It's one of those stereotypes you hope is true.
Firefighters spend days together at a time -- living, sleeping and battling blazes. It's almost like a family, but with more danger.
They cook for one another, too, and over the years they hone their cooking skills to an art. There is nothing like coming back to the fire station after fighting a blisteringly hot, smoky fire and sitting down to a satisfying meal.
This is where the stereotype comes in: Firefighters are reputed to be great cooks. Every fire station is said to have at least one guy or gal who whips up terrific food.
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"I've known a lot of firefighters who have been very good cooks, and I've known a few who have not been very good cooks," said Rick Welle, chief of the Edwardsville Fire Department, who has the firehouse reputation of being a good cook himself.
Everyone takes turns cooking at some firehouses; at others the duty tends to fall to just a couple of the firefighters. Dinner is served every night, and some houses also make breakfast on weekends.
"Hopefully, if you do it right you get leftovers for lunch. It's whoever gets to it first. You have to be hungry at 10:30 (a.m.) sometimes or you don't get any leftovers for lunch," said Jake Lickteig, a firefighter in the Mehlville Fire Protection District.
Firefighters often are called to substitute for one another at different houses or float their schedules from one station to another. Each firehouse has its own way of dividing its cooking duties, but at the firehouse Lickteig is regularly assigned to, they use a method called dinner club.
A schedule is prepared in advance, so everybody knows when his turn is coming. The day's cook buys food for the whole house with his own money and does not chip in when it's another person's turn to cook.
"At the firehouse, the choices are (1) take it, or (2) leave it," said Nick Smith of the Monarch Fire Protection District, which covers Chesterfield, Missouri, and nearby areas.
"At the firehouse, if you're going to be a part of the crew you have to eat with everybody and everybody has to eat what everybody eats," he said.
But that came to be a problem for Smith, who became seriously overweight. Through hard work, diet and exercise -- "cutting back a little bit and moving a little more every day," he said -- he managed to lose 90 pounds.
"Portion control was tough for me. In order to try to do better, I had to cook alone for a while. The others started to see what I was cooking, and they would say, 'I want to be in your crew,'" he said.
His healthier food caught on at the firehouse, but he is always sure to first try something new at home with his wife and two children. If they like it, he will make it for his colleagues.
"The firehouse critics are always worst," he said.
One of Smith's favorite healthy meals to cook is a Chicken Fajita Bowl, which puts strips of baked chicken breast on top of quinoa. Colorful sauteed bell peppers and onions are draped over the chicken, topped with black beans, a chopped avocado and nonfat Greek yogurt.
In Edwardsville, Illinois, Chief Welles' Baked Potato Soup is considerably less healthful.
"There is absolutely nothing in it that is good for you, but it is a very good soup," he said with a laugh.
He developed the recipe himself, through several years' worth of trial and error. He now serves it every year to the workers who help out at his department's annual open house, and he makes it a handful of times for either his family at home or his co-workers at the firehouse.
"It's not the usual fare we make for them. Everyone here is heart healthy. It's for their rare treat to bring the calories up for a cold-weather day," he said.
How could it not be? It begins with chopped-up baked potatoes and then adds everything you could want on one: bacon, sour cream, butter, cheddar cheese, green onion and more.
"It's definitely feel-good food," he said.
In Mehlville, Missouri, Lickteig has a reputation for several of his dishes, including a chicken spiedini. He is also known for his Taco Pizza, which he calls "My tribute to Happy Joe's," a pizza and ice-cream restaurant in Marlborough, Missouri.
He begins with a ready-made pizza crust and bakes it with refried beans, sliced olives and shredded cheese. While the crust is baking, he sautes ground beef in taco seasoning and mixes it with Rotel tomatoes with lime and cilantro.
Sour cream goes on top of the crust, along with the meat, more shredded cheese, shredded lettuce and Doritos taco-flavored chips ("pour half in a bowl to keep the guys satisfied, then let someone who has had a bad day crush the other half in the bag," he said).
"It's not the healthiest of meals. You don't have it all the time. It's definitely a guilty pleasure," he said.
Chicken Fajita Bowl
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 teaspoons fajita seasoning
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 green bell pepper, sliced lengthwise
1 red bell pepper, sliced lengthwise
1 yellow bell pepper, sliced lengthwise
1/2 onion, peeled and sliced lengthwise
1 (15 or 15 1/2-ounce) can black beans
2 cups cooked quinoa
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese, optional
1 avocado, chopped
1 cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt
4 banana peppers, sliced into thin rings, optional
Serves three to four.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Rub fajita seasoning evenly on chicken. Bake until done and chicken has reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees, about 25 to 30 minutes.
While chicken is baking, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and add pepper strips and onions. Season with salt and pepper, and saute until crisp-tender, about 10 minutes. Add beans and cook until hot.
Place quinoa in a large bowl (or baking dish if you will be melting cheese). Slice chicken into strips, add to the pepper and onion mixture, and place this mixture on top of the quinoa.
Top with cheese, if desired. If using cheese, return baking dish to oven to melt the cheese.
Top with chopped avocado, yogurt and banana peppers, if using.
1 (12-inch) pre-made pizza crust, such as Boboli
1 (15-ounce) can refried beans
1 (2.25-ounce) can sliced black olives
2 cups shredded Mexican cheese, divided
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
1 packet taco seasoning
1 (10-ounce) can Rotel diced tomatoes with lime juice and cilantro
1/2 head iceberg lettuce, shredded
6 ounces Doritos taco-flavored tortilla chips
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Spread refried beans on pizza crust, scatter olive slices on top of that and evenly sprinkle 1 cup of the shredded cheese on top of the olives. Bake 10 minutes.
While crust is baking, combine the meat, taco seasoning and tomatoes in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook until meat is browned.
When the crust is done, allow it to cool 5 minutes. Spread sour cream on top of the cheese. Add the taco meat, the remaining 1 cup of shredded cheese and the shredded lettuce. Place the tortilla chips in a plastic bag, crush them and sprinkle them evenly over the pizza.
Baked Potato Soup
7 to 8 large russet potatoes (baking potatoes)
1 stick ( 1/2 cup) butter
1 stick ( 1/2 cup) margarine
1 large sweet onion, chopped
2 tablespoons minced garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 gallon (3 quarts) milk
16 ounces sour cream
1/2 pound bacon
4 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 bundles green onions, chopped
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Scrub the potatoes and prick them several times with a fork. Bake potatoes until done, about 11/4 hours. When cool enough to touch, remove skins and cut potatoes into bite-sized pieces. Set aside.
In a large pot on medium-high heat, melt together the butter and margarine. Add onion, garlic and salt and pepper to taste. Add flour and stir for 2 to 3 minutes until you have made a light roux (it will turn a light tan). Slowly add about1/4 of the milk to thin out the roux, and bring to a boil. Lower the temperature to medium-low and add rest of the milk and the sour cream.
In a separate skillet, fry the bacon extra crispy. Crumble it and add the bacon and 1 tablespoon of the bacon grease to the soup. Add the potatoes. Cook at medium low for 15 to 20 minutes, stir in the cheese, and cook for another 15 to 20 minutes until it is the temperature you want to serve it. Stir in half of the chopped green onions. Garnish with the remaining green onions. This is especially good when served in a bread bowl.