Food Safety: How to Avoid Getting Sick
Recently E.Coli, Salmonella, and other pathogens have been splattered across our newspapers, and evening news headlines. It seems like every time you turn around someone else is getting sick from food. Although the most recent spinach scare and taco bell fright have come to an end, it won't be long until another pops up.
Recently lawmakers have made a push to create better standards and better enforcing of standards, a recent CNN article highlights how lawmakers have been trying to change food safety oversight (the article can be found here: http://www.cnn.com/2007/HEALTH/05/17/food.safety.law/index.html)
All this talk of change is great, but when will it take place, how can we be sure our food is safe?? Well, you can never be 100% sure that the food is safe, but one little step could save you a lot of worrying and a lot of sickness... what is it you ask? WASHING!!!
The simple step of washing your food removes pathogens from fertilizer (E. Coli comes from cow manure used as fertilizer) and chemicals used in fertilizer. I don't think many people would willing put cow manure of toxic chemicals in their mouths, but yet people put apples, oranges, lettuce, all sorts of things covered with it in their mouths!
Tips for Washing
One way to wash a lot of produce is to fill up a large bowl with cool water and dunk it all, scrubbing or swirling as you go. You may need to change the water a couple times. Warm water will actually bring out the flavor in items that you're ready to serve, but never go above lukewarm - you don't want to cook the food!
Cool water is best for crisping limp produce - wilted lettuce and limp carrots will revive with 30 minutes to an hour in a cold water bath. Always wash bagged lettuce, even if it is labelled pre-washed.
You can get a vegetable scrubber for root vegetables or anything with a rind. New potatoes and baby carrots will require little else than a gentle scrub before cooking. Even items you're planning on peeling with a peeler, though, should be washed as any contaminants on the outside will spread to the peeler and the food inside.
By the way, you won't get the wax coating off of things like apples by scrubbing - you need to actually peel the fruit to remove it.
Never use any detergent or bleach solutions to wash with as fruit and vegetables can absorb these solutions and they're not meant for human consumption. You can use special produce sprays to wash, but water alone will also do the trick.
Dry all fruit and vegetables immediately after washing unless they're going right in the pot. Most of the time, water is the enemy of flavor, so drying foods properly is critical to allow sauces or dressings to stick to the food and to keep your seasonings undiluted. Plus, if you're going to store items after washing, it helps to keep them as dry as possible.
Gently dry delicate items with dish or paper towels and use a salad spinner for leafy greens. For berries, herbs or greens, you can also layer your produce with strips of paper towels in a large bowl - the paper towels will absorb the moisture.
Tougher herbs such as parsley can actually be placed in a dish towel and rung out to dry after they've been chopped, something which is critical if you want to be able to sprinkle them for garnish later.
Handle with Care
Delicate herbs or soft fruit you should immerse in a bowl of water, swish them around, pour the water out, and repeat until the water runs clean. Sandy herbs or greens such as cilantro or arugula require this as holding them under a running tap will move the dirt around instead of lifting and letting the dirt sink to the bottom of the bowl.
Very ripe fruit and berries can also be gently splashed with water and turned in a colander with your hand.
Washing Root Vegetables
All root veggies should be given a good scrub before peeling, then rinsed again after removing the peel. Contaminants from the peel will make their way to the flesh while you're peeling, which is why a second rinse is a good idea.
Citrus fruit and melons that you'll be cutting should be washed. Otherwise, the knife will bring any contaminants into the center of the fruit. They should be really scrubbed if you want to use the zest for cooking.
Grapes can be washed in a colander and stored in the refrigerator. Strawberries, raspberries and figs are better off getting a quick wash just before eating, although if you won't be storing them for long. You can also wash in advance as long as you're gentle and dry them well.
Cukes, salad greens and scallions will crisp up if they are soaked in ice water for at least 30 minutes, which you can do after you wash them. Many cucumbers have a wax coating that you can't wash off, so these should be peeled as well.
With leeks, you should cut their root ends and green tops off, slice them in half lengthwise, and rinse thoroughly while fanning the layers out in lukewarm water.
There's a big debate about how to wash mushrooms. Some people prefer to simply dab at the dirt with a damp paper towel to avoid the mushroom getting soggy. Still, if there's a lot of dirt, you really should wash them under a stream of water in a colander and check every one to make sure you get all the mud out.
What Not to Wash
You can definitely skip washing certain items where the peel really barely touches the inside - onions, garlic, winter squash, and citrus fruit (unless you're zesting), can all be peeled and eaten as is.