fear. Everything that is frustrating you, no longer bringing you joy, holding you back and boring you to death is found outside of a routine. Sometimes you just need a bit of a challenge, a little push and a simple mindset shift to get yourself going again.
Oh, and maybe some of these cherry bourbon ribs….which I realize I’ve barely talked about, but they are oh-so-worthy of an entire conversation, a conversation that I will let the pictures do the majority of the talking in. Just know this- they are fall-off-the-bone tender, equal parts smoky, sticky and sweet, great for both rib and non-rib fans alike, incredibly easy to make, perfect for end of summer meals and, quite possibly, one of the best ways to use up the last cherries of the season. But you didn’t hear this from me. You saw it for yourself in these photos…
cherry bourbon ribs
2-2 1/2 pounds of ribs
FOR THE RUB
2 tablespoons instant coffee
1 teaspoon cocoa powder
2 teaspoons of sea salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon chili powder
FOR THE SAUCE
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup finely diced onion
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (I like to use a smoked sea salt)
1 cup chopped cherries
2 tablespoons bourbon (or whiskey)
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons molasses
2 tablespoons worcestershire sauce
1/2 tablespoon dijon mustard
1/2 cup ketchup
1 cup water
FOR THE RUB
In a small bowl, stir together all ingredients until combined. Store in an airtight container until ready to use.
FOR THE SAUCE
Place a large saucepan on a burner, turn to medium and allow to heat for a few minutes. Then add the olive oil before tossing in the onions and sea salt. Sautee, stirring every few minutes, until the onions begin to turn translucent and golden brown, 7-9 minutes. Add the chopped cherries and stir for about 30 seconds, allowing the cherries to mix with the onions and the juices to start deglazing the pan and caramelizing together. Finish the deglazing process by stirring in the bourbon, before mixing in the remaining ingredients. Allow the mixture to come to a boil (this should only take a few minutes), then turn the burner down to low heat. Continue simmering the sauce, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens, about 20-30 minutes. If it gets too thick, you can always add more water, and if it’s too thin, add a bit more ketchup. Pro tip: if you make the ribs before you make the sauce, stir the rib juices and drippings into the sauce for an extra magical dose of flavor.
You can use and serve the sauce as is, or, if you prefer a smooth sauce, allow it to cool slightly, then puree it in a food processor before using. The sauce will keep, in an airtight container, in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. If you do add drippings from the ribs, some of the fat may settle in the bbq sauce a bit, so you can either give it a good stir and/or re-heat it before using.
FOR THE RIBS
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
Prep and clean the ribs, removing excess fat and/or membrane (pro tip: you can also ask your butcher to do this step for you). Generously rub both sides of the ribs with the coffee cocoa rub mixture. Then wrap the meat first in parchment paper and then foil, making sure to seal the edges tightly. Place on a baking sheet.
Bake for 2- 1/2 hours, or until the ribs can easily pull a part with a knife or fork. Remove from the oven.
At this point you have a few options. If you prepared the ribs in advance, you can let the ribs cool, then store them right in the parchment paper/foil package in the fridge for up to 24 hours, until you’re ready to baste them with sauce and broil or grill them. If you want to finish them on the grill, you can also do that now. Just brush with the cherry bbq sauce and grill according to your grill’s directions (just remember this is more as a finishing step, to char the ribs and infuse the meat with the sauce, so you don’t need to grill them for long). And last but not least, you can finish the ribs in the oven. Remove them from the foil packet, place the ribs directly on a baking sheet, brush with the cherry bourbon bbq sauce and then broil for 3-5 minutes, or just until the sauce starts to bubble and turn into a sticky glaze. Allow to cool slightly, before enjoying (with extra sauce on the side, of course!).
Pairs well with sweet potato fries, corn, green salads, green beans…and bourbon or beer ;)