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Yuba City firefighters eat quick, healthy meals
David Jans shares his recipe for grilled chicken sandwiches
We all know the challenges of cooking: getting the right ingredients; serving tasty, well-balanced meals; pleasing everyone at the table; and especially making sure the dish we're making is cooked for just the right amount of time.
Now throw in the chance that in the middle of making dinner, you have to drop everything and rush out to save someone's house from burning down or even a life. That's the challenge Yuba City firefighter David Jans faces every time it's his turn to cook.
David, a seven-year firefighter assigned to Station No. 4 on the far western edge of Yuba City, knows a few tricks about working around the competing needs of eating well and emergency response.
We want to prepare something, he said, so that if we have to leave, it isn't destroyed while we're gone. He explained that by using a Crock Pot or oven braising, if the firefighters have to respond to an emergency, the food will still be hot, but not ruined, when they get back — two, three or even four hours later.
Emergencies aren't the only reason a firefighter's meal has to take a minimum amount of effort. There's also a lot of other work to be done around a firehouse, including maintenance of all the equipment, training and fire safety inspections.
And who gets to be the chef? "Basically, if you're a pretty good cook, no one else complains. But everyone's pretty good about it: If you cook, they'll clean up," David said. I got the impression that David's one who's usually in the kitchen during his 48-hour shifts.
Teamwork is important, whether in the kitchen out in the field, David explained. He said firefighters usually work as a three-person crew for about a year at a time, because the general confidence you have to have in each other grows as you work together.
"And while everyone here is outstanding, when you first come together, you don't know them on a personal level, and you don't always see them in action. So it takes a little bit of time to see how they react and what they're like, what their expectations are. Then you get this bond that grows over time, and you start working without communication because you learn what each person expects and how they are going to do their jobs. You get this tight-knit team and are able to become much more efficient," David said.
Part of that teamwork means asking, "What's for dinner?" followed by going to the grocery store to pick out the ingredients for the next two dinners. This usually means buying items that don't require a lot of attention, whether for a slow-cooker or for making something quick but tasty.
David said he tries to use fresh ingredients because they're healthier — which is important to firefighters because so much of what they do is extremely strenuous. "We try to take care of ourselves and stay fit," he said.
For today's recipe, David chose to share a meal that is quick, easy, tasty and inexpensive — Grilled Chicken Sandwiches with garlic-basil aioli dressing.
The recipe appears complicated, but it really isn't. "It's a quick, easy thing to make, it tastes great and if you have to stop in the middle of it, it's not going to be ruined," David said.
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Choosing the right size of chicken breast is important, David said, because it's the main ingredient and you don't want to overwhelm the sandwich eater. David said the easiest method (though not necessarily the least expensive) is to buy thinly sliced skinless chicken breast fillets. You could save a little money by buying whole breasts and slicing them lengthwise to the desired thickness, if you want to spend the time.
Another shortcut that David took for today's story was not making the aioli from scratch. Instead of using olive oil and eggs, he started with mayonnaise and added the garlic and fresh basil. He said it's better when it's made from scratch, but I couldn't tell the difference when I got my chance to enjoy the finished sandwich.
The recipe has three main steps: making the aioli, making the marinade and grilling the chicken.
Make the aioli dressing first, because it needs some time to sit to let the garlic, basil and mayonnaise flavors mingle.
Begin with blanching the fresh basil to knock off some of its sharp flavor. David said this only take a couple of minutes in boiling water before quickly dipping the green leaves into ice cold water to stop it cooking.
After drying the leaves, he tore them off their stems and added them to the peeled garlic he'd already chopped. He said the easiest way to blend these two together is with an electric food processor, but it can be done the old-fashioned way by hand — it just takes a lot longer.
Once the garlic and basil were very finely chopped, David spooned them into a bowl and added the mayonnaise, fresh lemon zest, freshly squeezed lemon juice, a little red wine vinegar and just a pinch or two of salt and pepper.
Next, he prepared the simple marinade for the chicken using olive oil, a little Italian seasoning, red wine vinegar and juice from the other half of the lemon. After he let the chicken soak in the marinade, David carried the chicken out to the pre-heated grill and, with a little help from Yuba City Fire Chief Pete Daley, cooked the chicken.
Back inside the commercial-grade kitchen that is designed to feed a large number of people when the station is used as a disaster command post, David spread the aioli over sliced rolls and slid them into the oven to toast. He said the toasting cuts some of the onion taste from the garlic, making it a bit milder. Then it was back outside to pull the chicken off the grill.
From here, it's really easy. He placed the chicken on the bottom half of the roll, stacked it with tomato, mozzarella and onion, added a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, then topped it off with the other half of the toasted roll.
As we ate our sandwiches, David said that he likes a lot of garlic, but if others like less — or even more — it's easy to make the sandwich to suit everyone's taste.
GRILLED CHICKEN SANDWICHES WITH GARLIC-BASIL AIOLI
Zest from one lemon
2 bunches fresh basil
4 whole cloves garlic, finely chopped (or according to taste)
3⁄4 cup mayonnaise
Juice from half a lemon
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
Pinch of salt and pepper
1⁄4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
1 teaspoon ground coriander
Juice from half a lemon
Pinch of salt and pepper
4 thinly sliced, skinless chicken breast fillets, or 2 whole chicken breasts sliced lengthwise
4 6-inch rolls, whatever kind you like, but a crusty French roll works well
8 slices of tomato
8 slices of fresh mozzarella
8 thin slices of onion
Begin with making the aioli dressing. When zesting the lemon, be sure to avoid getting any of the pith (the white part found under the yellow lemon rind) into the mixture because it adds an unpleasant bitterness.
Blanch basil for a minute or two, then immediately plunge into an ice bath to cool and stop the cooking. Tear off the leaves and mince together with the garlic in a food processor.
Spoon into a bowl, add the mayonnaise, squeeze the lemon juice into the mixture plus the lemon zest and vinegar. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Fold ingredients together and set aside to let the flavors mingle.
Prepare chicken: Preheat grill. Combine all the marinade ingredients together. Place chicken pieces in the marinade, making sure each piece is well coated. Let sit for a few minutes, then grill the chicken about five to eight minutes, or until golden brown and cooked through.
While chicken is cooking, spread the aioli on the rolls, making sure each half is completely covered. Toast rolls in the oven until browned.
When chicken is cooked, place a breast portion on the bottom half of the roll; layer each sandwich with two slices of each: tomato, mozzarella and onion. Drizzle a little vinegar over the toppings, to taste, then top with the other half of the roll. Serve and enjoy.
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Firefighter David Jans lives in Sacramento with his wife and two children.