It is the time of year for new year’s resolutions. So *ahem* here goes: This year I will resolve to waste less food. True, I do save a lot of food, but there is certainly room for improvement. I have the bad habit of squirreling things away somewhere in the back of the fridge that, weeks later, surprise me in a pungent and colorful fashion . I know that I am not alone in this quandary. In fact, I think that we all share that experience of pulling something out of the fridge, taking a whiff and then looking around to get a second opinion. But which kinds of spoilage are merely cosmetic, and which will make you sick? And how can this experience be avoided? For the home cook concerned with efficiency, these are rather important questions. So I begin a short series on foods of questionable edibility. First stop: vegetables!
At the risk of sounding like your mother, let me interject a brief lesson on food safety. With vegetables, the troublemakers are either dirt, your hands or your cutting board. So always wash your hands, cutting board and knife before you start preparing your food. Second, the best time to wash vegetables is right before you prepare them. Washing veggies damages the skin, and and can lead to them spoiling or drying out faster than unwashed veggies (though I make some exceptions to this rule). If vegetables have areas that are packed with dirt (the root end of onions and leeks, for example) cut these areas off before washing the vegetable, then you’re not spreading the dirt around to the inside of the vegetable. All that said, most vegetables pose a very low risk of food born illness, the real challenge is to buy in the right quantities and store in the right way that they don’t go bad before you have a chance to eat them up. On to the nitty gritty.
Potatoes & Root Vegetables:
Potatoes don’t rot in a stinky sort of way, but they have a very colorful number of ways of going awry (what else grows eyes?!) Sprouted potatoes are not just unattractive, they’re bad for you. The green portions and the sprouts have unhealthy levels of a naturally occurring toxin called solanine. The best to avoid sprouting is through proper storage. Your ideal storage is in a paper bag or box in a cool place (think garage or basement) and with an apple. The fumes exuded by the apple will extend the lifetime of the potato. The fridge is also an acceptable storage space for potatoes if you need a very long term storage. But you can leave them out at room temperature for around a month, provided you keep them away from the light and use the apple-in-the-bag trick. If you do find with potatoes with eyes, cut away all of the green, and the rest of the potato will be safe to eat. Other root veggies like carrots and beets are fine to eat, even if they get a little dried and limp. If you have a cold, well ventilated garage or basement, this can make a good root cellar, which is really how root vegetables want to be kept. Otherwise the fridge will suffice. If you buy roots with the stems on, remove the stems and store them separately (the stems will still be trying to grow and sapping the roots of some of their goodness).
Garlic & Onions:
The garlic and onions that you typically buy in the store are all conditioned to withstand longer storage. The plants are edible in their younger, milder forms (spring garlic & onions), but they are much more perishable. Garlic or onions that have sprouted are still good to eat, but the sprouts have an unpleasant, bitter flavor. For sprouted garlic, cut each clove in half and remove the green sprout. Do the same for onions. If onions have a bruised area, simply cut it away before cooking. To keep your garlic and onions, search for firm garlic and onions and store them in a cool place without light.
I don’t use sprouts much. And if you’ve ever made your own sprouts, you know how specific the conditions for hygienic sprouting are. If sprouts are not kept properly either during their growth or storage, they can harbor some nasty bacteria. So… just be careful with them. Think of fresh sprouts like fish: only buy them from stores you trust and don’t buy them more than a day in advance especially if you plan to eat them raw.
I’ll divide greens into three categories: crisp, tender and hearty. Crisp greens (romain, iceberg lettuce) do not keep long, and need to be kept, well, crisp. Crisp greens should be kept in a plastic bag (but not fully sealed) and preferably swaddled with a damp paper towel or two. Tender greens (spinach, arugula, butter lettuce) do not turn limp and brown like the crisp guys. They dissolve into green slime. Moisture is slightly less important for these greens, but aeration is key. Skip the paper towels and just store in an unsealed plastic bag. Hearty greens (cabbage, broccoli, kale) have a much longer holding time and tend to turn yellow or brown as they go bad. These veggies should be stored in an unsealed bag. If they have yellow or brown spots, remove discolored areas or leaves. The good news with all types of greens is that if they have started to go bad, then picking through them, you can typically salvage a lot of the plant. The prevailing wisdom is to not wash these veggies ahead of time, but right before you use them. I ignore this advice for everything but crisp greens. I wash and thoroughly dry my tender and hearty greens and store them in plastic shopping bags. If I don’t have to wash and dry them first, I find that I use them up faster, and throw less away. But that’s just me.
I know that there is controversy about this but I don’t wash my mushrooms. Mushrooms are like sponges, and washing them introduces a lot of excess water, this absolutely affects the way that they cook. When you wash a mushroom you do wash off the dirt clinging to the outside, but then a portion of that dirty water is absorbed right back into the mushroom. I use a clean cloth to remove all dirty areas and to carefully rub the surface clean. Mushrooms are very delicate, so the best storage advise is to handle them as little as possible. Keep mushrooms that come in a plastic-wrapped carton in their original container. Mushrooms bought in bulk can be stored in an unsealed plastic bag with a damp paper towel. The best place to store mushrooms is not in the fridge– again, this is a good place for them to pick up moisture. That cold, dark garage or basement is better if you have it. If not, the fridge is a good second option.