You Can Avoid The 24 Hour Flu

Didn’t I ask to hold the Shigellosis on mine?You know why? Because it really doesn’t exist.

Most likely what you were experiencing was a bout with foodborne illness. No joke.

Why am I talking about foodborne illness on this here blog? Well, as we all know, medical care is expensive. With food prices on the rise more people are cooking at home to help stretch their dollar. Learning how to prevent our home cooked meals from making our families ill can save us valuable funds and sick time.

The CDC estimates that there are about 76 million cases of foodborne illness every year; with 325,000 serious enough to require hospitalization. Even if most of the cases are mild and go away after a few days that’s still a lot of downtime for the American worker.

Think it’s all from shady restaurants? Probably not.

The odds are that many cases of foodborne illness start in our very own kitchens.

At least restaurants (hopefully) have the proper equipment, training, and monitoring to reduce their risk of serving up a plate of foodborne illness. Who is teaching the home cook about proper sanitation? Is anyone performing inspections to make sure you are cooking and storing your food correctly?

I learned some really interesting things in my sanitation class that could actually benefit us home cooks. I’m far from a germ-o-phobe but I’m much more conscious of my practices now. I’ve already changed some of my cooking habits after learning a bit more about how to prevent potential illness.

Reduce your chances of serving a side of salmonella with your chicken pot pie with these tips:

Stop cross contamination. The biggest source of cross contamination is from your hands. Wash your hands (along with your cutting board AND knives/utensils) with soap every time you change foods. Simply wiping your board after cutting up raw chicken isn’t enough. Wash it and dry it with single use paper towels. I like to use a sanitizing spray for my surfaces, too.

Think about how you store your food. Don’t place your raw chicken on the top shelf where juices could drip down and contaminate other food or surfaces. You should always try to place cooked or ready-to-eat foods above and away from raw foods.

The industry stores food (top to bottom):

Cook your food properly. Heat can kill many of the pathogens that cause illness. The only way you can definitively know that your food is cooked to the recommended internal temperature is with a thermometer. You can find a nifty brochure containing the USDA’s temperature guidelines here. Oddly enough, some of the USDA’s current recommendations are higher than what is in my book for pork and ground meat.

Avoid the danger zone. The “danger zone” refers to the temperature range that bacteria multiply rapidly in; currently that temperature range is 41 F to 135 F. Food exposed to this temperature range for 4 hours or longer could accumulate enough bacteria to cause illness.

An example of this time/temperature abuse is leaving your thanksgiving meal out on the table all afternoon. Put away leftovers promptly and keep them below 41 F. If food sits out, especially longer than 4 hours, toss it.

Thaw safely. There’s a reason why you aren’t supposed to set that frozen turkey on the counter to thaw. By the time the center starts to warm up the surface has already been in the bacteria-friendly danger zone for too long. That’s just no good. The best ways to thaw food are:

Wash all your fruits and veggies. Just do it. Many bacteria and viruses can be spread through contaminated soil, water, or equipment that has touched your food. Before using your veggies make sure to thoroughly wash them. I always wait to wash them until immediately before use to lower my chances of food spoilage.

Do you have any home food sanitation advice or concerns?

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Dining Out = Cost Savings?

This just can’t be my cheapest optionLast week was my first week in culinary school . Yea!

Right now I’m taking sanitation and soon I’ll be starting basic cookery classes. Sanitation isn’t the most interesting subject (even though it’s important) so the chef instructor likes to interject stories and commentary along the way.

He stressed the importance of dining out several times a week to gain experience and exposure to new ways of cooking. He wants us to try at least one new restaurant a week and even asks us every morning who went out to dinner. I understand why he gave us that advice; you won’t grow as much as a cook if you stick with cooking at home and never try other people’s versions.

One of the students in the back of the class said he would need to get a second job in order to afford eating out all the time. The chef smiled and remarked that eating out was actually cheaper than cooking at home.

Half the class looked confused (myself included) and he was asked to explain. He said that if you eat cheap fast food, take out, or at hole-in-the-wall dives you can spend less on food than if you cooked that meal for yourself at home. He used a hamburger as an example.

He reasoned that in order to make a hamburger at home he would need to buy more product than he needed. He couldn’t buy just one meat patty, one slice tomato, and one bun. He would need to buy a pound of hamburger, a whole tomato, and a pack of buns, all to get just one hamburger. Those minimum purchases result in excess and makes it more expensive than buying a $1.09 hamburger from a value menu.

This was an intriguing argument and it reminded me of the first time I made lasagna at home. I remember laughing when the bill for the ingredients came out to $30 when I could get a frozen pan of prepared lasagna for only $10. Mine may have tasted a ton better but it certainly wasn’t cheaper.

I see his point and agree that it is valid, assuming several things:

I fully agree that if I wanted to make dinners in single portion sizes that there would be waste and higher costs involved to cook at home. My single homemade hamburger would end up costing me over $5. That $1 fast food burger looks pretty good by comparison.

However, if you are cooking for more than 2 people or don’t mind leftovers, I feel cooking at home almost always wins out. I know that my food bill decreased dramatically when we started packing lunches, eating leftovers, and cooking at home almost exclusively.

After class I went up to him and said that although I understood the point he was trying to make I disagreed that eating out was always cheaper. I argued that buying/cooking in bulk, eating leftovers, and forgoing some variety actually made for a cheaper food bill.

If cooking large quantities of food from a planned menu wasn’t cost effective, restaurants wouldn’t be making huge sums of money. Right?

He agreed that economies of scale can be an “equalizer” and under those circumstances eating at home can be cheaper. He didn’t really seem convinced though. He said we would discuss it more towards the end of the course.

I guess I should start detailing real life examples for when we discuss it again. I want to be prepared to show the other side of the story if I get the opportunity.

A lot of the students in my class seem to be pretty young, maybe even fresh out of high school. I would hate to see any of them start picking up fast food everyday thinking it was the most cost-effective option for them.

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6 Easy Ways To Battle Rising Food Costs

I hear you, buddy!Have you looked at your grocery bills lately? If so, you are probably seeing what I’m seeing.

Food prices are going up – especially for fresh food and staples. It looks like they will keep rising, too. Check out this article from the Boston Globe.

Why is this happening, you ask? Robert Gavin of The Boston Globe explains:

Several factors contribute to higher food prices, analysts say, but none more than record prices for oil, which last week closed above $105 a barrel. Oil is not only driving up production and transportation costs, but also adding to demand for corn and soybeans, used to make alternative fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel.

As a result, corn prices have more than doubled in commodity markets over two years, and soybeans nearly tripled, according to DTN, a commodities analysis firm in Omaha. Meanwhile, with poor harvests in major wheat-producing regions, wheat prices have more than tripled.

These crops have a profound impact on food prices because they form foundations for many products, including oils, sweeteners, and flour. Corn, for example, is a key ingredient in livestock feed. When the price of corn rises, so does the price of feed, and ultimately, so do the prices of meat, poultry, and eggs.

He goes on to mention that the weakening US dollar and a stronger global demand for commodities aren’t helping the situation much either.

I’ve noticed that I’ve had considerable trouble staying under my $75 a week limit lately, even when I cook fewer meals and buy less meat.

Seeing the price hikes every time I shop is getting a little depressing. It makes a recession feel much more certain. Sure, gas prices are upsetting, too, but at least I fill up less frequently than I shop for food. The increased exposure to rising costs seems to be affecting my confidence. In the past I could shrug off the pessimism, but now it’s hit home in a new way and I’m a little nervous.

With more money being demanded for the same items my budget is stretching thinner than I’d like. Unfortunately, it looks like my discretionary spending is on the chopping block. I think I’ll suspend the $50 monthly donation to our “fun money” savings account. Sigh.

Pet food costs are rising, too. Two weeks ago I paid $0.33 for a can of cat food and this weekend the same brand was selling for $0.44. Both were the sale prices at the same store. Sigh.

The good news is that I’m being much more selective in what I buy. I’m asking myself if I really need an extra pound of tomatoes, or brand-name popsicles, or instant rice before I buy it.

Saving money on food isn’t all about what you spend; sometimes it’s about how you use it.

6 easy ways to keep food costs down

Eat more vegetarian based meals. Typically, meat is pricey, especially when compared to beans and frozen veggies. We are experimenting with making more meals meat-free and are having a blast. Last week, we enjoyed Pasta with Butternut Squash and Ricotta, Pad Thai with Tofu, and Vegetable Curry. Personally, I’m using it as an excuse to explore ethnic cooking. I estimate that we can save over $30 a month by skipping the meat at most meals.

Start a “Soup and Sandwich” night. Planning a “soup and sandwich” night once a week helps me save money. That night is all about simple comfort food, nothing fancy. I like to pair a classic grilled cheese with canned tomato or potato soup. How about a tuna or turkey melt with veggie soup? Substitute a baked potato every so often to mix it up. Just make it cheap and with the stuff you have at home.

Bring your breakfast AND lunch from home. Just do it. Eric keeps oatmeal, trail mix, and breakfast bars in his desk for quick breakfasts and snacks. For lunch he takes the leftovers from the previous night or I pack him a sandwich, salad, yogurt, and snack. You’ll be shocked at how much you can save by brown bagging it 5 days a week.

Minimize waste. Waste is the enemy of economy. At these prices you simply can’t afford to allow the food go bad before you can use it. I always cook fresh meat dishes in the first few days after shopping, with fish and shellfish being cooked within 1 day of purchase. Pad the end of your week with cheaper and less perishable meals like sandwiches, pasta, frozen meals, and soups. If we have meat or veggies at the end of the week it is almost always from my freezer. Eating the fresh food first really helps cut down on spoiled or unused food and that equals savings.

Plan (and hope) for leftovers. When planning your week make sure to make note of possible leftovers. I find that if I don’t plan for leftovers I’ll end up making too many dinners that week and something goes bad (either the fresh food or the leftovers). Serve the leftovers for lunch or have them again for dinner a few days later with an interesting side dish or topping. Push back meals that don’t have perishable ingredients to make room for those leftovers. Utilizing leftovers is key when stretching the budget.

Tap your pantry once a week. I usually have one or two nights a week where I don’t plan a dinner. That “free space” allows me to push back meals to take advantage of leftovers or other cravings and it “forces” me to use what I have. Many of us have stocked pantries but don’t use the food in them. When I moved I found canned corn and jello that was 5 years old! Match up the fresh food that needs to be used with several pantry items to create something interesting. Your pantry and your pocketbook will thank you.

Are you feeling the crunch at the supermarket? How do you plan to save money on weekly meals?

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Could It Be More Than A Hobby?

Setting up the table…Last Saturday, I had my first paid catering gig. I spent weeks getting ready and even did two full days of prep leading up to it. It was so much fun and I learned so much from the experience.

We had about 20% more people show up than expected and that made keeping the plates full a bit tricky, especially with the variety we offered.

We served 12 savory hors d’Oeuvres and 3 desserts. It was all sized to be single bites so no utensils were needed. Hors d’Oeuvres parties are my favorite kind of parties to cook for.

I had a friend join me as my assistant for the event and she turned out to be indispensable. She was more of a partner than an assistant, really. She ran the front of house (replenishing the dishes and drinks, final garnishes and serving) while I ran the back of house (cooking and preparing the food). With her catering management experience and my cooking ability we made a fantastic team.

During the party we got several requests for our business cards and were offered 3 more possible gigs. People kept telling us we should go into business together. It was exciting to have such a wonderful response and to see all of our little bites being gobbled up by the guests so quickly. I love seeing people hover around the buffet – it’s a sign the food is a hit.

To my surprise, the next morning I woke up feeling depressed. The party was over and I no longer had an event to organize. I expected to feel relieved afterwards, not sad.

Antipasto SkewersEric thinks that I should consider turning this hobby into a small business. After all, nothing gets me more excited than cooking and I already have some word of mouth advertising going on. The alternative income would be nice, too.

After a strong dose of encouragement from family and friends, I’ve decided to do some research into home-grown catering to see if it’s a possibility for me. I love the idea of it, but I also don’t want to potentially ruin my love affair with cooking. Sometimes hobbies are best left at that.

Unfortunately, my friend wouldn’t want to be a partner in a possible endeavor. She agreed to help with this past event mainly as favor. She will still help me out sometimes but she doesn’t want to find herself working another “job”. I completely understand where she is coming from and although I’m bummed because we worked so well together, it’s okay.

Earlier this week the client called to express her gratitude and surprise over the final bill. I decided to charge just a small fee for our labor on top of the reimbursement for costs. It was an incredible bargain for her; the service we provided was easily triple what she paid for it. The best part was that she recognized it and said she would have had no problem paying “thousands” for it.

I know I could have charged a lot more but I’m honored that she took a risk on a newcomer. While I’m learning it’s not so much about the money as it is for the experience. She shouldn’t pay “pro” prices for someone who doesn’t even know if she has what it takes to be a “pro” yet.

Have you turned a hobby you love into a business? Did it end up being your dream job or a nightmare?

Reducipe – Southwestern Meatloaf

This ainAhhh, meatloaf. Loved and yet hated by the young and old alike. It’s so good when at its best and so bad when messed up. I think people develop their meatloaf preference early on and their first experiences with the stuff can make or break it.

Many mothers, in an effort to pinch pennies, have thrown together makeshift meatloafs that lack flavor, moisture, and flair. It ruins its reputation.

Meatloaf, when done right, is succulent, moist, hearty, and best of all, cheap eats. It just takes a gentle touch and a fabulous glaze to turn even the most opposed into meatloaf fans.

This recipe is one of my most popular. Everyone loves it and Eric requests it often. I have even served it at an hors d’Oeuvres party by increasing the amount of crumbs and forming meatballs. What a hit!

It’s juicy, tender, and anything but dull. The bold southwestern flavors helped me win first place in a meatloaf cook-off contest a few years ago. It is definitely worth a try, even if you hate meatloaf. It might blow you away.

Southwestern Meatloaf (adapted from a recipe by Alton Brown)

5oz garlic flavored croutons
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 medium sweet onion, rough chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and rough chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and rough chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and rough chopped
1 lb ground chuck
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 egg

1/2 cup ketchup
1-2 tablespoons cumin
2 tablespoons honey
Dash Worcestershire
Dash hot sauce

Preheat the oven at 350 degrees.

Combine the croutons and all spices except salt in a food processor. Pulse until it’s a fine texture. Pour crumbs into a bowl and set aside. Combine the onion, carrot, red bell pepper, and garlic in food processor bowl and finely chop.

Place the hamburger meat in a large bowl. Season with the salt then add the crumbs and vegetable mixture. Add the egg and combine all ingredients thoroughly with your fingers. Avoid squeezing the meat while you do this.

Pack the mixture into a loaf pan, insert a meat thermometer, and place in oven. Prepare the glaze by mixing all ingredients together, adjusting to taste. Brush some of the glaze on the meatloaf after about 10 minutes in the oven. Repeat glazing 20 minutes later.

Cook until the internal temperature reaches 155 degrees. Remove the meatloaf from the oven and let rest until the temperature reaches 160 degrees. Serve hot, with plenty of additional glaze. Serves 6-8.

Notice that I changed up the bowls this time? I’m trying out white plates now. The glaze ingredients are in the mini cups below.

Ingredients for Southwestern Meatloaf

I highly recommend doubling the glaze recipe, I always do. It will be highly requested. This meatloaf is awesome with thick and creamy mashed potatoes. Use the mashers to sop up the extra glaze. Too yummy!

Ingredient Cost Ingredient Cost
Croutons $0.95 Ground Chuck $2.83
Spices $0.10 Egg $0.11
Onion $0.56 Ketchup $0.12
Carrots $0.43 Honey $0.14
Bell Pepper $1.49 Worchestershire N/A
Garlic $0.05    
    Total $6.78 or $0.85 a serving

That’s dirt cheap for such a high-quality meal. ‘Nuff said!

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