Firefighters cook

Making, and eating, meals together forges an invaluable bond, and Philly firehouse chefs are very much at home on the range.

Posted: September 04, 2008

In For the Love of Grace, a Hallmark Channel original movie premiering this month, a firefighter who happens to be his station's best cook finds love and redemption in the arms of a cookbook author.

The movie is fictional, but the fact remains: Cooking and firefighting go together like linguine and clam sauce (a staple in firehouse kitchens).

Philadelphia firefighters in particular have a long, proud tradition of breaking bread together. So when the Hallmark folks decided to create a cookbook of firehouse recipes in conjunction with the movie, they turned to our hometown men and women, at the ready with pasta salads and potato soups, as well as grilled citrus/maple salmon with asparagus and sesame mayonnaise.

Among the contributors was Chief Michael Touchstone, who appeared on NBC's 10! Show last week, cooking those salmon and asparagus dishes. (Those and other recipes from firehouses nationwide are in the Hallmark cookbook, which can be downloaded free of charge at It will not be sold in stores.)

Touchstone, a paramedic who leads emergency medical services training at the department's Fire Training Academy, says there's a good reason food is tightly woven into the firefighting culture.

"The person you're sitting next to may be the person who will have your back when you're out on a fire call," Touchstone says. "You want to know and trust that person because your life depends on it."

Philadelphia firefighters are assigned to work units called platoons, and each platoon, comprising about 11 men and women, works the same weekly shift (two days, two nights in a row) for an extended period so it becomes a tight team.

Not to diminish the role of police officers, but their situation is different, Touchstone says.

"They're in cars, driving around . . . and they can go out of service on a lunch break sometimes."

Not so for firefighters.

Once the shift starts, they're glued. Like it or not, they're going to eat in the firehouse. And it is far less expensive to cook in than order out.

Besides, by sharing meals, the platoon acts and feels like a family. That's the point.

"The fire department is like a family," Touchstone says. "You spend more time with the people in the house than your real family."

Meals play the same role at the firehouse as in a classic American family, Touchstone says.

"That time together gives you a strong foundation to build on a group. Traditions develop and grow. The bond that happens around the kitchen table is our strength."

Gather round the table at Engine 20 at 10th and Cherry Streets in Chinatown, known as House of Dragons, for a meal of grilled pork chops, bread stuffing, and glazed carrots - and a primer on meal-time traditions.

"Get the medics fed first," says Capt. Dennis Merrigan. Ambulance calls outnumber fire calls, so medics' meals are interrupted the most.

In addition to doing their own shopping, cooking and cleaning, the platoon members pay for all their meals - roughly $20 a week.The food may sometimes be fancy here, but never the service. The buffet line starts in the kitchen, and each man (there happen to be no women in the station on this night) helps himself to heaping portions, directly from the pots and pans.

Somebody clears the clutter from the table, but nobody bothers to wipe it. Here, drinking soda from the can is perfectly acceptable, and the television set stays on.

Napkins? Tear off a strip of brown paper from the roll.

On the wall by the table is a memorial to the firefighters from this station who died doing their jobs. These guys know what's important.

That's why vegetarians, finicky eaters, or those with allergies are always accommodated. And firefighters or medics assigned here for the day from other houses are treated as guests - they don't pay.

"It's more important that everybody come together as a team," Merrigan says.

Traditionally, when a rookie passes probation, he or she makes an elaborate meal for the station house. Probation used to last six months. Nobody can seem to remember when it changed to one year, but everybody still calls it "your six-month meal," and firefighters with 10 or 15 years in easily rattle off what they served - something like filet mignon or lobster.

One more tradition:

"The cook never does the dishes," says the cook, in this case Fred Piffer, a fourth-generation firefighter with 15 years on the job. He is ably assisted by John Sawka, who has five years in and still gets razzed like a rookie.

Rookies do the dishes.

Some firefighters learn to cook on the job - necessity being the mother of that convention. Others were foodies first.

Touchstone, for example, managed the kitchen at his college fraternity house but learned to cook from television.

"I learned my knife skills from watching Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet," he says. "I learned to deglaze a pan from Julia Child."

CeCe Ortiz, a firefighter at Engine 61 on Rising Sun Avenue, says she usually cooks without recipes.

"I don't even use a measuring cup," says Ortiz, whose Philadelphia Fuego Chili (made with pumpkin, chorizo and sofrito sauce) took top honors last year in Rachael Ray's Firefighters Chili Cook-Off (that's in the Hallmark cookbook, too).

"Growing up, my mother and grandmother taught us to cook," says Ortiz. "I grew up with fresh herbs and being in the kitchen and loving to cook."

Sometimes, dinner is just about to sizzle when a call comes in. The firefighters drop everything, get in gear, and are out of the house in under a minute.

"We try to remember to turn off the stove," says JoAnne Rosansky, a firefighter at Engine 57 in West Philadelphia.

She collaborated on two cookbooks in recent years, raising more than $16,000 to benefit the families of fallen firefighters, and several of her recipes are in the Hallmark cookbook.

Rice is a bad bet, says Rosansky, because if you get called away before the rice is cooked, it's ruined.

"We've destroyed quite a few pots that way."

Ixnay on the souffle, too.

Soups, stews and chilis are firehouse staples because they wait well on the stove in case of fire.

"We shop the sales and try to hold the line," says Rosansky. "But lunches have really become expensive, with the cost of cold cuts going up. We don't eat as many hoagies anymore."

The frequency of fire calls also means meals must be hearty.

"If you do get a call you could find yourself in an intense situation for hours, burning lots of calories," Touchstone says. "So you want to stock up on carbs."

"Whatever meal you're eating might be your last," he says - and stops short.

"I meant to say your last meal for several hours, but unfortunately that could be true literally as well."

Philadelphia Fuego Chili

Makes 8-10 servings

3 pounds ground beef

2 pounds chorizo

1/2 cup of pork chips

32 ounces Spanish tomato sauce

1 tablespoon Mexican


1 teaspoon sofrito sauce

2 teaspoons diced garlic

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 yellow onion, diced

1 green pepper, diced

16 ounces roasted tomatoes

1/2 medium pumpkin, diced

1/2 jalapeño pepper, diced

1 pound red kidney beans

1 pound black beans

Monterey Jack cheese,

shredded, to taste.

1. Cook the ground beef and the chorizo in separate pans until meat is cooked through. Stir occasionally. Drain both the sausage and ground beef and transfer to a large pot.

2. Add pork chips.

3. Add the Spanish tomato sauce, Mexican seasoning, sofrito, garlic, chili powder, onion, green pepper, roasted tomatoes, diced pumpkin, and jalapeño papper and stir occasionally until the vegetables are tender. Add red kidney and black beans and cook until tender.

4. Serve over a bed of white rice and top with shredded Monterey Jack cheese.

- Courtesy of Philadelphia Firefighter Cecilia Ortiz and from For the Love of Grace: Gourmet Firehouse Cookbook

Per serving (based on 10): 1,078 calories, 72 grams protein, 70 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 57 grams fat, 175 milligrams cholesterol, 1,678 milligrams sodium, 24 grams dietary fiber.

Mediterranean Ham and Bean Soup

Makes 8 to 10 servings

For the stock:

4-6 quarts cold water

1 ham bone

2 carrots

2 celery stalks

2 onions

4 garlic cloves

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon whole black


1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon crushed

rosemary leaves

1/2 teaspoon crushed hot red      pepper flakes

Salt to taste

For the soup:

1/2 pound fresh green beans

1 large onion, diced

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 can whole peeled tomatoes

1/2 pound diced ham

1 package pinto beans

(pre   pared according to package instructions)

1 tablespoon brown sugar

Feta cheese (optional


1. Begin preparing the stock by removing any usable ham from bone; dice into half-inch cubes and reserve.

2. Place ham bone in 4-6 quarts of cold water. Add carrots, celery cut into 3-inch pieces, peeled and quartered onions, garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns, oregano, rosemary, and red pepper flakes.

3. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to simmer until volume is reduced by one-third.

4. Partially cool and strain stock. Carrots may be reserved for a side dish.

5. To finish the soup, clean, nib, and cut the green beans into one-inch lengths. Saute the green beans and onion in the olive oil until just tender and put them aside. Crush the tomatoes and place them, along with ham, pinto beans, green beans and onions, in the stock. Bring to a boil and simmer gently. Add brown sugar and salt to taste.

6. Top soup with crumbled feta cheese and serve with crusty bread or toasted pita bread.

- From Chief Mike Touchstone, For the Love of Grace: Gourmet Firehouse Cookbook (Hallmark Channel)

Per serving (based on 10): 141 calories, 10 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 4 grams fat, 13 milligrams cholesterol, 413 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.

Asparagus With Sesame Mayonnaise

Makes 8 servings

1 to 2 bunches fresh


1/3 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons sesame oil

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Hot sauce to taste

1. Break the bottoms off the asparagus spears. Peel the lower third of each spear with vegetable peeler.

2. Place asparagus in steamer, lightly salt and steam until just tender. Plunge immediately into ice water, dry the spears, and refrigerate.

3. In a small mixing bowl, mix the mayonnaise, sesame oil and lemon juice. Add hot sauce to taste.

4. Serve asparagus chilled and top with sesame mayonnaise.

- From Chief Mike Touchstone, Philadelphia Fire Department, For the Love of Grace (Hallmark Channel)

Per serving: 108 calories, 1 gram protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 11 grams fat, 3 milligrams cholesterol, 51 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber

Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or Read her recent work at http://

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