No thanks to me, and despite crazy weather swings over the last two weeks, my broccoli and brussels sprouts are thriving. Both had a rough start this summer. First they had to endure the trauma of ant infestation, and then one of my dogs decided to uproot (and eat) every last seedling. But the replacements I hastily purchased are now finally mature.
I picked three heads of my Arcadia broccoli the other night. Instead of cooking them right away, I forgot to wash and refrigerate them and left them out overnight in a bowl on the counter. Hardly best practices for food storage (more on that in a bit). But just picked, the broccoli stayed crisp and lovely until I put it into a pan of shallow simmering water just before dinnertime. I added some salt, a bit of butter, and put the cover on.
When it's that fresh, broccoli cooks in just a few minutes to a tender bright green. I was salivating ... until I saw the cabbage loopers -- inch-and-a-half-long moth larvae -- floating throughout the pan. I had neglected to wash the broccoli before cooking, and the caterpillars must have stayed hidden in the greens the entire time. I threw the whole lot of it out. (No, it didn’t even make it to the compost, I’m embarrassed to admit.)
While those cabbage loopers, also known as Trichoplusia ni, looked kind of gross, they probably posed no danger. But garden produce, when it's not properly handled, can pose a risk of disease. According the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2011 estimates, approximately 1 in 6 Americans will get sick from foodborne disease this year, while 128,000 will be hospitalized and roughly 3,000 will die. The number one cause of death from foodborne illness is salmonella, followed by norovirus. Although contaminated meat is often the culprit, produce can also carry bacteria or a virus.
In the garden, the presence of human or animal feces is the most likely route for bacterial contamination of produce. Eliminating bacteria is a key reason to use well-cured compost, not manure, on garden plants. If you do use manure, even aged manure, according to a bulletin prepared by Oregon State University's extension service, you shouldn’t use it on plants whose edible parts come into contact with the soil.
After the arrival of Hurricane Irene, the North Carolina extension service pointed out that flood waters in gardens pose a real risk of bacterial contamination, and that the best idea is not to eat produce from an area that’s flooded. Read the details here.
Even in ideal conditions, be sure to wash your produce under running water before eating it. Greens should also be soaked in several changes of water to remove dirt and grit. Don’t eat produce that has split or shows any signs of beginning decay: cutting off a damaged part won’t ensure your safety. The CDC also advises removing the outer leaves of head lettuce or cabbage and counsels that cut vegetables should never be left out at room temperature. More of the CDC’s guidelines on preventing infectious disease in the kitchen are available at its website.
READING: The website Food Safety News is run by lawyers who represent plaintiffs in food safety court cases; hardly disinterested parties. That said, the site offers timely info about foodborne illness outbreaks, food recalls, and pending legislation.
NEEDING: One way to make sure your produce is clean is (duh) a thorough washing. A good salad spinner not only gets greens dry, it also gives you a vessel in which to soak them. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal test drove five different models.
SEEDING: One of the planting calendars I consulted while writing last week’s post suggested I could still grow radishes, even this late in my season. Remembering how much I loved the French Breakfast variety I grew early in the season, I’m giving it a try.
Image by Alton N. Sparks, Jr., University of Georgia, Bugwood.org