Officer finds comfort in cooking

Posted: October 10, 2012

The Winchester Star

Capt. Allen “Big Al” Sibert cuts tortillas into chip size to be baked and served with the his chicken tortilla soup.
Capt. Allen “Big Al” Sibert sautees onions for his Chicken Torilla Soup. He uses the freshest ingredients possible including corn from the almost 400 ears he and his family froze from this summer's crop as well as tomatoes. He always grills the chicken for the soup. (Photo by Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star)

white hall — When Capt. Allen “Big Al” Sibert moves around the kitchen of his Frederick County home, he is the king of his domain.

Whether cutting and sauteeing onions, stirring a pot of soup, or licking the pudding spoon (wearing a smile of pure bliss), it is obvious that this is a room in which Sibert, who works for the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, is completely comfortable.

Cooking is many things to the 6-foot-2 officer — a hobby, a stress reliever, a way to show people he cares, and an opportunity to free up his mind to think about what’s happening in his life or at work.

He compares preparing a dish to taking a vacation in a car. In that scenario, Sibert would not be the one saying “I wish we were there already.”

“It is nice when the drive can be part of the vacation,” he said.

For Sibert, cooking is a comfort and a stress reliever, despite the fact that he does a great deal of thinking about work while he is doing it. He has worked for the sheriff’s office since Nov. 2, 1989, and is the division commander of investigations.

Cooking helps him take a step back to better evaluate cases he is working, he said.

“You always need something that clears your mind and gives you moments of clarity,” he said. “I love to fish, but I never have time for it. I can cook and still do something for my family.”

As Sibert stood in his kitchen Monday making homemade chicken tortilla soup, he talked fondly about the three biggest culinary influences in his life — his mother, his wife, and his mother-in-law.

He gave each woman her due in helping him become the cook he is, praising their skill without bragging about his own.

His wife was willing to do some of it for him. “He is pretty good, but I don’t let him know that,” she said.

Sibert, who was born and raised in Warren County, talked about learning “good old-fashioned Southern cooking” from his mother, Becky Sibert, who died five years ago.

Her specialties were dishes like creamy chicken biscuits and red-eye gravy — in his family, a mixture of half and half, whipped cream, a cup of coffee and drippings from bacon or ham.

“Nothing spells heart attack in a bowl like red-eye gravy,” he said.

With his marriage Dec. 7, 1991 to his wife, Tonya, Sibert was introduced not only to her cooking but that of her mother, Judy Cline. While his wife is a really good cook, he said, Cline is easily the best cook he has ever met. “All Southern though — lots of butter and sugar.”

He’s not complaining, though. “You can never have too much butter.”

Like the women he loves, Sibert’s cooking style definitely leans toward traditional Southern fare, said Marlena Kotynski of Frederick County, a close friend of the family. She loves his Southern style green beans and pork chops.

“I was never a big fan of pork chops until I had his, and it is one of my favorite meals now,” said Kotynski, head softball coach at Shenandoah University. “He also does great with steaks.”

Sibert does a great deal of grilling, especially chicken and steaks. He has “grilled in 2 feet of snow,” and if it is raining, he pulls his grill inside to cook.

He likes hearty foods, especially when it comes to his soups. He likes his soups thick, almost stew-like — “I want you to be able to eat them on a plate if you like.”

The thing about soup though is that people can’t just think about it — or any other dish for that matter — only as the finished product, he said. Cooking is all about details, and if people pay attention to those, it is evident in the resulting dish.

For instance, Sibert called his chili recipe basic — “there isn’t anything sexy about it.” What sets it apart is the meat he uses — beef he buys from the Frederick County Fair that he splits with other family members. It costs more, he said, but the money goes to support young farmers and there is absolutely no comparison with the quality.

For his chicken tortilla soup, it makes a difference that Sibert sautees the onions and uses fresh or home-canned tomatoes and fresh sweet corn that has been blanched and frozen instead of store-bought varieties.

Before they go in the soup, the chicken breasts have to be grilled, and the only seasoning he uses is salt and pepper.

The chicken tortilla soup is one Sibert takes particular pride. He and his wife used to order it regularly at a local restaurant and wanted to try to make it on their own at home. She cooked while he wrote down their steps, and “we hit it on the nail the first time we ever made it.”

Experimenting with recipes is fun as long as someone has the basics of cooking down to begin with, Sibert said.

For beginning cooks, he recommends following a recipe exactly to understand how it all comes together. Then, with things like soup, take a bowl out and make additions. That way, if it doesn’t turn out well, “you have only ruined one bowl.”

It took a little more work for Sibert to figure out exactly how he likes to make his Christmas cookies, but Sibert had plenty of time to practice. Every year, he makes 1,400 Christmas cookies for family, friends, and co-workers — his at the sheriff’s office and his wife’s at Shaw’s Jewelers in Winchester, where she is the manager.

He made the dough for the cookies and froze it this fall, which is a little earlier than usual. His favorite is peanut butter cookies, but his wife’s co-workers prefer chocolate chip.

Sibert has two secrets to making a good chocolate chip cookie. First, add the flour a little at a time. Many recipes instruct people to do this, but “they just throw it in.”

“It makes a much better cookie as far as texture and how it eats,” he said. “It doesn’t get too hard or soft. What you want is right in the middle.”

People also need to use softened butter, not melted, he said. Leave it on the counter and let it soften instead of rushing the process.

“When you make 1,200 to 1,400 cookies in three weeks, you learn the devil is in the details,” he said.

The holiday season is a busy time for Sibert. In addition to the cookies, he always makes food for the employees at his wife’s store on Black Friday because they are usually so busy.

The couple also throws separate parties for all of their co-workers. The meal is always the same, not because Sibert lacks imagination but because the guests said no when he offered to change from the pork tenderloin, mashed potatoes, corn, green beans, gravy, and rolls.

Most of the dishes are ones that can’t be reheated, so they have to be made the day of the parties. The preparations have the Siberts hopping. The potatoes alone have to be peeled and then cooked in Sibert’s deep fryer because he does 25 pounds at a time.

Whether it is large holiday meals or small gatherings with friends, Sibert sets an agenda and gets it all done, Kotynski said. He is particular to make sure that his meats are done correctly and his vegetables are seasoned the right way.

It is not just about him being labeled a good cook, though. He wants to make sure that his guests are well-fed and that they enjoy what they are eating, Kotynski said.

“It is not because he wants to brag about his cooking; that is never an issue,” she said. “He truly cares about people and he wants to make sure they are well taken care of, and that goes from his job to cooking to just being friends with him. He will always go out of his way to help even a stranger.”

— Contact Laura McFarland at lmcfarland@winchesterstar.com.