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One day I had lunch at an Italian restaurant that I regularly patronized. Six hours after my meal I was violently ill; the worst I’ve ever been, gastrointestinally speaking. By the next morning I literally felt like the life was draining out of me. That’s when I went to the ER. The doctor said I had a classic case of salmonella poisoning. It was a week before I felt completely back to normal.
Despite this experience I am still not a “germaphobe” by any means. I take normal precautions with food but don’t go to fanatical lengths. That’s because my personal introduction to salmonella doesn’t change the laws of probability. The odds of being stricken with a food borne illness of any appreciable magnitude are still relatively low. Of course this immediately thrusts us into the realm of subjectivity. What is an “appreciable” magnitude and what is “relatively” low? However we define these concepts, whatever the actual statistics are, the neurotic amongst us will always respond out of proportion to the real danger. A perfect example is the horror many experience at the prospect of eating a raw egg. Yet only one in 30,000 eggs is infected with salmonella.
This doesn’t imply of course, that we should throw caution to the wind. Food borne illness is a real danger, no matter how the mathematicians or the lay public delineates it. When preparing food, precautions must be taken. I just don’t advocate turning every risk in life into a crusade such as cooking everything well done, restricting oneself to only organic food, foregoing sushi, or the cuckoo who cleans her chicken with Brillo, (yes that’s a true story). Interestingly, there’s a far greater probability of one becoming neurotic than encountering a serious food related illness yet our minds don’t become fanatical about warding off neurosis. Hmmmmm.
So with all that said, let’s review food safety procedures. Food safeguards come into play at all stages of food production: purchasing, storing, preparing, cooking, and serving food, and finally, kitchen sanitation. In the first half of this article we will address food purchasing and storage. In the next edition of “Food for Thought” we’ll delve into safety considerations when preparing, cooking, and serving food and kitchen sanitation.
The first guideline is to shop in a manner that maximizes freshness and minimizes storage issues. I realize it’s easier to make fewer trips to the store and stock up. But frequent trips means you’ll be using fresher food with less chance of consuming or throwing out old food.
All food should obviously be inspected before acquiring it. Space does not allow me to go into a treatise on every single food and what to look for. You’ll have to do a little homework but common sense will ward off most dangers.
Food should look fresh with no conspicuous indications of deterioration. Vegetables and greens should be firm, vibrant, and devoid of discoloration. All proteins should be purchased from a reputable purveyor. Meats and seafood should sport a fresh sheen and color, and lack any blemishes or signs of desiccation. They should also be free of any undue odors, especially seafood. Moreover, when inspecting whole fish, ensure that the eyes are clear, the gills are bright red and the flesh is firm. If you have the slightest doubt about how a product looks or smells, don’t buy it, no matter what the sale price. Remember, products withering on the vine are prime candidates for the supermarket’s specials and sales. Don’t forget to check expiration dates, don’t buy dented cans, and don’t let the food sit in the car while running other errands.
Items not being used within an hour or so of purchasing should be refrigerated, (except foods that don’t require refrigeration such as onions or potatoes). But again, use common sense. Don’t leave your spuds on a sunny countertop. Place non-refrigerated items in a cooler and darker area of your home.
While most vegetables can loiter in the fridge for a few days in a plastic bag, proteins should be placed in the freezer if not being consumed within 24 hours. Foods like cheese or meats should be wrapped completely. Other foods like mussels or clams need to breathe and should not be sealed in an air-tight bag. Quite simply, if they suffocate they will die. Eating dead shellfish is like playing Russian roulette. Place them in a perforated bowl of ice inside a larger bowl to catch the melting water and then refrigerate. Fish fillets should be set on ice while a whole fish should be encased in shaved or crushed ice, again with a bowl or tray underneath it. If you can’t consume your shellfish or whole fish the same day, don’t buy it. Fish fillets can also be frozen.
Storage time varies for different foods and you should always err on the side of caution. Refrigerated root vegetables can last a couple of weeks. Softer veggies such as zucchini, eggplant, cucumbers, etc. should be used within a week. As stated, meats should be frozen if not being used within a day. Deli meats have a longer hang time but definitely consume them in less than a week. Deli meats can look deceptively safe. I once ate week-old ham that appeared, smelled, and tasted normal. I even gave some to my cat. We both got sick.
Always date your frozen food and rotate your stock to use the older items first. While they say you can get 6 months out of frozen protein I think three months or less is safer, not to mention better for the taste and texture. Ground meat is more susceptible to pathogens and has less storage time than whole meats. Try to use frozen ground meat within a month. Remember, freezing doesn’t kill bacteria, it just impedes their growth.
A final issue I wish to mention is storing a large pot of hot soup or stock. Do not place a large, hot pot of either directly into the fridge. Even in the fridge the liquid in the center of the pot will remain warm for quite some time. Moreover it will heat up your refrigerator thus endangering your other foods. Fill your sink with water and ice and place the stockpot into it. Stir the fluid constantly until it has cooled and then place it in the fridge. Water is a more efficient conductor than air and will cool your soup or stock much quicker.
Join us next time at “Food for Thought” as we continue our discussion of food safety.
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