Fire station cooking: Nutrition

Here's how to have food that is good for the body and the taste buds

By Rick Markley

In the second of our four-part series on firehouse cooking, Chef Tom Beckman dispels the myth that only things that are bad for you taste good. About a year ago, Chef Beckman completely revamped how he ate — his health and disposition improved and his weight dropped. Best of all, his food still tasted great.

What are some good high-protein, low-fat foods?
One of my favorites is quinoa, one of the ancient (South American) grains. Think of it like a couscous with a nutritional punch. You can cook it with stock or water and a little salt and pepper. You can flavor it with herbs or whatever you want to put in it. I'll even make a salsa and mix that in with the quinoa. You can do bean salads; you can put in fruits and vegetables. In North Africa, they put dried fruits like apricots and cranberries. I like it with black beans. It looks nice on the plate and it is a pretty crunchy little grain. It is readily available; you can probably get it at Whole Foods for $1.50 per pound or so.

About Chef Tom Beckman

Chef Tom Beckman has been a culinary educator for the last 15 years at Le Cordon Bleu Chicago. He mainly teaches baking and pastry but has been known to grill, braise and sauté. He began his career in the early 1990s at a series of Chicago hotels, most notably the Ritz-Carlton Chicago. He has been pastry cook, pastry chef, private chef and consultant to food and equipment manufacturers over the last 20 years. He loves working with students of all ages and is either in a kitchen or on the street riding his bike. Chef Tom has been doing a podcast for 6 years where he covers a wide variety of topics of food.

I very rarely have a beef burger anymore. These days you can get such good ground turkey and season it yourself; season it more than you would beef. It will give you that same good burger feel without so much fat. On the grill, you may add a little fat. I wouldn't put fat on my beef burger, but on my turkey burger I'll put a little olive oil on, even to give it a little extra moisture.

Should cooks avoid processed food?
We should try to cut down on our processed foods. A fact of life is that we live in modern America and you will have processed food in your diet. That's not necessarily bad.

You want to cut down on buying boxes of food. Start in the vegetable aisle and really plan out your meals. Go to the vegetable aisle and load up. People say, "vegetable are expensive." Yes, so is heart disease. It is better you spend the money getting good food up front.

Where I see people going in not such a good direction, they go to the frozen food aisle first and their cart is completely filled with boxes of very pretty pictures of food. If there's a picture of food on it, it means it has been processed. There is no picture on the celery to tell you it is celery. Cut back on the boxes.

I like granola and could make my own, but I want somebody else to make it. I don't want be bothered with it; it is time consuming. I get processed yogurt, processed granola and fresh berries. That's a healthy breakfast, but two-thirds of it is processed. 

Processing sucks a lot of the nutrition out of the food you are trying to enjoy. Even the best frozen vegetables has a little too much processing for my taste. If you are going to increase your vegetable intake, that is a good thing, but you are still better off getting fresh.

I would much rather go to the grocery store three or four times a week and not have those boxes. The boxes are adding things to your diet that you don't need.

What are some key beverages to have and to avoid?
I lost some weight in the past year — 60 pounds over nine months. One of the catalysts for it was a teacher said to me, "You drink a lot of pop." But it's diet, it's ok, right? It says no calories.

Talk about processed food, diet pop is very processed. First thing I did was cut soda out of my diet all together. That seemed to help a lot. It really makes you feel better. You are more vibrant. And that's counter-intuitive isn't it? There are things in there that will hurt you. I don't know enough about the make up of diet drinks to tell you, but I cut it out and feel much better.

Things I would drink would be juices. Yes, they have sugar in them. I go for orange juice and cranberry. Both are pretty low in calories. Don't go for the diet because you are going to find very weird things that make it diet. If you are going to have a glass of juice, have the real thing.

Try water and lemon juice. I keep a bunch of lemons and limes on my counter; it makes the water not quite so boring.

Be careful of the drinks from powders where you can make "fruit drink" out of water. Those are OK now and then, but, I'd probably stay away from those.

Texas Style Chili

2 anchos
1 pasilla
1 jalapeno
1 serrano
2 chipotles in adobo
2 pieces of bacon
1 large onion, diced
2 pounds of chuck roast, cut into 1-inch cubes
6 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 cup of brewed coffee
1 bottle of beer
1 cup of water
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp clove
1/2 tsp allspice
1 tsp coriander
1/2 tsp cayenne
1 tbs cumin
(For all spices, please feel free to add more to taste throughout cooking if you like.)
Salt to taste
1/4 cup masa harina
1/3 cup cocoa powder

Soak the dried peppers, the anchos and the pasilla in warm water for 30 minutes.

Chop the bacon into small pieces, then, in a large pot, fry it until crispy. Remove the bacon, but do not discard the bacon fat. Brown the beef in the bacon grease on medium heat; cook it a few minutes on each side until lightly browned. Don't crowd the meat in the pan; you may need to brown the meat in several batches.

Remove the browned beef from the pot, and add your onions. Cook on medium until clear. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Put the beef back in the pot, and mix in the coffee, the beer, two cups of water, bacon crumbles and the dry spices. Turn the heat up to high.

Drain the soaking chiles and puree them in a blender or food processor with a fresh cup of water. Add the puree to the pot that's cooking.

When the chili begins to boil, turn heat down to low and let simmer for five hours, stirring occasionally. Taste it once an hour; if the flavors are too muted, feel free to add more of any of the spices. Also, as it starts to get too dry, add more liquid (your choice).

After five hours, add the cocoa powder. Remove one cup of liquid and add the masa harina. Mix it until smooth and return it to the pot. Bring it back to a boil and thicken. Turn it back down to a simmer.

Simmer the chili for another half hour or so. When the chili is finished, serve with cheddar cheese, onions, tortillas and lime wedges.

What are the good and bad oils and their uses?
Good oil would be olive oil, and you don't have to use the highest quality oil. If you are going to sauté, you don't need extra virgin olive oil, you need basic, good-quality olive oil.

Don't buy light oil. Fat is fat. If oil is in the bottle, it is still fat. Light olive oil means you have extracted more color from it. If you take out the color, you take out the flavor. Get a good, green olive oil.

A good combination for saute is olive oil and butter together. A little bit of both takes away that temperature problem and you are getting a good depth of flavor.

You can use a flavorless oil like peanut oil and canola oil.

There are none that are really bad, per se, it is just that if you get too much into them you run into problems.

Are there a healthy dessert options?
I get that question from a lot of customers and students. I ask them if they want a low-fat cake and I'll take out a piece of cake and a chef's knife and chop it in half.

The idea is to have the best-quality dessert you possibly can, and then, halve the size of it. Americans eat too big of portions and we eat too fast. Take the time to enjoy it and you are going to get a much better dessert experience. You can have chocolate cake or cheesecake, but have a much smaller portion.

For healthier options, there's sorbets. I would go smaller quantity, higher quality. Sorbets are good, but sometimes not as satisfying. What's satisfying for me is fruit tarts. With this, you can go a lot of different routes. You take a cookie crust and put a crème de patisserie — which is just vanilla pudding — and fruit on top. That's great: you are using the abundance of fruit we have in the summer, a little fat and a little sugar and you enjoy the heck out of it.

I love strawberries. There's something called maceration where you cut up strawberries, toss them in a little sugar and let them sit for half an hour. It sucks the juice right out of it. You've got juice and strawberries that are slightly sweetened. You finish that with a little Gran Marnier, if you are not going out on a call. All you've had is a teaspoon of sugar and some strawberries. It is not bad for you but it is a little more interesting for your mouth.

The best low-fat food is smaller. Down deep, we know what feels right in our mouth.

What are some healthy finger foods?
I like carrots. I like the classic peanut butter on celery. Slice up a fresh cucumber and put it out; it will disappear. People really like things that crunch.

Try cherry or grape tomatoes with a leaf of basil to pop in your mouth, you talk about combos. That combination is fun for the mouth, and, calorie wise and nutrition wise, it is good for you.

Popcorn is a really good alternative. Again, portion size has to be right. Two handfuls of popcorn weighs almost nothing. You are getting that satisfaction without having to down that much popcorn. The problem is we don't know when to stop.

What can you do to make sauces better for the body?
You can use less butter. We can get away with a lot less fat. In a sauce all you are trying to do is add moisture to something.

Lower the starch content too. A lot of times we tend to go for thick sauces. Remember I said to season your food sparingly because you don't want to over do it? On the sauce, you can be a little more aggressive with your herbs and spices.

In a pan sauce, you can put in a ton of tarragon and then, bam, the sauce is huge, fragrant, and it fits with chicken. The sauce is ok, because you are only getting maybe a tablespoon. You bring up the intensity of the flavor and only get a little bit of the sauce.

Hollandaise is not part of a healthy diet, at all. And fake hollandaise, don't even bother because it sucks. If you are going to go with a mayonnaise, mix it with something that is very flavorful, like a horseradish mayonnaise. The horseradish is so strong you are only getting a little of the mayo. You can use lemon, cayenne pepper or any flavor that gives a big boost to the mayo. In Italian cooking there is a garlic mayo, but the garlic should be way, way up front.

I'd have to look at the calorie count, but for store-bought mayonnaise, go for the light; it is kind of like milk. You can train yourself to enjoy light mayo. Don't get fake mayo.

Make a vinaigrette; put whatever you like in it. It is three to one oil to vinegar. But if you are trying to be more healthy, go one to one or two to one oil to vinegar. You can get a lot of flavor wallop out of that.

There are some simple things to making vinaigrette. You need an emulsifier to hold it together. Little bits of garlic and mustard are natural emulsifiers.

You can fix or add things to a vinaigrette from the store. Get a basic vinaigrette and start adding to it whatever you want.

How important is calorie counting?
Starting out, it is important. I used an app called Lose It, and I wrote down everything I ate for six months. This thing will tell you if you are going over or are well below. I set it at 2,000 calories a day. For an active guy, that's normal. Firefighters may need more calories, let's say 2,200. If you start topping out at 2,500 everyday, you are not going to lose any weight.

Then, slowly back off the calorie counting. If you are constantly doing that, you are not enjoying yourself and you are going to resent it and fall off.

Really, healthy eating is just a habit.

Also, reward yourself. If you go all week having salads every single night, and you are careful between meals and having carrots for snacks, go nuts. On your night off, go have a beer, a mixed drink, cheese and crackers. I used to have cheese and crackers every night of the year and I went down to once a week.

Think about having less in the evening and having more mid-day. And don't be afraid to dress your plate up; make it colorful and appealing to the eye. You will enjoy your dinner more and you won't eat so much.

People keep eating because it is there. Decide what you are going to eat and put away the rest before you start eating. Family style can be a real problem for some guys.

What about eggs?
Eggs are a good point. You can have an egg a day and it is not going to be bad for you. Eggs are just more fat and more protein. Where we run into trouble is we put a lot of fat on them or cheese or fried potatoes.

Eggs are not the culprit. Eggs are very good for you, the yolks especially. It pains me to see people make egg-white omelets; it is an atrocity. It is a Rolls Royce with no interior.

Omelets are really good. You can put a lot of vegetables in them.

When you are preparing eggs, try poached; that is going to give you very low fat. Poaching is a technique that is easily learned.

What about other food demons like white flour, sugar, etc.?
White flour I use sparingly. You can't eat too much of it because white flour is processed and it is just not good for your body. For regular sandwich bread, go 100 percent whole wheat. Today's 100 percent whole wheat doesn't taste anything like it did 10 or 15 years ago. Don't go with the white whole wheat. That's more processing to take the color out to make it look like white bread.

If you are having cake or a cookie, go white flour. Enjoy it, just don't have too much.

If I'm at a place where I know the bread is not good; I take it off. Save your bad nutrition items for the best bread.

Is organic food worth the extra money?
It is not worth the extra money today. There is no difference. You can say there are less pesticides. In my estimation, the amount of pesticides we are getting in the nonorganic food is acceptable in the safety range.

In terms of quality of food, color, texture, it is all the same stuff.

Something you can find that tends to be only a little more expensive is local food. If it was in the ground yesterday and I'm buying it today because it only had to go 20 miles, that's terrific. They are probably going to use less processing.

I hate "all natural" and "artisan" labels. It's a marketing concept. Michael Pollan wrote "Food Rules" and some of them are kind of funny. He said when they have too many marketing concepts on the packaging, ask why do they have to sell it so bad. Pick up celery or cucumber, it just tells me what it is.

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