Chow Time: ‘HazMat Chili’ with Anaheim Firefighter Ric Romero
The delicious scent hits you as soon as you walk through the door of Anaheim Fire & Rescue Station 6, though dinner is still a few hours away.
Firefighter and HazMat specialist Ric Romero has been preparing his mom’s chile verde, a dish of green chili with pork that’s earned great renown around the station.
“I try to keep it very basic,” Romero said. “What my mom does is try to use basic recipes and use the flavor of the ingredients.”
The seasoning is simple: salt, pepper, garlic, and cumin. For this dish, the garlic is drizzled with olive oil and roasted in the oven along with serrano chiles for a good spicy flavor, peeled tomatillos, and other types of chiles, including pasilla, yellow, and Anaheim.
“This is kind of like the secret behind my mom’s dish,” Romero said. “Normally in our culture we will boil the tomatillos, but what she does is she broils them in the oven to keep all the flavor in.”
Romero credits his mother for his skill in the kitchen. She is from Santa Clara de Cobre in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, and she taught her only child to make all his favorite dishes. Romero grew up near Downtown Los Angeles, in the same tight-knit community where he lives now.
“Mom cooks a lot,” Romero said. “She makes everything from scratch. She’s a great cook. She used to work in a restaurant.”
Romero didn’t move directly from school into the fire service, like many do, and he’s a first-generation firefighter. Romero worked odd-end jobs for a while, he said, before getting a job cleaning sewers and helping other city departments in South Pasadena. The South Pasadena fire chief encouraged him to join the volunteer fire department and pushed him to go further.
“He sponsored me to go to the (Rio Hondo) Fire Academy,” Romero said. “I couldn’t say no to that.”
Romero worked as an auxiliary with the South Pasadena Fire Department but was quickly hired by Anaheim Fire & Rescue. That was when Romero began asking his mother to teach him her recipes.
Though chile verde takes a bit of prep (such as peeling the tomatillos and mincing the garlic), the end result is worth the effort. Once the ingredients are roasted to perfection, Romero puts everything in a blender, along with either chicken broth or vegetable broth (Romero uses vegetable) and blends until smooth. Though Romero prefers his sauce a little chunky, when he’s feeding 16 hungry firefighters he makes a smooth sauce.
“If it’s too chunky there won’t be anything left,” Romero said. “When you cook for firefighters, you almost have to cook double for them.”
Once the sauce is done, Romero turns his attention to the pork.
First, he and Adriel Martinez, a fellow firefighter and HazMat specialist, cut the pork into 1-inch cubes. Martinez asked Romero to teach him the recipe.
“Ric is a really good teacher,” Martinez said. “He teaches HazMat and a couple other classes. He’s very good at explaining things to people, whether it be cooking or firefighting duties.”
Next, they add oil and brown the pork in a large pan. When the pork is browned, they pour in the blended materials and simmer for 3 to 4 hours.
“Chile verde is good because it’s been cold outside and it’s similar to soup so it’ll be perfect for today,” Martinez said.
Romero is also making rice and beans from scratch to go with the chile verde.
“We’re constantly learning from each other,” Romero said. “I learn their recipes and maybe I tweak it my way.”
“Good meals you keep, the others you tweak and make them your own,” Firefighter and Paramedic Franky Mora said. “This is one of the best ones.”
You can’t be a picky eater at a fire station, and the firefighters are constantly expanding their palates, learning foods from other cultures. Everyone has their own specialty, Martinez said.
“I didn’t know how to cook steak, aside from carne asada, until I came here,” Romero said. “I learned to appreciate everyone’s cooking.”
After a few hours of simmering, careful not to bring the liquid to a boil, it’s finally time to eat. Someone announces “chow time” over the station’s loud speaker, and the medics, firefighters, HazMat specialists, and others line up to get a taste.
“This is the real stuff,” said Elsa Covarrubias, Anaheim Fire & Rescue’s community engagement manager.
The room is quiet as everyone eats.
“I love it,” Mora said. “The flavor — he nails it. I personally like it more spicy, but that’s just because I’m a spicy guy.”
HazMat Chile Verde
Juice of 1 lime
1 can of chicken or vegetable broth
5 lbs. pork shoulder or pork butt
1 whole garlic
1 or 2 serrano peppers
20 peeled tomatillos
1 pasilla pepper
3 Anaheim peppers or poblanos
7 yellow chili peppers
Salt (to taste)
Pepper (to taste)
Cumin (to taste)
On a baking sheet, drizzle olive oil on the tomatillos, garlic, serranos, pasilla, Anaheim, yellow chili peppers. Put baking sheet in oven to broil for 7 to 10 minutes.
Remove baking sheet from oven. Put contents into blender and blend with cilantro, onion, vegetable or chicken broth, and juice from one lime.
Brown the pork in a large pan with olive oil, and generously add salt, pepper, and cumin. Once the pork is browned, add the blended ingredients to the pan. Simmer for 2-3 hours until the pork is fork-tender. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Serve with rice and beans.