food safety

Hot Off the Skillet Food Links


Whoa. I meant to do a post on interesting food links monthly, but a quick scroll reveals I haven't done a Hot Off the Skillet since early January. There's always exciting news in the food and nutrition world, beginning with this link I saw today! Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have found a daily cup of tea may reduce heart attack and cardiovascular risk? Beginning in 2000, they followed 6000 study participants, who were free of heart disease at that time. Eleven years later, it was the tea drinkers who showed 1/3 fewer incidences of "heart attack, stroke, chest pain, or...other types of heart disease." Yay, Earl Grey!

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In other happy news, you'll remember I wrote about my favorite food/nutrition book of 2015, Mark Shatzker's The Dorito Effect. Because I also follow him on Twitter, I heard about his recent Epicurious article, holding out the promise of better-tasting real food in the future. As he discussed in the book, for years folks bred supermarket food for looks and speed and durability, letting actual flavor go by the wayside. Hence the baseball-hard tomatoes that taste like drywall and grocery-store chicken with all the flavor of tofu, only with a texture even more revolting. But, joy of joys, flavor is making a comeback, and not just the flavors found in a chemistry lab. Agricultural think tanks are working on breeding flavor back in--the old-fashioned way, by crossing plant varieties and hoping for good results.

Like heirloom tomatoes, but wish they were sturdier? Now's your chance to get tomato seeds for Garden Gem and Garden Treasure, two new varieties which are already winning taste contests! For a small donation to the University of Florida's Klee Laboratories you'll receive 15 seeds of each kind, just in time to get them started indoors.

And lastly, as we find ourselves in a strident political season, I always like to show bipartisanship. Having referenced the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen produce lists in the past, I now present the other side, in which our supermarket produce is found to be very, very clean, according to USDA pesticide sampling, as reported in Forbes. The author makes a couple good points, including the fact that pesticide residue can be found in both conventional and organic produce (some organic countermeasures are allowed but act similarly to regular pesticides). I would love to believe our fruits and vegetables more than meet the EPA's tolerances. What is a tolerance? "The tolerance is generally 100 times less than a dose that could cause any ill effect. The allowed residues are also lower than the levels of natural pesticidal compounds that many crops make to defend themselves." (As Mark Schatzker also discussed in his awesome book, plants do produce natural toxins so they don't get eaten or eaten at the wrong time by every Bird, Cow, or Billy Goat Gruff.)

Tolerable produce still doesn't address the issue of agricultural workers who are exposed to higher levels of pesticides, however, in producing the crop. Nor does it dispel that niggling memory I have of the potato farmer in Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire, who farmed conventional potatoes for all of us, but only fed his family from the small organic plot behind the house... But, hey, it's still good news for when we can't resist that out-of-season basket of berries. Berries below tolerance!

May it hold us until Opening Market Day.



Noteworthy Notes, February Edition

Links and pictures from around and about that impact our Washington life

While New England continues to get buried in snow on snow on snow, Washington State faces a dismally low snowpack year. We're only at 49% and the temperatures continue warm. Lower snowpack equals lower streamflow in the spring and summer, which equals bad news for farmers who depend on irrigation and bad news for folks who eat what farmers grow. 

Speaking of what farmers grow, check out this cool map from the Farm Bureau:

While the view is very high level, it's clear that growing food is big business in Washington. $49 billion in revenue, according to the Farm Burea. Unfortunately, the ongoing port slowdown is impacting our farmers' exports and what they will plant in the coming year.
Farmers markets are still a small piece of the pie, but it was good news to learn that King County will be holding off on raising inspection services fees for at least another year. Proposed increases would have raised food vendor fees by 42-264% and a market coordinator fee would more than double. I understand the inspectors would have to be paid for their time, and everyone likes the idea of food safety, but I do think Americans are a little overexcited about food safety. Visit markets abroad and you'll find unrefrigerated eggs and ambient temperature cheese and such. And I've taken the online course and gotten a food handler's permit, and all I can say is, if you eat at my house you take your chances because I'm not going through all that rigmarole at home.
All of which is to say, it looks like food prices will be rising this year. Plan accordingly! We King County folks do like buying organic, according to an article in the Puget Sound Business Journal, but remember--if it's on the Clean 15, save yourself some cash and buy conventional.
Thank you, Environmental Working Group!

If You Can't Stand the Heat

"If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," the saying goes. And after reading Michael Gibney's Sous Chef, I would have to say my respect for those who cook our fine restaurant food is sky high. If I ever think otherwise, please remind me that I do not have what it takes to work the line. Not the passion, the perfectionism, the rough edges, or the grace.

Sous Chef is not a memoir, per se. It's a fictionalized account of a day in "your" life as the chief lieutenant of a famed chef at a busy New York restaurant. And by  "you," I mean "you." Gibney writes the thing in the second person. As in, "On Fridays you get in about 0900." While weird at first, this stylistic choice pays off big time as the fictional day progresses, the pressure mounts, and you you YOU feel like you just might fail fail FAIL.

Hard-drinking, (often) hard-smoking, and hard-living, the hierarchy of chefs that make the restaurant go perform at a level that we cubicle-enclosed, chair-sitting, tea-sipping keyboard jockeys can't begin to imagine. I was reminded of the line in one of the Harry Potter books where Harry realizes bangs and smoke were not the signs of a good wizard, but rather a clumsy one. In the same way, Gibney writes:

While no environment is free of accident and human error, the ability to work collision-free is expected of any good cook. In good restaurants, everyone works this way, with sprezzatura: a certain nonchalance that makes their actions appear to be without effort and almost without thought, an easy facility in accomplishing arduous tasks that conceals the conscious exertion that went into them...There are no burns or cuts, no pans dropped, no spills or messes made. Its practitioners call this performance "the dance."

Nor is Sous Chef into restaurant muckraking. The high-end restaurant portrayed uses only the best ingredients and adheres religiously not only to health code standards, but even more so to epicurean standards. Stations are spotless. Food is fresh and well-stored and well-treated because such food just tastes better. I found myself highlighting passages that would make me a better cook and Market shopper. For example, Gibney recommends that "whole fishes must be sitting upright in the order to preserve their anatomical constitution...Portioned fishes, on the other hand, must be wrapped tightly with food-service film, laid out flat and even in perforated trays (which keep liquids from pooling) and overspread with ice."

Not that there aren't food safety bits thrown in:

  • Keep your fridge set below 40F because the main pathogens have difficulty thriving at the temperature.
  • Keep industry-raised chicken below and separate from all other foods. "...The Department of Health considers the bird a terribly dangerous creature. It marinates in its own filth from the time it dies until the time you put it in the oven. It is a haven for bacteria. And its exudate--chicken juice--travels like quicksilver. No other protein can cross-contaminate its neighbors quite like chicken." Yikes.
  • Mussels should be tightly closed and, if in cold water, they should float, indicating they're still airtight and alive.

The book should have widespread appeal, to foodies, fans of cooking shows, home cooks, and discerning shoppers and eaters. I recommend!

Food Safety Freakouts

Last month, when I went to pick up my Skagit River Ranch Buyers' Club order, the club host offered me a couple packages of their so-tasty Andouille Sausage. The packages were originally for a restaurant delivery, but they hadn't sealed to Skagit's satisfaction (the sausages were "loose" in the packaging, instead of bound airlessly to the plastic walls), so they offered them to us. Did I take 'em? Are you kidding? Since I had no plans to eat them raw, I was all over that deal.

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And am I ever glad I did. Twice I've made this recipe and we've scarfed it down.

Spicy Sausage and Penne Casserole

  • 8 ounces mini penne pasta or elbow macaroni
  • 12 to 16 ounces smoked andouille sausage, thinly sliced (I used 3 links of Skagit Andouille)
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup chopped red or green bell pepper (I omitted this, to spare the kids picking it out)
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
  • 1 teaspoon Creole seasoning (I substituted a little garlic powder, paprika, a smidge of cayenne)
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 to 1 cup soft fine bread crumbs tossed with 2 to 3 teaspoons melted butter

Cook pasta following package directions; drain, rinse, and set aside.

In a large saucepan or skillet, cook the andouille sausage with onion and bell pepper until onions are translucent. Remove the sausage mixture to a plate and set aside.

Heat oven to 350°. Lightly grease a 2-quart casserole or spray with nonstick cooking spray.

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in the same skillet over medium heat; stir in flour until blended. Gradually add the milk and Creole seasoning. Cook, stirring constantly, until thickened. Add the cheese and stir until melted. Taste and add salt and pepper, as needed. Stir in the drained pasta and sausage mixture. Spoon into the prepared casserole. Sprinkle bread crumbs over the top of the casserole.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until topping is browned and casserole is bubbly.
Serves 5 to 6.

Clearly I don't tend to be a food safety alarmist--our family applies the 10-second rule to food fallen on the floor, and produce never gets more than a quick rinse in the tap, so I was curious to read EATING DANGEROUSLY: WHY THE GOVERNMENT CAN'T KEEP YOUR FOOD SAFE...AND HOW YOU CAN by Michael Booth and Jennifer Brown. (Note: I received this book as an e-galley from the publisher.)

Would I recommend it? Well, I thought it was a great read, but I wouldn't hand it to the OCD friends and family in your life if you ever wish to experience a sane moment sharing a meal with them again. If they, too, apply the ten-second rule and would leap on free sausage from a trusted provider, however, they should be
able to enjoy this book without t-o-t-a-l-l-y f-r-e-a-k-i-n-g o-u-t. Bottom line: most likely, at some point, we might get sick from our food, but since we no longer have tiny kids or pregnant women at home, and are not yet old and in the home, I'm not going to sweat it.

Plants and animals get plenty of exposure to bacteria and feces and just plain dirt, so unless you're going to switch to only hydroponically-grown produce and abstain from meat and seafood, there will always be risk involved. Organic foods spare you the pesticides, but not necessarily the other hazards. If you are the freak-out type, the authors have plenty of tips on produce-scrubbing and meat thermometers and refrigerator optimization and such that you will find helpful. (I skimmed this bit because of my negligent attitude mentioned earlier.)

They cover some of the worst food-illness scares in recent history, including Colorado canteloupe and California spinach and southern peanuts, and discover the government does not have the manpower or the funding to keep our food supply safe. Neither consumers nor grocery stores nor producers want to pay for the safeguards either, so that throws us back on the home techniques.

The book may make your more likely to purchase your bagged spinach from Earthbound Farms, however, as they made big changes after their e Coli scare and now do test-and-hold before any of their spinach goes to market. Not as fresh, perhaps, but if you were buying bagged spinach in the first place, that wasn't a huge deal to you. And this way you at least won't spend a day hunched over a toilet.

Most new and interesting to this reader were the discussions of Chinese food adulteration/contamination and the multitude of foreign imports (including spices) which are completely beyond our FDA's ability to track, test or regulate.

So are there any advantages to eating local and organic? Booth says, "Eating healthy, or organically, or locally, has its benefits--fewer pesticides, more humane treatment of animals, less fossil fuel burned to transport the bananas from Chile or the hamburger from who knows where--but it has not been found to reduce the risk of foodborne illness." That is, all cows still poop, whether the feedlot variety or the idyllic pasture-dwellers. And all plants still grow in dirt, where a bird might fly overhead and poop on it. Poop happens. But--and Booth never says this explicitly--some giant risks can be eliminated by buying our food carefully from farmers we trust. We can ask our fishermen, "Are these salmon wild, or were they raised like Chinese farmed tilapia and fed shovelfuls of pig and goose feces?" Or, "Tell me about how you raise your cattle," rather than eating hamburgers like Booth describes, "a don't-ask-don't-tell compilation of beef leftovers shaved from higher-quality cuts of meat in slaughterhouses ranging from Uruguay to Canada."

All in all, a recommended read for those interested in our nation's food supply. May 2014 be a GI-Distress-Free year for you!