Thursday’s tapas

We covered Spain yesterday in our whirlwind world tour known as International Cuisine class, so I’m all about the little nibbles this week.

Quote of the week

The Roma “is truly the eunuch of the tomato world and doesn’t deserve your time.”–Lynn Rosetto Kasper, The Splendid Table

Picture 2Score one for the South

Last night’s episode of “Top Chef” restored my faith in the show, as the contestants cooked for some of the world’s top French chefs and demonstrated they have impressive culinary chops. I love Atlanta-based chef Kevin Gillespie, who wowed Daniel Boulud by serving escargot with Southern-style bacon jam and won the quickfire challenge. Gillespie’s red beard and wide-eyed enthusiasm remind me of a young Kris Kringle; he may look like a humble son of Dixie, but fellow contestants would do well not to underestimate him. The best quote of the night came from fellow Atlantan Eli Kirshtein, who affectionately likened Joel Robuchon to a “unicorn.”

Picture 3Cheap–and sharp

I love my Mac knives, but if I were in the market for a new one, I’d definitely check out the colorful, affordable Pure Komachi 2 knives from Shun. They’re made of Japanese carbon steel and cost less than 15 bucks.–Serious Eats

Picture 4The high price of health food

Peeps think healthy fare is too expensive in this economy, so they’re ordering junkier food at restaurants, according to Nation’s Restaurant News. In a previous story, NRN reported that $5 is the magic number of consumers, as eateries from fast-food outlets like Subway to high-end restaurants load menus with 5-buck fare to attract budget-conscious diners.

Picture 5Food safety clearinghouse

Have questions/concerns about food safety? Check out the new government site, FoodSafety.org. The site includes updates on food recalls as well as tips about food safety.

Picture 6Meat matters

Don’t know a ribeye from a T-bone? This handy chart can clear up the confusion.–The Food Paper (Gayot)

Safe food is good food

 

Poultry tops the list of foods that cause foodbourne illnesses, but smart handling will ensure it's safe. (Photo by Robert Pikul/Dreamstime.)

Poultry tops the list of foods that cause foodbourne illnesses, but smart handling will ensure it's safe. (Photo by Robert Pikul/Dreamstime.)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report last week, noting that poultry (including eggs) tops the list of foods linked to foodborne disease outbreaks. Poultry accounted for 21 percent of single-food outbreaks, followed by leafy greens and fruits/nuts, in 2006, the year covered by the CDC’s report.

These days, I’m in the Meat Identification & Fabrication class at culinary school, which means food safety is much on my mind. Last week was spent breaking down whole chickens and ducks, as well as scrubbing scales off, gutting, and filleting whole fish. With that comes, frequent sanitation and carefully avoid cross-contamination. 

That’s because, like it or not, raw meat, poultry, and seafood harbors all manner of bacteria you want to keep out of your food. Common sense and diligence go a long way toward ensuring food is safe, and the same basic principles apply, whether you’re cutting up a chicken for restaurant service or or prepping ingredients to grill dinner in the back yard:

Clean

Make sure your hands, tools, and surfaces stay clean. Wash all three after handling any raw meat or seafood. Hot, soapy water will do the trick.

Separate

Cross-contamination is the big issue. Never use the same utensils and cutting boards for handling raw and cooked food (unless you wash utensils and cutting boards thoroughly after using them for raw ingredients). Also, be to use a bowl, tray, or plate to transport raw meat or seafood across the kitchen (or through the house the grill outside). Elizabeth Karmel, of Girls at the Grill, has a great tip for grillers: Invest in two pairs of long-handled tongs. Wrap red electrical tape around the handle of one, and green around the handle of the other. The red pair is for handling raw ingredients only, while the green pair is for cooked. Also take an extra plate or tray out to the grill for cooked food.

Cook  properly

Undercooked food can harbor harmful bacteria. Use a digital instant-read thermometer to ensure meat and poultry is cooked to the proper internal temperature. According to the USDA, poultry should reach an internal temperature of 165 F; roasts, steaks, and fish, 145 F; and ground beef and pork, 160 F. Remember that food continues to cook when removed for heat–called “carry-over” cooking–so pull meat from the grill or oven a few degrees early, and it will come up the proper temperature while it stands before slicing.

Chill

Get food into the refrigerator or freezer promptly after bringing it home from the store. Defrost frozen food in the refrigerator, never on the counter. And chill leftovers quickly (divide large amounts into smaller portions so they cool faster).

For more info, bookmark Fight Bac!, the site created by the Partnership for Food Safety Education. It’s a great quick reference for food-safety practices.

Shopping scared

 

peanut-butter

Killer PB? Most people are aware of the peanut butter scare, but a new Harvard survey finds many don't know how widespread it really is.

“Are you really going to eat that?” my mate asked yesterday.

I was opening a jar of gourmet chocolate chip cookie dough peanut butter, which had arrived in a box of samples.

“Yeah, I’m living on the edge,” I replied, spreading a generous schmear of the stuff on toasted ciabatta. The jarful of three of my favorite things–peanut butter, chocolate, and cookie dough–seduced me into overlooking the risk.

Like just about everyone else who hasn’t been living under a rock, we’ve heard about salmonella-tainted peanut butter, which has led the FDA to recall more than 130 products.  The agency even sent out alerts on Twitter.

A new survey from the Harvard School of Public Health suggests the government has done a pretty good job of getting the word out. More than 90 percent of Americans are aware of the issue, and of those, more than 60 percent have changed their habits. They’re scrutinizing ingredient lists at the grocery store, throwing away potentially tainted foods at home, and avoiding restaurant dishes that contain peanuts.

That’s a good strategy, considering the dudes who head up the Peanut Corporation of America invoked the fifth amendment, refusing to testify before a congressional hearing. Evidence suggests they knowingly shipped tainted PB.

There’s a striking level of awareness of this recall, and many people have taken action. But they’re not aware of the range of products involved in the recall.

But the Harvard study indicates consumers are still confused about the wide range of foods covered by the recall. The array of potentially tainted products is daunting, ranging from the obvious–peanut butter–to the less expected, like pet food. Less than half of consumers know that the recall includes snack bars, cakes, brownies, cookies, pet treats, candies, prepackaged meals, and dry-roasted peanuts. Whew!

“There’s a striking level of awareness of this recall, and many people have taken action. But they’re not aware of the range of products involved in the recall,” says Robert J. Blendon, professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health. “People should check the Food and Drug Administration recall list routinely, since the number of products is still growing.”

The peanut scare is only the latest in a growing list of food safety snafus that point to the urgent need to revamp our food safety system. It’s no surprise to Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, who has for years noted that the U.S. government does a woefully inadequate job of policing the safety of our food supply. “What more evidence do we need that an overhaul of the food safety system is very much in order?” she recently posited on her blog.  “Congress: this is your problem to solve!  Citizens: write your congressional representatives!”

That’s easy enough to do–everyone in congress has a Web site and e-mail address. Drop your representatives a line to voice your demand for safe food.

Wednesday’s tasty tidbits

You don’t always get what you pay for

picture-3The latest food scare–tainted peanut butter–reveals consumers still place too much trust in our current food safety system. It’s the “halo effect,” a new Hartman Group report reveals. Shoppers believe that if a food is labeled “natural” or “gourmet,” it must be higher quality than lower-priced brands. In fact, premium products are often sourced from the same producers as the ordinary stuff. Hartman President and COO Laurie Demeritt says consumers say they’re concerned about food safety when asked about it, but when shopping, they don’t scrutinize the source of their food and assume it’s safe. This echoes a recent study from Cornell University.

Foreign Fast Food

picture-11No matter where you’re from, you still need to get dinner on the table after a long day at work. Reporter Leslie Kaufman goes into the kitchens of immigrants living in New York to find out how they’ve adapted their favorite dishes to the American kitchen. Be sure to check out the audio slide show, too–it’s cool!–The New York Times

 

Smart Apron

picture-12I’m not big on aprons (though I should be, since I’m always spilling and splattering in the kitchen), but Zip&Dry apron, which is edged with a towel, might win me over.–The Food Section

 

Nuts for Nutella

picture-2Can you really trust a person who doesn’t love the creamy chocolate-hazelnut spread known as Nutella? I think not. Reporter Amy Scattergood delves into its seductive charms, with recipes.–Los Angeles Times

 

Best Canned Tomatoes

picture-4If you’re cooking with tomatoes this time of year, they’re probably canned. And the best are Muir Glen’s, according to Chow.

Food safety for Christmas

We may imagine farms are as bucolic as this one. In reality, most farms are industrial-size enterprises, and some experts say that results in food safety concerns.

When Obama won the presidential election, many foodies hoped he would advocate for a better food environment. At the top of the wish list is addressing the safety of our food supply.

In today’s New York Times, reporter Kim Severson tries to parse President-Elect Obama’s food policies, including his controversial selection of former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as the secretary of agriculture. Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, summed it up for many when he described the selection of Vilsack, who has supports ethanol production and biotech croops, as “agribusiness as usual.” Marion Nestle, author of What to Eat, also expressed some concern about the choice. You can weigh in with your opinion at Serious Eats.

There is a glimmer of hope, though, as there’s the still-open, key post of undersecretary of food safety to fill. The first-rate blog Obama Fooderama urges the incoming president to appoint class-action attorney Bill Marler, because he might actually do something to ensure the safety of our food supply. (Check out his list of the top 10 food safety stories of the year.) Marler’s track record of successfully pursuing food-bourne illness suits since the early ’90s makes him an intriguing, if politically inconvenient, candidate.

The FDA's plans to protect our food supply are mostly in the meeting stage at this point.

The FDA's plans to protect our food supply are mostly in the meeting stage at this point.

But even the government acknowledges–although clumsily–that something needs to be done to improve food safety for Americans. Earlier this month, the FDA released a one-year progress report on its Food Protection Plan. Thus far, the progress is mostly the formation of steering committees and holding public meetings, in addition to:

  • A food-safety self-assessment tool for industry. (Isn’t that like having the wolf guard the henhouse?)
  • Establishing inspection locations in foreign countries that export food to the U.S. (A good idea, but it’s unlikely to be as comprehensive as it should be, due to inadequate funding. But even if there are enough inspectors, they may not screen for everything. The Los Angeles Times reports that melamine-tainted farmed seafood is routinely exported to the U.S., and FDA doesn’t currently require melamine screening for imported seafood.)
  • Approving the irradiation of spinach and iceberg lettuce, a process that many consider controversial. (Irradiation may destroy vitamins in food, and it doesn’t address unsanitary conditions at factory farms, accordng to the Center for Food Safety.)
  • Requesting funds from Congress to hire more inspectors, which the chronically underfunded agency needs. (It will be interesting to see if Congress comes considers the safety of our food supply as important as bailing out banks.)

Although I’d certainly like to see more a more vigorous food-safety policy from our government–one that’s aimed at protecting citizens rather than appeasing agribusiness–current economic conditions have likely knocked it down on the list of priorities for Obama’s first days in office.