Tag Archives: food safety

Kitchen Safety Tip – avoid food borne bacteria and clean that sponge!

Clean your kitchen sponge

Kitchen sponges can be as dirty as your toilet! So clean or replace them regularly.

I like smart people, but intelligent kids make me smile. Even when the smile is a tad uncomfortable.

My friend and I were sitting in her living room chatting over coffee and cheesecake when her teenage daughter, Isabella, literally bounced into the room with good news: she got an A+ on her biology project.

“What was your project about?” I asked.

“Bacteria in the home,” Isabella answered.

Mom didn’t look too happy.

Without skipping a beat, Isabella explained how she and her lab partner set out Petri dishes all around her home and the homes of four other families (with permission, I assume). After exposing the dishes to the open air for a few hours, the young researchers sealed them and waited to see what kinds of bacteria grew.

“We found 22 forms of mold and bacteria,” Isabella reported flatly. “And you know which room had the most?”

Mom squirmed.

“It was the kitchen!”

Hand to heart, I resisted glancing down at my slice of homemade cheesecake, expertly drizzled with chocolate syrup and dotted with a slice of strawberry. I kept my attention on Isabella, who went on to explain not only did they find more variety of bacteria and molds in the kitchen, there were three times as much of it than in any other room.

Before mom could intervene, Isabella said it: “Even more than the bathroom.”

Breakpoint reached, mom smoothly reminded Isabella about a task that would take her far into the house for an extended period. I suppressed a big grin (for me, that’s hard, I can tell you).

“She’s such a brilliant girl,” I said, taking a big bite of that lovely slice of cheesecake, adding, “Oh, this is so delicious!”

From the scientific perspective, researchers agree with Isabella’s findings. The kitchen is “dirty” like this because it has the most human traffic. It’s not that the kitchen itself is so dirty, it’s that WE’RE dirty. The human body is a veritable magnet for bacteria, molds, and other stuff. And the kitchen is a place where it collects, grows, and prospers.

Luckily Isabella didn’t use the kitchen sponge as part of her study. Mom would have been catatonic.

A couple of years ago, a group of microbiologists released a study about the health dangers of the ordinary kitchen sponge. According to the study, the researchers found more than 300 different kinds of bacteria with literally trillions of those little bugs in ONE sponge. The only other place in your whole house where you’ll find such a concentration of bacteria is – you guessed it, the toilet.

EWWW! I’m not sure it gets any grosser than that. And imagine what you’re doing when you use the kitchen sponge to wipe up a spill on your dining room table!

I have tips for kitchen safety. A few of them are my own that I’ve collected over time. Some you’ll find on the internet that seem to work very well.

First – get cellulose sponges. Williams-Sonoma sells some nice ones that are a handy size that I use in my kitchen all the time. You can also find cellulose sponges on Amazon as well. Cellulose sponges are organic so you can toss them into your compost. They’ll hold up better to when you need to clean them than the artificial ones (e.g., Scotch Bright urethane foam).

Second – this one is passed down from the ages: never use your regular kitchen sponge to clean up after handling raw meat – especially chicken. If a kitchen sponge comes in contact with raw meat, toss it out. Don’t even try to clean it.

Third – speaking of cleaning – bleach doesn’t work on the harmful bacteria. It will wipe out the bacteria that causes the smell, but not the stuff that can make you and your family really sick. For effective cleaning, you must keep up with cleaning sponges every day with any one of these recommended methods:

  1. Microwave your sponge for 1-3 minutes. There’s some disagreement among the researchers about the time length, but they do agree that microwaving for 1 minute will kill most harmful bacteria. In two minutes, you’ll kill the rest. Three minutes and you’ll end up with a very hot and very clean sponge. Important note: make sure your sponge is wet (not dry) when you put it in the microwave and also note that artificial sponges won’t last as long as cellulose (they tend to flatten out after each cleaning). And, don’t put sponges that have metal (hint: sponges with abrasive pads) in the microwave oven.
  2. Put your sponge in the dishwasher when you run the heated dry cycle or boil it for about five minutes (but I’m not sure I want that sponge boiling in my good stockpot!). Heat is critical for cleaning sponges and wiping out colonies of harmful food bacteria
  3. Regularly replace your sponge – at least every month. But some researchers say (and I also agree) that active kitchens should replace all sponges every two weeks at a minimum.

I love those really smart girls who can dig up important facts. But it doesn’t take rocket science to know how important it is to keep your kitchen as clean as possible. Stay safe!

How to tell if that fruit or veggie is actually organic!

Reading PLU Labels on Fruits and Veggies

A kitchen hack that makes it easy to tell the difference between organic and GMO produce.

I work very hard on keeping a balanced and healthy diet. The best way for me to do this is by reading labels. It’s a habit! I avoid foods with lots of preservatives and other chemical additives. I stick to things that taste good – but I stay away from things that I’ve decided are not helpful or that there’s even some question that they may not be healthy. That’s why I habitually look for a label. Most labels tell you everything you need to know.

Take GMOs, for example. A GMO is a genetically modified organism (plant, animal or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified).  Lots of people wonder whether GMOs are healthy or not. I don’t want to dive into that debate, it’s just something I avoid.  Even when I’m buying dairy products – I look for the non-GMO Project logo on the packaging.

Here’s a perfect example of that habit of mine. Every now and again, when my friends and I decide that we need to have an evening of cooking together we’ll all go shopping as a group.  It’s as if the party starts from when we get to the store! Here’s a little tip – if you want to know where to go to select the freshest food for your family, follow a foodie. Especially one that’s been in the restaurant business for half her adult life.

The first question was where to shop. I love Gelson’s on Century Park West off Santa Monica Boulevard; been going there for years. It’s a little busy sometimes – especially just before and after lunch but it’s always clean, well organized and well stocked.  We went at 3 pm – perfect for a group of friends to poke around for their groceries.

I had fun using lessons I learned from my trip to Italy to point out the differences and uses of penne and rigatoni pasta. Then we got to the produce section. I was looking at bananas when one of my friends heard me say, “Good, all nines.” From her expression, I knew she needed an explanation.

All fruits and vegetables have a PLU or product look up code assigned to them. Bananas are always 4011, bok choy is 4545 (great with soups), brussel sprouts are 4550 (love them when roasted!) and Large Cripps pink apples are 4130 (favorites for aromatic fruit salads). The codes are there because it makes it easier for everyone to track and inventory product. And, it’s the numbers that the cashier uses to punch in when you check out of the market.

The PLU codes are found on little labels stuck to each fruit or vegetable. Sometimes they’ll be on the box or bag for fruits that are usually purchased in bulk, like a bag of tangerines (4055). They’ll also be on the tag above the bin that contains the items.  Here’s the important point about PLUs. Most of them have 4-digit codes. These are conventionally grown. And most of these codes start with a 3 or 4.

Increasingly, you’ll find 5-digit PLU codes. And these are divided into two classes – ones that start with an “8” and ones that start with a “9.”  Many of the PLU codes at Gelson’s begin with a “9” – which means that the produce is USDA-certified organic!  So, if you come across a 94011 – it’s a banana, but it’s an organically grown banana!

The “8” means that the item is GMO (genetically modified).  Typically these “8”s are found on a known group of High Risk Crops, that include corn, zucchini, or crook neck squash and papaya among others.  I couldn’t find any “8”s at Gelson’s – or for that matter, in any of the stores around Beverly Hills, even on the summer corn.

So, it’s very easy to remember “I hate “8”s but “9” is FINE!

Fresh Eggs!

Egg test

An easy test to make sure that your eggs are fresh and safe to eat.

Eggs are a staple – fried or poached for breakfast, boiled for salads, brilliant as an omelet for a late supper or as an important ingredient in all sorts of recipes. You really don’t want to run out of them.

As we all know, eggs won’t last forever, even in a good refrigerator. Pay attention to those “sell by” dates and rotate eggs (as you would milk) making sure that you use the oldest stock first. But, does that mean you have to be a “date hound” for those expiration or “use by” dates? Short answer is “no.” A friend of mine complained a few days ago that his wife literally pounces on any eggs that remain in a carton after the expiration date – bam, into the trash. Completely unnecessary and overly cautious.

The fact is, assuming they are in constant refrigeration, raw eggs are usually safe for about three weeks after the “sell by” date has passed.

Look it up on Google, and you’ll see that this is a pretty common factoid.

But you still need to be careful – a bad egg is a terrible thing to crack open in your kitchen (it’s a smell that you never forget).

The first test is a visual inspection of the egg. Look for cracks or discoloration of the shell. The egg may even start to give off a certain odor – stronger than normal egg-smell. These are all nature’s signs that you really need to part with that egg.

Still not sure? Here’s a method I learned from my mom. Get a tall pitcher or other container and fill it half-way with cold water. Carefully place each egg into the water. If the egg drops to the bottom of the container – it’s good to eat.  If it lays on its side it’s even more fresh than if it stands on one end on the bottom but either way – they’re both good to eat.

If it floats – the egg is well past its prime. This is the clearest sign that you have a problem. Why does it float? Newly laid eggs have either no air cell or a very small one.  As they begin to cool (just laid eggs are about 105 degrees F!) the contents of the egg contract more than the shell so the inner membrane separates from the hard shell and forms the air cell.  As the egg ages moisture escapes through the shell and air replaces it so the air cell becomes larger.  The bigger the air cell, the more it floats.  So, if your egg is floating on the surface the air cell is big enough to make it buoyant.  Throw the egg away, you definitely don’t want to eat it.

Cool little trick, isn’t it?

Don’t take your Cutting Board for granted!

Thinking about cutting boards today

Cutting board safety tips – there’s a reason that chefs do the things they do.

 

When I owned my restaurants we followed some pretty strict guidelines when it came to food preparation.  Many of the guidelines are written by state regulators. Most of them though are common sense things, like cutting boards.

The fact is – anything that your food touches can be somewhere that it can pick up contamination of some kind. For instance, if you cut up raw chicken, would you use the same cutting board to slice a tomato? Well, if you do and you don’t rigorously clean the board before you start slicing the tomatoes the danger from cross-contamination – the bacteria that naturally occurs in chicken meat – to anything else is extremely high.

But, it might surprise some people that raw, unwashed fruits and vegetables can also carry bacteria. I’ve seen people take raw, unwashed carrots, cut the tops off of them on the cutting board, then place those same carrots that are now washed and peeled back on the same cutting board to slice. Not a good idea.

Cutting boards need to be washed thoroughly and constantly.  Let’s start with our choice of boards.

Wood, Plastic, Glass?

The choice of material can help control the risk of cross contamination.

For a long time, nearly all cutting boards were made of wood. Traditionally they are made out of hardwoods like maple that have a very tight grain and won’t score (scratch) easily. Some people like softer woods like cypress which are less likely to dull knives. Good wood cutting boards tend to be more expensive, are heavy and require quite a bit of care to keep them like new.  You need to carefully wash your wooden board after each use with soap and water and thoroughly dry – regularly oil it with food grade mineral oil, and never put it in the dishwasher.

Plastic or silicone boards also have their advantages and disadvantages. Some people don’t like plastic because it can score from your knife cuts and perhaps trap bacteria but I like that I can put mine in the dishwasher to sanitize.  I replace my plastic boards before knife damage chips away at the surface.

Glass cutting boards are beautiful, won’t scratch or crack and are easy to clean.  BUT, food tends to slip on a glass surface and are also more likely to move around under the pressure of your chopping so the possibility of cutting yourself is a problem. But the worst part about glass boards is that they will dull your sharp knives faster than you can say this sentence!

The Verdict

Some food safety researchers recommend a mix of wood and plastic. I use my wood cutting boards for bread only – that way I don’t ever worry that bacteria is lurking on the surface.  It really depends on personal preference and how careful you are with proper cleaning and care, but obviously, the safest method is to use different boards for different foods.

When I’m cooking I use plastic only. For several reasons. You can buy different colors of plastic boards for different types of food – which all but guarantees that you’ll prevent cross contamination between raw proteins and other foods.  For instance, I use green for vegetables, red for meat (beef, veal, et cetera), blue for fish and white for chicken and other poultry.  This is the rule that’s always followed in restaurants.

Places like Crate and Barrel carry plastic boards that come in all sorts of colors. These boards are kind to your knives, fairly light weight, can be washed with soap and water easily, and if needed they can be soaked in bleach or a vinegar sanitizing solution to keep clean. Another important plus – especially for restaurants – plastic boards are cheaper than wood and can be dumped in the recycle bin when you’re done with them.

Be safe!