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Leafy Greens Safety
You may ask yourself, why should I eat greens?
Though our foraging ancestors of prehistory are thought to have consumed large amounts of them, green salads were not commonly served in modern Europe before the sixteenth century. Long before exploration of the western hemisphere, though, they were popular among American natives whose fondness for them soon was adopted by the settlers and carried back to the old countries. Today, they are a staple on tables everywhere.
So they should be. What dieticians often call “leafy greens” are nutritious and fibrous, prime sources of minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients, particularly the dark green and red ones. Vitamin K, for example, currently being promoted as an immune system builder that may help ward off swine flu, is prominent among the assets of greens. One salad can provide an entire minimum recommended daily allowance, two cups of cooked greens several times that. K dissolves in fats, so salad dressings, far from just adding calories, extract and carry it to you.
Different greens offer different nutritional benefits. Of the commonly available ones, red lettuce and Romaine are among the best. Iceberg, on the other hand, is worth little in that department. A mixture of kinds provides the most balance for you.
Excellent Mixed Greens from California's Salinas Valley
OK, so greens are good food. What's the problem?
Leafy greens have been responsible for a lot of food-born illness in recent years. In a new report by CSPI, a nonprofit food-oriented think tank, they top the list of edibles that pose public health risks but are little recognized.
A leading cause of that is mass market production. Prominent in it is one of the most popular convenience foods to be brought to us in recent years, the bagged, mixed green salad. Some very attractive ones are available, with well chosen ingredients. Most people take it on faith that the salads in those bags are well washed and sanitary, and often they are. Despite the industry's hard work to make them safer since recent outbreaks of biological illness carried by salad vegetables such as spinach, however, we should not consider them reliably so. The problem, just as it does with ground beef, lies in our remote, faceless, centralized food production, processing and distribution system. Mass market greens, both those bagged salad mixes and bulk product, are produced in far-flung places by farmers and labor of whom you have no knowledge and over whom you have no direct influence, washed, mixed and packaged by fewer and fewer, bigger and bigger corporate operators, and shipped under the label of whatever buyer has today's purchasing contract. The production-line nature of the process will contaminate a portion of the output. For instance, when greens with a pathogen on them go into a washing tank, the culprit microbe can get onto those that follow until the tank is sterilized, which will not occur until the next time the line is stopped for maintenance.
Bulk greens are no different. Most of those sold in the supermarkets are remotely grown and processed, often in countries lacking our stricter safety standards. The risk of contamination is ever present.
Locally grown greens, which are always fresher and generally better than those sold in the mass market, are still grown in the dirt. Unless you enjoy eating that, do not take them as they come.
So, how do I make greens safer in my kitchen?
It is not difficult. Just keep them cool, and wash them when you use them. Store greens in the refrigerator in a container in order to discourage bacterial growth and keep them separate from other foods. When you are ready to make your salad or cook your side dish, take out only as much as you are going to use. The cleaning procedure I then follow has three steps: soak, rinse, and dry. No matter where you got them, from a bag or from a farmer's market, they should be handled the same. First, put them into a mixing bowl and cover them with cool, fresh water. You can buy vegetable soaking solution that claims to get off more of whatever may be on them, but to my way of thinking putting them through yet another chemical bath is not the object, so I use plain water, straight from the faucet. Let them stay there for at least twenty minutes. Pick out and throw away any rotten or damaged leaves you find, bearing in mind that there will always be some in mass market products, and that eating them will always make you at least slightly ill. Much of the time, after that soaking is done, you will then see particles of stray trash material or the oily residue of pesticides and herbicides floating on the surface, and there may be grit in the bottom of the bowl. Pour off the water and dump your greens into a colander (I use one of those wire baskets that straddles the kitchen sink). Rinse them with cool, running water. The sprayer on your faucet works like a charm. When you feel they are about as well washed as they are going get, let them drain for a couple of minutes, look for more rotten leaves to pick out, and then dry them. Some people use a towel as a blotter. I think you will bruise the leaves doing that, so I use a salad spinner. That gets them dry enough for the dressing, which is all you need to do.
Never take it on faith that any greens you get from any source are ready to eat. They may be, but you have no way of knowing it. Protect yourself, your family, and your guests. Just soak, rinse, and dry. That is all it takes.