Out of the frying pan ...

Not content with merely saving lives, a group of New York firefighters cook a mean chowder, too, says Louis Jebb
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Firehouse cuisine is the hottest thing in New York right now. It started when firemen from six fire houses around the city took part in a cook-off against six leading chefs from TriBeCa to raise money for businesses in that area, the worst affected by the attacks on New York on 11 September.

Firehouse cuisine is the hottest thing in New York right now. It started when firemen from six fire houses around the city took part in a cook-off against six leading chefs from TriBeCa to raise money for businesses in that area, the worst affected by the attacks on New York on 11 September.

Each team of firemen was paired off against a professional chef, and was allowed to choose the menu and ingredients for their opposite number to follow. When it came to the cook-off, however, the chefs had been able to do much of the preparation in advance and merely added finishing flourishes. Without the back-up of a professional kitchen, the firefighters, who'd set their rivals the challenge of menus ranging from wholesome home cooking to high-end restaurant set pieces, had their last-minute work cut out at the makeshift cooking stations.

The event took place in a cavernous 12th-floor loft in Desbrosses Street. Cooking teams were set up against each other in a line of 12 tables, with their backs to the downtown skyline. Both sides indulged in competitive embellishment as judges and spectators, consisting of New York's coolest downtown crowd, hovered waiting to taste the tiny plates of finished dishes.

In the event, it was New York's bravest who triumphed – Billy Benitez of Engine 7, TriBeCa, was placed first with his seared halibut on a white bean ragout, while Jason Ragoli of Engine 71, Bronx, was the runner-up for his sesame-crusted tuna on Asian stir-fry. In third place was Don Pintabona, from Robert De Niro's TriBeCa Grill, for his pasta with chicken, red peppers and tomatoes.

The vote for the most flawless rendition of a home favourite went to Anthony Paris from Red Wine with Fish? for his corn chowder, and the audience favourite for full-on chef's art was a veal scallopini by Shea Gallante from Bouley.

But it was the firefighters' night, and the biggest cheer of the evening went to the group of firemen from Staten Island. Their chicken cutlets with spinach and red pepper had been beaten in the competition, but one dinner-party's worth of their cooking skills raised the highest bid of the evening when it was auctioned for the charity.

Pan-seared halibut with white bean ragout by Billy Benitez of Engine 7 TriBeCa

Serves 8

8 6-8oz halibut fillets
2lb white beans soaked for 24 hours and drained
10 cloves of garlic
1pt (600ml) chicken stock
4 medium onions
6 large tomatoes
4 carrots
1 bunch rosemary
1 bunch thyme
6 bunches basil
4 bunches shallots
3pt (1.7 litre) double cream
Half pt (300ml) balsamic vinegar
5-6oz butter
Olive oil

First, prepare the garnishes. Cut the tops off two garlic cloves, season with salt and pepper and oil. Wrap in foil and cook for 30-40 minutes in a pre-heated oven at 180°C/gas mark 5. Meanwhile, chop the tomatoes into small chunks, sauté in a saucepan with oil, pepper, and two bunches of basil leaves. Set these aside.

Now for the ragout. Chop onions, carrot, rosemary, thyme, eight cloves of garlic and sauté in a large pot with olive oil. When these ingredients are just about ready add the white beans and chicken stock. Cook for 20 minutes before adding 1 pint (600ml) of cream. Leave on a low heat for 10-15 minutes, until the bean ragout has a thick consistency.

To complete the basil cream sauce, reduce 2pt of cream over a good heat until it becomes a thick consistency. Remove from stove and add four bunches of basil, finely chopped, the roasted garlic, salt and pepper. Reduce balsamic vinegar over a high heat until it coats a spoon. Remove from heat and add 4oz of butter.

Season the halibut fillets with salt and pepper and coat with coarse breadcrumbs. Cook fillets in oil and a little butter on one side until a crust has formed. After 3-4 minutes, remove the fish from the pan and finish in a hot oven at 220°C/gas mark 7.

To serve, pour balsamic reduction around the edge of the plates, pile bean ragout in the centre and place fish on ragout before topping with tomato mixture and the basil cream.

Roasted corn chowder by Anthony Paris of Red Wine with Fish?

Serves 8

4 medium-sized onions
3 carrots
12 corn on the cob (yellow corn or a mixture if you can find white corn as well)
4 large cans of sweetcorn
1 sachet of thyme and bay leaves

Brush a little olive oil on the cobs and place in a medium oven until cooked. Scrape the corn off the cobs and set the corn aside. Use the cobs to make a broth by simmering for 35 minutes in 8pt of water. Meanwhile, purée the tinned corn and set aside. Dice and sweat the onions and carrots in olive oil over a low heat in a heavy pan large enough to contain the finished chowder. When the onion is soft, add the corn kernels and cook together for two minutes. Add the fresh broth, a couple of ladles at a time, and simmer gently.

When all the broth is in the pan, add the puréed tinned corn as a thickening. Simmer and stir gently, check seasoning and when the chowder is heated through, drop in a sachet of thyme and bay leaves to steep while you assemble your guests to eat.

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