Fighting fires is Craig Brannan’s vocation; playing with them, his passion. As competent at the stove as he is in the driver’s seat of Engine #25, he takes charge of two meals a day during his 24-hour shifts at Central Street Fire Station #5.
So when it came time for the Evanston Fire Department to supply a cook for a Saturday Farmers’ Market demonstration, this 21-year Department veteran was the logical recruit.
After all, Mr. Brannan underwent his culinary baptism by fire at the ranges of Evanston firehouses, where he honed his skills over daily meals for as few as three fellow firefighters at Station #5 or as many as eight at Station #2 as well as at grand events like Department picnics, when he prepared multiple dishes for as many as 200 guests.
A two-time winner of the autumn Police and Firefighters’ charity Sliders competition, Mr. Brannan accepted the challenge of creating something delectable at the Market using only a skillet and a propane tank.
Last year’s eggs with spinach and feta were a hit with the Market crowd, Mr. Brannan said. He “prepped everything in advance” and then demonstrated how to “integrate air to make the eggs fluffy.”
This year, he said, the rules were changed: All ingredients had to come from the Market. He decided to pick from the bounty of fruits that by August have ripened to perfection. He would be topping off last year’s main course with dessert.
Several days in advance of his Market appearance, Mr. Brannan was fired up about the gig, describing the steps he would take to make his Berry Streusel. It was to be a two-skillet act, one for the fruit and the other for the topping.
He would be choosing berries just before going “onstage” – raspberries and blueberries, he guessed. They would go into the pan with a little water (and a splash of cognac if he were at home rather than at the station or Market) and then be heated and stirred till softened.
Setting the warm berries aside, he would make streusel topping in the other pan. Simple and scrumptious, it amounted to brown sugar, flour and butter, cooked until crunchy, “like a crumbled cookie,” Mr. Brannan said, and then spooned onto the fruit for his audience to sample.
The night of the interview he was, as usual, planning a meal for the crew at Station #5. Though not averse to looking online for inspiration, he would be cooking this favorite from memory: linguini with white clam sauce laced with parsley and enough garlic, Mr. Brannan laughed, that his buddies might not be welcomed home in the morning.
Mr. Brannan has to be prepared to be interrupted, of course – poised for a call to save lives and fight fires. Here at the Station, the Hero Sandwich is on the menu every day.