Fire station cooking: Dishes and techniques

Simple techniques and tips can make those fire station meals memorable, in a good way


By Rick Markley

Welcome to the first of a four-part series of interviews with chef and culinary institute instructor Tom Beckman. As FireRescue1 Columnist Will Wyatt recently showed us, a bad meal really stays with you. Like firefighting, good cooking is about knowing tricks of the trade.

In this installment, Chef Beckman shares enough of those tricks to amp up your fire station meals. He's also thrown in one of his favorite recipes.

Additionally, Chef Beckman is a sanitation instructor and someone who has lost a significant amount of weight by changing his eating habits. In the coming weeks, he'll cover nutrition, sanitation and kitchen equipment.

I hope this series changes how you eat at the fire station. Stay healthy and eat well.

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.

How do you ensure all of the food is ready at the same time?
That's the thing that plagues most home cooks. You prepare the thing that takes the longest first. If you are going to have rolls with your roasted chicken, the rolls have to be first because they take the longest to make. I can make the rolls way ahead, even the day before, then reheat them in the oven. If I'm making steamed asparagus with that roasted chicken, as the chicken is cooling down, I have my asparagus chopped and my water hot, and I steam it.

It is knowing how long things take to cook. And just a little bit of extra planning can make stuff all come out at the same time. 

What are the essential cookbooks or websites for the firehouse cook?
I like the basics. There is one called Larousse Gastronomique, of course I come from a French point of view. But French techniques are for everybody, so there's nothing wrong with that.

I don't use cookbooks that much. I do use Web sites. Here's how I use them. Say I want to do braised short ribs, and it is not something I do everyday. I get ideas from six different Web sites. You start to see patterns. They all use mirepoix — carrots, onions, celery. They all use red wine. They flour the meat and brown the meat. And they all go (cook) about six or seven hours.

Don't get tied to a recipe. Get tied to a technique. If you know how to braise, you can do any kind of dish you want.

I like David Lebovitz. He's a guy in Paris who does a really nice Web site. I use the Web as a tool to find ideas. Even a black bean soup, you could put a little bacon in there. I might not have thought to put the bacon in there, but because the Web site said so, that's going to go good with what I'm having the black beans with.

What are the basics of cooking techniques?
First let me talk about sautéing, which is using a small amount of fat in high heat. Things are going to cook really fast. Last night I was doing sautéed zucchini and squash. You put a little bit of fat in the pan, onion, and quickly sauté it, not to brown it, but to sweat it a little bit, and garlic. That's kind of my base. Season that up with a little salt and pepper and put the zucchini and squash in and you move it really fast. Sautee means to jump. That's a quick-cook technique; I want to keep the vegetables a little crispy.

People think it is to seal in the flavor, but that is not true. You can lose flavor by sautéing too long. If you are into food science, read Harold McGee.

Broil is indirect heat from above. That's if I want to get something brown on top. It is good for quick-cooked meats like small pieces or chops.

Grill is a flame from underneath. People always want to say barbeque. Barbeque is a very specific technique that is a little slower using indirect heat.

Braising is one of my favorite techniques in the wintertime. You are going to cook all day and it gives you nice heavy feel to it like a beef bourguignon — it takes six or seven hours.

In the summertime, we don't want to do that; that's no fun. Braising is slow cooking with browning the meat first. You use a mirepoix and whatever vegetables you want, some red wine and a small amount of liquid so the meat is not immersed, and cooked with a top on.

Poaching is another good one. People don't think about poaching. If I take whole chicken or chicken pieces, I can take a mirepoix and poach it at 160 degrees. You have just a little simmer where you see the water kind of ripple. It takes a half hour to 45 minutes to cook that chicken.

Your flavor is going to be very mild, but smooth; it extracts a lot of flavor from the vegetables. You use it if you are going to put it with something else, like chicken salad. You might poach the chicken and make an enchilada out of that.

Roasting is cool because that is dry heat. I take a roast, put it on a rack, no liquid at all. I may season it and put a little fat on top — but that's it: dry heat surrounding the meat and you are all done.

Safety wise, you have to get the meat cooked all the way through. That's a good technique for slow cooking, but there you are going to leave the meat pink in the center. Obviously, chicken, or any poultry, you are going to cook all the way to 165 degrees.

What does slow cooking do to food?
If you are dealing with bones, which is great, you are extracting flavor from the marrow and fat. You are getting connective tissue that starts to break down.

If you were to cook that chicken very, very fast, you'll get the meat. But, have you had a piece where you can't get all of the meat off of the bone?

In a slow braised dish, you get every last bit of meat off the bone. The flavor just gets so much more intense. That small amount of liquid will eventually evaporate off at the end of the cooking. Then you are left with this very concentrated sauce and the meat.

Usually, you discard the vegetables because they are pretty soft by this time. But the carrots, celery and onions work together to give you a really nice base flavor.

How much taste do you lose when you freeze food and how can you improve the taste of what comes out of the freezer?
If you are talking large-quantity cooking, a couple of gallons at a time, separate it into smaller containers because you only have two hours to get it down to 70 degrees. I wouldn't put hot food in the refrigerator or freezer directly. Put it in the containers that you will freeze it in; the smaller containers are easier to defrost, too. Put it in the freezer as soon as it is room temperature.

If you are grilling meats, grill it real fast, get it cooled down and get it in the freezer. You are really locking in a lot of that flavor. I had a steak last night that I grilled two weeks ago. It was in the freezer, and the thing tasted like it was fresh off the grill. It was really good.

The problem is, we sometimes cool it down, put it in the refrigerator for a couple of days then freeze it. That's no good; you've lost all of your flavor.

It is not so much flavor you lose in the freezer; it is texture. You lose texture because of moisture loss. By losing moisture, it changes what we perceive as flavor but it is really texture.

For instance, fish really doesn't have much to protect it in the freezer. If it sits for a couple of months in the freezer, all the moisture is gone and all you are left with is just the protein. If you quickly freeze things and defrost them in a quick fashion, you'll end up with a lot more moisture in food.

As far as defrosting, you can defrost in the refrigerator overnight. You can defrost in the microwave if you are good at manipulating your defrost cycle. You can defrost in the sink; the water has to be 70 degrees or lower and running, and it can only be for two hours.

I hope people adhere to these guidelines because they keep their food safe.

How long and why should you let meat rest before cutting into it?
That depends on what meat it is. If we are talking about steak, two or three minutes tops. I like to serve it with the juices kind of seeping out on the plate a little bit.

In addition to letting the juices absorb into the meat, resting has carryover cooking. Say I have a steak; it is supposed to be 145 degrees for 15 seconds. Pull it off at 135 and the carryover heat will continue to cook the steak. A lot of people will cook to where they want it right on the grill, but it is overcooked when they eat it. You can always cook it more, but you can't uncook it.

Say I'm doing a prime rib roast or something in the oven. I want to get that to 145 degrees for four minutes. That's going to have a lot of carryover cooking and a lot of blood on the inside.

A lot of times people will over cook it or under cook it. They don't know what the temperature of the meat in the center is, and they end up with overcooked meat on the outside and raw meat on the inside. To pull it out at the right temperature, go with 10 degrees under what you want it to be.

For a roast, you might want to let it sit for 25 minutes or so. For a whole chicken, 25 minutes is not unheard of. You can allow those juices to seep back into the chicken; don't even touch it. You can always cut the chicken up and put it back in the oven to warm it a little; you are not going to change the texture that much and you can serve it piping hot.

It is too dangerous to use a microwave to bump the temperature back up because you are going to get real spotty cooking. Fresh food in the microwave, don't do it. You may take a chance of ruining the texture — again, it is a moisture-loss thing.

Herb Foccacia

11 ounces of warm milk
1 ounce of olive oil
1/2 ounce of fresh yeast
1 pound of bread flour
2 teaspoons of salt
1 tablespoon of assorted dried herbs of choice

Dissolve yeast in warm milk and olive oil. Combine flour, salt and herbs in a bowl and mix in liquid ingredients. Knead into a smooth, uniform dough. Leave it covered in a warm place until it doubles in size. Punch the dough down and cut it in two pieces. Form the loaves into flat disks. Let the dough double in size again in a warm place covered. Dimple the dough with your fingers and brush liberally with olive oil. Bake in a 375-degree oven until done. Let cool before cutting.

What are some winning spice and herb combinations and what are some that never go together?
There are no wrong combinations. There are better and some not quite as good. My favorite go-to is oregano and thyme; they always seem to go together well.

Dry herbs are a lot cheaper and they are readily available. A couple of herbs are nice. Where people get mixed up is they over do it.

Rosemary is a little piney, and I like that a lot. I like to use fresh basil, and will put that right into the skin of a chicken and a fair amount of garlic with it. I've been getting into the Indian spices lately, the fenugreek and curry. You can douse your chicken in those spices and marinate it in some buttermilk or yogurt and have an Indian feel to your chicken.

Lavender and rosemary are good together. Lavender is not hard to find but you have to use it very sparingly. They are little lavender buds; crush them and rub the chicken with it, oh, it is amazing. For beef, I tend to go just salt and pepper. With vegetables, one of the things I like is thyme with mustard sauce for a vinaigrette and drizzle that over asparagus.

So people are more likely to over season than under season?
Exactly. They will say, "I can't taste it." Half an hour on the grill for your chicken breast is really going to intensify those flavors. Fresh herbs are going to be much more mild than dry herbs. If you are using dry herbs use a lot less. Fresh, it is easy to use a lot and you won't hurt your dish that much.

Is there a difference in salts?
Salt is funny. There are some differences in salt flavor wise, but not much. Once it dissolves, it is all sodium chloride. The difference is in how you apply it.

Most chefs use kosher salt. I don't like the iodized flavor so much; people leave that on the table and that's fine. We use kosher salt because it is easer to pick up. It has bigger flakes and has a much cleaner flavor.

The fancy Himalayan salts and Hawaiian salts have minerals in them attached to the salt crystals. Once it dissolves, it is just salt. You get those pink salts, grey salts — it is all the same thing. Sea salt has a very clean flavor, because they've taken the time and you are paying a lot of money for it, to get out any impurities. Don't spend too much money on salt.

As far as seasoning goes, season sparingly, especially if you are doing a dish that takes a little longer. Season at the beginning, season at the middle and season to taste at the end.

What are some of the dos and don'ts of fresh vegetables?
Prepare your vegetable for how you want it to look on the plate. With asparagus break the end off so you don't get that super-fiberous end on the plate. Do that before you cook them so they can absorb as much moisture as they are being cooked.

People don't prepare their stuff enough. Brussels sprouts are the new fancy vegetable these days. I've seen where they won't bother to open up the bottom of the sprout, to chop the end off.

How is the flavor going to get to the center; how is it going to cook? You need to put a cross in the bottom of the sprout. If you steam it or grill it or whatever you want to do, you are going to get so much more flavor in the center. Vegetables, when you cut them, suck up moisture.

Choose the proper cooking technique for your vegetable. If it is a beet, you can't just boil it in five seconds and its done. Beets take over an hour of slow cooking. If I did the same with my spinach, I'd have gray spinach. If I want a wilted spinach, I put it in with some fat, garlic, salt pepper; five seconds later it is done.

People over cook vegetables a lot and that is probably why people don't like vegetables. I love vegetables. The USDA says your dinner should be about two-thirds vegetables. This does not include potatoes; starches are a whole different thing. Green vegetables, red vegetables, yellow vegetables; colors, get those colors on your plate.

You may want to stop the cooking and you can do that very easily with vegetables. I like to steam asparagus. Take it immediately out of the steamer and put it into ice water. Let it sit for about a minute in ice water, pull it out. I have two choices at this point: I can either serve it cold, which is fine, or I might take a sauté pan with a tiny bit of fat and a little salt and pepper and give it a quick toss. You can do that with a lot of vegetables; we call it blanche and shock.

Are there one or two stand out sauces?
There are only two that I go to all the time. Say you are doing a chicken breast, you use a little bit of fat, season the chicken breast and put it skin-side down first.

You are going to be left with brown bits on the bottom of the pan; it is called fond. Once my chicken is done, I can sauté some vegetables in the fat from the chicken; then I finish it with white wine. Because it is acidic, that white wine scrapes up all of those vegetables and we have the flavor of the chicken, vegetables and white wine.

The French would finish that with butter. It is not exactly a healthy way to go, but it gives a beautiful shine to the sauce. You reduce the white wine down to when it is dry and you are left with a very light, nice sauce.

If we go back to the braised dishes, you can take the juices that are leftover from the meat, strain off the fat. You can do that by putting it in the fridge and letting the fat come to the top and take it off. Then you can make a roux, that's just fat and flour cooked together. You throw that in with your pan juices and you get a great sauce.

I like vinaigrettes and salsas. When I chop up tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and garlic, these kind of chunky mixtures go so well with so many things on the plate. I put it with rice, meats, vegetables or whatever.

As far as hot sauces go, I love hot sauce. My go to is Frank's wing sauce. I like Frank's Hot sauce any way, but their wing sauce is so nice because it coats things. It goes great with everything.

 

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