Cooking with Firefighters

Firefighters are roundly considered to be good cooks. They work in eight or 24 hour shifts and if there isn’t a skilled chef among them the results would be a company of grumbling people already dealing with a very stressful job for whom bad food would be an additional unwelcome strain.

Everyone in the magazine office was jealous when my editor tasked me to write about what it’s like to cook and eat in a firehouse. A good number of my colleagues suggested the assignment was wasted on me since I never really joined in the office’s monthly ceremonial unveiling of the latest calendar hunk in some semblance of undress. I agreed, admitting that my fantasy life never involved being carried out of a burning building. But I was the food reporter and the editor insisted so I called up the fire department’s PR office and soon found myself scheduled to visit three companies scattered around Brooklyn.

Some important take aways:

Firefighters are really nice right up until the bell shrieks. It’s impossible not to hear the silent order to get the hell out of their way.

Each company receives a food budget but not one to fix or replace broken down equipment. This requires them to be a very inventive bunch, added by the fact that many of them hold second jobs as carpenters and general handymen/women.

As you’d expect, I never met more health conscious eaters. In fact, they’d have no problem standing up to a professional chef’s demands for the highest quality of ingredients.

It’s not uncommon to come upon a tight bunch of firefighters blocking an aisle while arguing over one food brand over another.

Shopping requires them to take out the truck which means, if a call comes in, they abandon the cart, run off to do their job, then return and find where they parked their cart, then continue shopping. This happened two times on my watch.

Non-firefighter visitors are not allowed to stay alone in the house even when they’re going out on a short food run. This means, a very heavy full uniform is thrown at her and it doesn’t matter if she’s swallowed by it.

The inside of a fire truck is very very tight. You may even have to sit uncomfortably on someone’s lap. No one speaks much on the ride, even if it’s just to a grocery store.

If a call comes in mid cooking, the chef shuts off the stove and all the burners. For this reason, you will rarely, if ever, find deep fried dishes on a firehouse menu.

Eating with with them is a lot like dining with a boisterous family, impossible to follow running jokes and inside references. Loud mouths are the most successful in requesting salt and pepper and another helping.

(It’s important here to note that the assignment occurred a year before 9/11 when the department was more open to allowing a civilian to hang out with them for as long as I did.)

A couple of stand out dishes:

Roast pork crusted with a mixture of smashed minced garlic, oregano, thyme, onion powder and salt and pepper. Sometimes, if the chef feels adventurous, other herbs and spices are added, such as different kinds of chili powder and various spices more common to the far east.

Yes, chili is a favorite meal and highly personalized, forbidden to be compared and contrasted. Cubed or hand shredded beef seemed preferred over store-bought ground. Beans toggled between kidney or black beans. Loyalty dictated the brands of diced tomatoes–no substitute allowed. Since it was summer, one chef brought in a huge basket of tomatoes picked before leaving for work. He diced then crushed them with his hands over a bowl to capture their juices. Spices included garlic (minced or smashed whole), oregano, a blend of Mexican hot chilies (if dried, soaked until soft and the liquid padded to the meat), often sweet or smoked paprika, sometimes cumin or coriander.

Chicken wings marinated for at least an hour in several packets of Goya’s Sazón mix (doesn’t matter which season combination). Bake until the tips are crisped (remember–no frying). Serve with a hefty amount of blue cheese crumbled or smashed into a good brand of ranch dressing.

Baking is hard given the possibility of interrupted cooking. Homemade cookies, bakery cakes and fresh, locally sourced Italian and French bread, were spotted on counters. Also fruit and a large supply of ice cream. A tub of homemade chocolate sauce drew a lot of attention.

The cooks were generous with recipes (except for the chocolate sauce–one’s family secret).

The following dish is particularly suited for summer. It’s a recipe that requires you to taste often to perfect the flavor blend. The corn primarily provides firm texture to the silkiness of the herb and dressing.

Corn Salad

1 11 ounce can of Del Monte’s summer crisp corn (do not buy any other brand and certainly not frozen. Freshly cut corn from the husk is an acceptable substitute.)

1 small red onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic

a large bunch of fresh basil, finely cut into threads

good quality balsamic vinegar and olive oil

salt and freshly ground pepper

Drain the can of corn and pour into a small bowl. Mix in the red onion and garlic. Stir gently until well mixed.

Add basil. If you think you added enough, add more. Mix and taste. You want the basil to be pronounced but not overpowering.

Pour in the vinegar and olive oil. The measurements are based on personal preferences, but unlike the usual blending, vinegar is more important than olive oil. I add about 2 tablespoons olive oil to three or four tablespoons of vinegar. The amount of basil you use can take a little more vinegar than usual. The oil should be just a low base shimmer.

Add salt and pepper. Gently blend and taste again. Adjust seasons to your liking.

Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least two hours to allow the flavors to fully join together. Before you serve, taste it again and think about adding a little more basil or vinegar.

Terrific served as a side by itself or on a bed of mix greens. Stirred into leftover rice and you have one hell of a salad.