As pleasant as it is to eat outdoors, it’s an experience that can end badly if food isn’t handled safely. Fortunately, armed with an understanding of where the risks lie, you’ll be able to keep your outdoor meals safe.
Microbes, time and temperature pose the risks. There are microbes, tiny organisms – mainly bacteria – that are too small to see without a microscope, almost everywhere. Some, such as those that support good intestinal health and the ones used in making cheese, kombucha or sauerkraut, are beneficial. Others can cause food to spoil or people to become ill.
Bacteria in food reproduce over time, and most reproduce fastest between 4 C and 60 C (40 F and 140 F), sometimes called the danger zone. Cooler temperatures slow them down, limiting reproduction, and hot temperatures kill most of them. A food with a low population of harmful microbes is less likely to make you sick than one with lots of them. Keep them to a minimum by holding food at either high or low temperatures.
Vegetables and fruit that have been cut and cooked vegetables such as potatoes for salad pose more risk than intact, uncooked ones such as whole apples. Cooked rice and pasta can support microbial growth, as can protein foods such as meats, fish, eggs, poultry and milk and dishes made with them.
The best plan for keeping risky foods safe is to limit the total time (shopping, preparing and serving) they spend in the danger zone to 120 minutes or less. If possible, place purchased foods in an insulated cooler with ice packs for the ride home from the grocery store.
After preparing foods eaten cold, such as hard-cooked or devilled eggs, cold sliced meats or salads made from potatoes, other vegetables, rice or pasta, chill them right away and keep them cold until serving time. When travelling to a picnic site, keep foods on ice and take them out just before serving.
If there are leftovers, put them back on ice promptly or discard if they’ve been sitting on the picnic table for too long. It doesn’t take long to accumulate two hours of combined preparation and serving time at room temperature.
Grilling meats and vegetables is a good way to destroy harmful microbes that have contaminated the surface. Because surface bacteria are mixed into the entire mass when meat or poultry is ground, it isn’t enough to just brown the surface. Cook ground meat (hamburgers, sausage) to an internal temperature of 71 C (160 F) and ground poultry (burgers, meatballs) to 74° C (165 F). Insert an instant-read thermometer into the centre of the thickest part to check.
Wash and sanitize dishes, cutting boards and utensils used for raw meats before letting them touch ready-to-serve foods to prevent contamination.
Here’s a recipe for a salad that’s perfect to serve at a barbecue or picnic. You can cook the vegetables outdoors on a grill instead of oven roasting. Decide how much of each vegetable to use, depending on your taste and what’s available.
Use black pepper, basil, green onion, and lemon juice to taste, and omit the salt if you’re trying to limit sodium. There is salt in the cheese anyway.
Remember to limit the time the salad sits in the danger zone to 2 hours or less.
Tomas’ Mom’s Roasted Vegetable Salad
A mix of red, yellow and orange peppers
Salt and black pepper
Macedonian-style feta cheese (a soft brined cheese, not crumbly Greek feta)
Preheat oven to 200 C (400 F).
Chop the vegetables into bite-sized pieces. Coat in olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. My preferred way to coat vegetables in oil is to place the veggies and oil in a tightly covered container or a plastic bag and shake.
Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake until edges brown and vegetables are soft.
Alternately, place prepared vegetables on a grill pan and cook on the barbecue.
Cook the orzo in boiling water until tender. The grains are small, and it doesn’t take long. Drain.
Toss roasted vegetables with orzo, and add chunks of feta, chopped green onions (white and green parts) and chopped fresh basil leaves. Mix and taste. Add lemon juice as desired, to enhance flavours and add tang.
Margaret Prouse, a home economist, can be reached by writing her at RR#2, North Wiltshire, P.E.I., C0A 1Y0, or by email at email@example.com.