Firefighters learn to cook Mediterranean-style

There are no mandolins trilling in the background, but the kitchen at the Wilton Fire Department headquarters is buzzing with excitement these days over the Mediterranean-style of cooking.

On a recent summer day, firefighter Eric Tucker, 36, of Monroe, was busy cutting up squash and cleaning fresh jumbo shrimp for a Mediterranean-style recipe he helped create, Shrimp Summer Squash Risotto.

One look at the recipe’s ingredients tells why the firefighters have taken up the Mediterranean diet: heart-healthy olive oil, fresh vegetables like squash and red pepper, fresh herbs like basil and parsley, seafood, which is generally healthier than red meat, and plenty of onions and garlic.

“Yeah, Eric is the Emeril Lagasse of the fire department,” joked firefighter Dan Lewis, 40, of Oxford.

“Bam,” Tucker replied.

All the firefighters, anywhere from four to six, chip in at dinner time and plan a Mediterranean-style meal each evening around 5 for the simple reason that it is the most healthful diet available to them, said their nutrition coach and physical trainer, Sara Beckert of Milford.

Beckert, who holds two master’s degrees, is a consultant who also works for fire departments in Milford and Westport. She visits the Wilton firefighters twice a week, coaching them in cooking and the exercise they need to be at their healthiest and fittest.

“There’s been a lot of research showing the Mediterranean diet is the healthiest diet for firefighters,” Beckert said.

The diet is low in ingredients that cause inflammation, and that is important to help fight stress from the job. Firefighting is an occupation with extreme physical demands. Each crew works a 24-hour shift and the alarm can sound at any time, demanding a quick response. They run into danger when others are running away.

High blood pressure is therefore common among firefighters. The leading cause of death for these men and women is heart attack, Beckert said.

And so, rather than the traditional firehouse meals of meat and potatoes and American staples like chili, the firefighters are dedicated to cooking and eating Mediterranean-style, as Beckert has taught them.

“We started about a year ago with the Mediterranean diet,” Beckert said.

Generally, the Mediterranean diet is known to be high in fruits and vegetables, and packed with healthy ingredients including olive oil and herbs.

Summer Squash Shrimp Risotto

  • 3 cups arborio rice or jasmine rice

  • 3 quarts low-sodium chicken stock

  • About 3 cups squash (2 summer squash and 2 zucchini)

  • 2 lbs. shelled and deveined shrimp

  • ⅓ cup parmesan cheese

  • 2 Tbsp. fresh chopped basil

  • 1 Tbsp. fresh chopped parsley

  • 1 tsp. black pepper

  • ½ tsp. salt

  • 1 tsp. red pepper flakes

  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil

Step 1: Pour rice into large pot along with 2 quarts of chicken stock over medium heat uncovered, stirring occasionally.

Step 2: In separate pan, sauté squash with 1 Tbsp. olive oil until slightly softened, then add to rice/chicken stock mixture in pot.

Step 3: Once veggies are added to rice, add approximately half a quart of remaining chicken stock to mixture and stir.

Step 4: In a sauté pan, cook shrimp with 1 Tbsp. olive oil until firm and pink all the way through. Then add to rice mixture.

Step 5: Combine all remaining ingredients into rice mixture stirring occasionally until desired texture. Add water if needed to get a more creamy texture.

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 30-35 minutes
Serves: 8 firefighters or 10 normal adults
— Recipe courtesy of Eric Tucker