Thursday, August 27, 2009

Storage & Preservation of Produce & Cheese

Last week, a reader asked about veggie and cheese storage, expressing the concern that these perishables often spoil before they can be used. That concern is shared by many. Annually, in Canada and the U.S., several million tons of food is thrown away. At a cost of several hundred dollars, on average, per household, these statistics are alarming. Two rules of thumb can alleviate much of this waste.

  1. When it comes to shopping for perishables (particularly produce,) buy only what is needed and can be consumed in a few days. This may mean more frequent visits to the grocery store, but you'll enjoy fresher produce and avoid spoilage of a stockpile. Most produce requires a cool atmosphere and a fridge not filled to capacity actually works more efficiently, allowing internal air to circulate better and preventing pockets of cooler or warmer air from forming. Those over-chilled or -warm conditions can be very detrimental to the longevity of both produce and cheese.

  2. When storing perishables, avoid washing them until they are to be used. Many vegetables and fruits have natural oils or have been sprayed with protective (and neutral) waxy coatings which help preserve them. Washing removes those oils and/or coatings, making the produce much more vulnerable to spoilage. If the product has excessive dirt on it, simply brush the soil from it with a soft cloth and then store. When ready to use, the produce can be washed. Check out this very informative article Fruit & Veggie Washes by "The Grocery Bags," Anna Wallner and Kristina Matisic. Their findings support my own experience.

Though these two rules will help avoid most produce spoilage, there is another concern when storing fruit and vegetables and that is whether the product needs to be stored in the fridge, at room temperature, with ventilation or without, or in darkness. While researching this, I came across an excellent article on SparkPeople which included this comprehensive and easy to read chart: Fruit & Veggie Storage Chart .

When it comes to cheese, the situation is not as clear. Some argue cheese needs an airy environment, while others argue ventilation is death for cheese. It turns out, both are true. It depends on the cheese, which is a living food, much like yogurt. During research, I found an article – directed towards food service professionals (recommendations by The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and Wisconsin Cheese Makers,) – which answers this question, in all its complexity: Cheese Storage Tips.

I've heard other tips on preserving foods, but none of them have proved successful for me. One such recommendation says: to preserve bananas' freshness, they should be separated from the bunch. I ran three experiments on this suggestion, using three different bunches of bananas in varying weather conditions. In each experiment, I separated a few of the bananas from the bunch, and left the remaining bananas attached. Each time, all bananas, whether separate or attached, appeared to mature at the same rate, and their taste confirmed this. We do live in a very arid climate, so I'm not sure if this skewed the results or not. You might wish to perform your own experiments.

One handy hint I learned from my mother is to freeze produce that is deteriorating, but not yet spoiled, and use those veggies in a stock. The flavours may not be as high as fresh vegetables would produce, but those wilted products won't be thrown into a landfill where they'd be completely wasted. A compost pile is another good place for (most) produce that has passed its prime.

If you have ideas or suggestions you wish to share on this subject, please leave a comment.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Burnt Offerings

You're cooking dinner when your child falls, the phone rings, or someone knocks at the door. Distractions happen and meals get scorched. It's frustrating but, most times, unavoidable.

What really rankles, though, is when nothing diverts our attention and still supper becomes burned. For someone as thrifty-minded as me, it's intolerable. Throwing food out is entirely contrary to my notions of economy.

So what's a frugal person to do?

I suggest giving a critical look at the quality of your pots and pans. Cheaper is not always better, nor more economic. For instance, I once bought the cheapest can opener thinking I was saving money. After two years, however, I had bought three of those cheap openers, and about to buy the fourth. Irksome, to say the least. The next opener I bought was about five times the cost of the inexpensive opener and I worried I was spending too much on it. That "expensive" can opener has lasted (dare I say it!) about thirty years. If I'd continued buying the cheaper openers, at the rate they were wearing out and/or breaking, I would have bought approximately twenty of them during that time, and spent four times the money! So, value is often found in the pricier make, and cost can be greater with the cheaper model.

Pots and pans are a good case, in point. When I first moved out on my own, all I could afford was the cheapest aluminum and stainless steel. With those pots and pans, I managed to scorch and burn countless meals. Food stuck. Cleaning was a nightmare of cleansers and scrubber pads. Sometimes, they even required special treatment. (How to Treat Burned Pots and Pans)

Then, about fifteen years ago, my hubby and I received some higher quality pots as a gift. Lo and behold, our meals stopped charring. Could it be I wasn't an abominable cook after all?

Over the next few years, we slowly replaced all our cookware with high quality (mostly 18-10 stainless steel,) pots and pans and, now, the only meal disasters happen when those aforementioned distractions occur. The new pans clean up easily, too; usually with a cloth only.

Now, given my proclivity for avoiding waste, many of those early meals, though scorched, were trimmed and eaten. So, not all the food was wasted. But they weren't enjoyed, either. I also discovered, years too late, that burnt food can be bad for you. (Why Is Burnt (burned) Food Bad For You?)

Now, our meals cook beautifully and are delicious. Best of all, the trash no longer devours burnt offerings. We've saved a good deal of groceries simply by upgrading our cookware. In fact, I would hazard to say the savings are nearing the price we paid for the good quality pots and pans.

So, if your meals are singeing and you're tired of scouring burnt rice from the bottom of the pot, consider buying better quality cookware. Your grocery budget, your health and, most likely, your family will thank you for it.