By Torey Van Oot
Joel Hurliman’s first real foray into cooking was really a matter of safety.
An inspection of the mess hall he oversaw as an executive officer in the Connecticut Army National Guard uncovered subpar cooking practices and sanitary issues. After firing the cooking staff, he had no choice but to head into the kitchen with one other man and put together a meal of enough ham and vegetables to feed more than 130 servicemen.
It went so well that he filled in the following month.
“Nobody got sick and everybody liked it,” Hurliman, Shelton’s police chief, says. “From then on, baptism by fire, I could cook just about any meal.”
Almost 30 years later, Hurliman is still hooked on the culinary arts. His specialties include a variety of pastas, pheasant he’s shot himself and a ginger cookie that became quite legendary after it first debuted at a “Men Who Cook” fundraiser for TEAM, a local nonprofit that seeks to bring families out of poverty.
“I did get to eat one,” he says of the more than 550 cookies he baked for his first of six appearances at the annual event. “The rest were gone. They were kind of a big hit.”
Hurliman, 57, enjoys eating and cooking a range of cuisines. Sample dishes include a pasta starring butternut squash and chard, bluefish with kiwi fruit and mandarin oranges and traditional Guinness stew, a meal he has sampled during his six trips to Ireland. Another favorite is homemade pizza margherita, made with fresh plum tomatoes, garlic and basil.
“What I like to do is experiment a little bit, too,” he says. “Like the pizza, there was no recipe for that. I just came up with it.”
While they draw from different culinary traditions, most of Hurliman’s dishes share a reliance on fresh, local ingredients. He shops frequently at farmers markets and Guy’s Eco-Garden in Shelton, an organic farm that is his go-to spot for one of his signature ingredients.
“He has the best garlic around,” Hurliman says of the farm’s owner, Guy Beardsley, a veteran who served in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
When it comes to fish and poultry, Hurliman also goes straight to the source. He fishes, though he usually practices catch and release, and hunts fowl such as pheasant and partridge. One of the best meals he’s cooked in recent memory involved filling a bird he bagged himself with apple and onion stuffing and cooking it in whiskey and cider from Beardsley’s Cider Mill & Orchard in Shelton.
“I’ve always been big on buying locally,” he says. “If you’re going to buy a car, buy from a local car dealer. Same thing with just about anything. I’d rather buy close to home.”
His interest in highlighting the freshest of ingredients also means he doesn’t need much in terms of fancy gizmos or tools to deliver delicious meals. Besides his Weber Smokey Joe Silver charcoal grill, he counts a nonstick pan among his trusted kitchen instruments.
One of the biggest benefits of getting more into cooking, he says, is having more control over what goes into his body. Buying local boosts flavor and ensures he’s not ingesting pesticides. Making meals at home instead of eating out keeps the calories and fat in check.
“I’ve been in a lot of restaurant kitchens and I see how the vegetables are prepared,” he says. “They’re drenched in butter and a lot of salt, so you think it’s really healthy, but you’re eating a lot of butter without realizing it.”
Hurliman knows firsthand that vegetables can taste just fine without all that fat. One of his favorite preparations this time of year involves throwing halved eggplants with olive oil and garlic on the grill. He finishes the meaty slices off with a drizzling of high-quality balsamic vinegar, another staple in his kitchen.
Squash blossoms are also a favorite vegetable to feature in the summer months, though he cautions that newcomers to these should be sure to shake them out first in case a stray bug is still hiding.
“You can actually get some meat in with the vegetables,” he jokes.
One of his latest cooking experiments has been tinkering with a recipe for German potato salad, which he’s been trying out on himself before dishing it up for friends or colleagues.
The inspiration for taking a new spin on that summer staple?
“I just felt like it,” he says.