Barbecue and picnic tips for a safe, delicious (and seasonal) Fourth of July

fourth of july food safetyFor Americans, there’s no holiday more synonymous with eating outdoors than the Fourth of July. It’s the ultimate summer dining event, one that largely emphasizes regional foods and seasonal ingredients.

Tomatoes and corn are perhaps the two most iconic summer foods served on the Fourth (just because we live in an era where we can purchase certain ingredients yearound doesn’t mean they taste good). Other featured foods are more regional. Midwesterners are more likely to feature cherry pie and beef (happily, hamburgers are always in season). On the East Coast, clam bakes, lobster, and crab are more traditional than meat, but out West, it’s almost unthinkable to celebrate Independence without firing up the barbecue. In the South, pit barbecue is a permanent staple, as is fried chicken. But the Fourth of July also means sweet tea, pickles, chilled watermelon, peach cobbler. Potato salad, on the other hand, is a nationally ubiquitous dish, but the recipe often varies regionally.

All of the above are stereotypes, of course. Yet, looking back on the states I’ve lived in or visited for the Fourth, I can see the menus usually had a sense of place. I grew up in Southern California, so if we weren’t grilling beef tri-tip or at the beach, we’d hit up KFC for a pre-fireworks picnic in the park. I’ll be the first to admit that a bucket of fried chicken and “fixin’s” is about as devoid of terroir as you can get, but for millions of Americans, it’s emblematic Fourth fare (my mom is definitely not alone in her dislike of cooking). When I lived in Hawaii for a summer, I went to a co-worker’s luau, and in Colorado, we’d grill corn and lamb or beef.

Wherever you live, whatever you serve, al fresco dining can present food safety hazards–most of which are temperature and sanitation-related. Fortunately, a few simple steps can ensure your food stays safe, so you can have a foodborne illness-free holiday. Because E.coli should never be on the menu, regional, seasonal, or otherwise.

After the jump, food prep, storage, and transportation tips for healthy holiday dining:

Grilling Burgers, Hot Dogs and Steaks

  • fourth of july food safetyAs obvious as it sounds, wash your hands before preparing food, and after handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs. If you’re assembling an outdoor meal, wash as often as necessary: pack antibacterial gel and hand wipes if you don’t have access to hot running water and soap. And remember: you need to scrub for at least twenty seconds to kill germs.
  • Avoid cross-contamination by using a separate cutting board and knife for raw proteins such as the above. Alternatively, wash knives and cutting surfaces with hot water and soap or diluted bleach before using for other ingredients. The same practice goes for grilling: always use separate or clean utensils and plates for the transfer of raw and cooked proteins.
  • Bacteria breed more quickly in a hot climate, so plan menus accordingly. As a general rule of thumb, food can be safely kept at room temperature for about two hours (the USDA has more specific views on the subject: click here for details). You don’t need to be paranoid–our germophobic culture isn’t building stronger immune systems for future generations–but don’t be stupid, either. As the saying goes, “If in doubt, throw it out.”
  • fourth of july food safety
  • Use a cooler filled with ice or ice packs to keep cold foods chilled until ready to cook or eat. Storing food in separate Tupperware (or other reusable) containers keeps ingredients fresh, dry, and free from cross-contamination, so you can assemble on-site.
  • If you’re planning an outdoor meal where you don’t have access to refrigeration, it’s best to skip ingredients such as mayonnaise or other egg-derived foods; fresh or soft cheeses or other fresh or fluid dairy products, and raw meat or seafood dishes (oyster shooters: not a good idea). Cured meats and hard or aged cheeses are safer bets.
  • Produce, as we’ve all learned from the media, can also harbor foodborne illness. The culprit is usually poor sanitation. Wash produce prior to use, and be sure to bring anti-bacterial hand gel and wipes so everyone can clean their hands before digging in.
  • Don’t allow leftovers to fester in the sun or attract insects. Wrap things up and get them back in the cooler or refrigerator.
  • Be sustainable. If it’s not feasible to use your usual silver- and dinnerware, look for reusable, recyclable, or compostable products made from bamboo, sugar cane, palm leaf, or recycled, unbleached paper. Instead of paper napkins, opt for cloth. Pack leftovers in reusable containers to cut down on plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Bring a container to take compostable scraps (excluding meat, dairy, and seafood) with you, if you have a facility that will accept them. If you can’t use your leftovers, donate them to a homeless shelter or other facility for those in need.

[Photo credits: burgers, Flickr user Markusram; hands, Flickr user wiccked; cooler, Flickr user Rubbermaid Products;

Bizarre foods: European “delicacies,” by country

European foodsWhat constitutes “food” is relative, depending upon what part of the world you call home. In Asia, pretty much anything on no (snakes), two, four, six, or eight legs is up for grabs. Europe, however, has its own culinary oddities, as detailed below. Got maggots?

Iceland
Hákarl: Fermented, dried Greenland or basking shark. This tasty treat is prepared by burying the beheaded and gutted shark in a shallow hole in the ground for six to 12 weeks. Unsurprisingly, the end result is considered noxious to pretty much everyone on the planet aside from Icelanders.

Norway
Smalahove: Boiled lamb’s head, traditionally served at Christmas. The brain is removed, and the head salted and dried before boiling. Because they’re the fattiest bits, the ear and eye are eaten first. More fun than a wishbone.

Sardinia (yes, it’s in Italy, but this one deserved its own listing)
Casu marzu: This sheep’s milk cheese has maggots added to it during ripening, because their digestive action creates an “advanced level” of fermentation (also known as “decomposition”). Some people prefer to eat the soupy results sans critters, while the stout of heart go for the whole package. Be forewarned: according to Wikipedia, irate maggots can propel themselves for distances up to six inches. Here’s fly in your eye.

Northern Sweden or Finland
Lappkok: This charmingly-named concoction consists of blodpalt–a dumpling made with reindeer blood and wheat or rye flour–served with reindeer bone marrow. Well, Santa’s herd had to retire sometime.

[Photo credit: Flickr user fjords]

European foodsSweden
Lutefisk: This dried whitefish treated with lye is beloved by Scandinavians and their American Midwestern ancestors (let’s just say it’s an acquired taste). It’s traditionally served with potatoes or other root vegetables, gravy or white sauce, and akvavit.

Scotland
Haggis: Who doesn’t love a cooked sheep’s stomach stuffed with its lungs, heart, and liver, combined with oatmeal?

Poland
Nozki: Literally “cold feet,” this dish of jellied pig’s trotters isn’t as repulsive as it sounds. The meat is simmered with herbs and spices until falling off the bone, and set in gelatin. Think of how much fun this would be as a Jello shooter.

Ukraine
Salo: The cured fatback of pork is actually quite delicious, and similar to Italian lardo when seasoned. It’s chopped and used as a condiment, or eaten straight-up on bread. Plan your angioplasty accordingly.
European foods
England/Ireland
Black (or blood) pudding: Technically a sausage, this mixture of animal blood (usually pork), spices, fat, and oatmeal or other grains is surprisingly good. It’s served uncooked, fried, grilled, or boiled. Sound bad? At least it’s not called Spotted Dick.

Italy
Stracotto d’asino: A northern Italian donkey stew, often served as a pasta sauce. Donkey and horse are eaten throughout Italy, but this particular dish is a specialty of Veneto, and Mantua, in Lombardy.

France
Tête de veau: You have to love that the venerable French culinary bible, Larousse Gastronomique, describes this dish of boiled calf’s head as, “a gelatinous variety of white offal.” Mmm. While there are many different preparations for the classical dish, it was traditionally served with cocks’ combs and kidneys, calves sweetbreads, and mushrooms.

Eastern Europe
P’tcha: A calves’ foot jelly enjoyed by Ashkenazi Jews throughout this part of Europe. It’s uh, high in protein.

Germany
Zungenwurst: This sausage is made of pork blood and rind; pickled ox tongue, and a grain filler, such as barley. It’s available dried, or can be browned in butter or bacon fat before eating. And bacon makes everything better.European foods

Netherlands
Paardenrookvlees: Culinarily-speaking, the Dutch usually cop grief for their proclivity for pickled herring and eating mayonnaise on their french fries. That’s because most Americans don’t know this smoked horse meat is a popular sandwich filling. Trust me: Seabiscuit tastes pretty good.

Greece
Kokoretsi: Lamb or goat intestines wrapped around seasoned offal (lungs, hearts, sweetbreads, kidneys), threaded onto a skewer, and cooked on a spit. You know what’s good with grilled meat? Meat.

[Photo credits: black pudding, Flickr user quimby;lutefisk, Flickr user adam_d_; kokoretsi, Flickr user Georgio Karamanis]


An open love letter to Ä°skender kebab

Dear İskender kebab,

I know we only recently met, but, well, I love you. Whoa, whoa, don’t freak out. I’m sure you get this a lot. I mean, you’re pretty lovable. Turkish Delight might be more famous (and have better PR people), but you’re my own personal Turkish treasure. Don’t get freaked out. I just really enjoyed our time together and wanted to let you know why I think you’re the best-tasting, least-known Turkish food out there.Sure, almost everyone knows your cousin, the simple döner kebab. But, you were the first kebab made of vertical meat. That makes you special. An innovator. But, much like Melle Mel and Kurtis Blow in hip hop, you don’t get the credit you deserve amongst the mainstream.

Made of shaved lamb basted and covered in a tomato broth, you’re served over pide bread with a heaping helping of yogurt. That alone would merit this declaration of my love. However, you add one more sensual ingredient that lubes things up perfectly: a luxurious amount of hot, melted butter is poured over your meat and bread immediately after you have been placed on the table. At that moment, as you glisten and sizzle, you look more desirable than anyone else in the room. That was when I fell in love with you…at first sight.

You originated in Bursa, the fourth-largest city in Turkey. That makes Bursa the Houston of Turkey. Houston is a town known for meat and you certainly do not lack for meat, İskender kebab. Bursa has some interesting sister cities (Houston is not one of them). Tiffin, Ohio, USA. Oulu, Finland. Two towns in Bulgaria! I haven’t been to any of your “twin towns,” but I don’t see my own sister that often, either, so don’t worry.

Bursa was a key center in the ancient silk trade because of its location on the Silk Road. To this day, it is Turkey’s silk capital and perhaps the best place in the country to buy both raw and handmade silk items. It’s fitting, then, that you, İskender kebab, with your silky smooth buttery coating, were created in the city the known for silk.

Bursa’s futbol team, Bursaspor, won the Süper Lig in 2010. How exciting! They were the first team not based in Istanbul to win the Süper Lig championship since 1984. Istanbul, of course, is Turkey’s tourist hub, but is not the only place worth visiting in Turkey. Heck, it’s not even the capital! Bursa’s champions are called the Green Crocodiles, but İskender kebab most certainly should be made with lamb.

Your name comes from İskender Efendi, who created you. How I wish I could have asked for his approval before I professed my love to you. Alas, he lived in Bursa in the late 19th Century and must be presumed dead.

Baklava is sweeter. Köfte is healthier. Döner kebab is more widely available. But, dear, succulent İskender kebab, you are unique. You are an innovator. You are my own personal Turkish delight.

Love always,
Mike Barish

Mike Barish’s trip to Turkey was sponsored by Intrepid Travel. While everyone should agree that İskender kebab is amazing, the thoughts and opinions expressed in this post are strictly his own. You can read more about his trip to Turkey here.

“No Reservations” season 4, episode 18: Egypt

Location: This week Tony finds himself in Egypt, home to the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx and plenty of other tourist stereotypes. Egypt is one of the world’s great cradles of civilization as well as a crossroads of many cultures (and great cuisine) from all points north, south, east and west.

Episode Rating: Three bloody meat cleavers out of five. Bourdain indeed delivers the unexpected when it comes to Egypt. Some interesting culinary discoveries but also some “snoozefest” segments that could have been left on the editing table. Also, I must say…you came all that way and didn’t go to the Great Pyramids? I don’t care how jaded you are towards tourists – how do you skip that?

Summary: Egypt is the kind of place most of us know at least a little something about. Whether you’ve already been, or it’s the trip of your dreams. most of us with an urge for exploration and discovery reasonably know what to expect. Ancient pharaohs, the Nile, papyrus, mummies. But then again, we are talking about Anthony Bourdain here…

Bourdain sets a manifesto from this episode’s outset – he’s going to skip the prototypical Egyptian tourist spots. Why you might ask? He doesn’t want the view to be cluttered by all of those tourists. But still, one has to admit the man has a unique method to his madness. Much like a Egyptologist cracking open a pharaoh’s tomb for the very first time, Tony’s urge to push his boundaries leads us into some interesting culinary crevices. Was Tony attacked by mummies? Does he eat more camel like in the Saudi Arabia episode? Read on to get the full story.There seems no more obvious place to start an Egyptian visit than in Cairo, the country’s largest city and one of the biggest of any across the Middle East. Of course, upon getting off the aircraft in a foreign country, my usual first instinct is to find something to eat. And Tony is no different. He heads straight to his element – the backstreets of Cairo for a breakfast of the local favorite, fuul. Basically a mix of mashed fava beans, simmered slowly with oil, garlic, chili pepper and a few other spices, fuul is typically served with the ubiquitous flatbread. It’s a filling meal, especially for the many poor Egyptians who will not have another meal until dinnertime.

Having satiated his post-deplaning hunger, Tony heads to the famous Khan el-Khalili marketplace. It is just as you might picture the many vast bazaars that dot the cities of the Muslim world – tiny shops selling all manner of handicrafts, tiny curios, antiques, clothing and of course, spices.

It is precisely these spices that have brought Tony here, and he meets up with Dr. Sayeed of the American University of Cairo to tell him more about this ancient and venerable industry. Egypt was conveniently placed at the crossroads of the ancient world, between medieval Europe and the spice plantations of India and Far East. As these many spices came through Egypt, they revolutionized the country’s cuisine. Dishes like stuffed pigeon are a direct outgrowth of this fact. Tony takes his history lesson to heart and sits down for a stuffed pigeon lunch with his teacher. The bird is stuffed with (what else?) spices then simmered until tender, rolled in more spices and then seared in a pan until carmelized. Is pigeon good? Absolutely yes, says Tony. All you city dwellers, go grab that bag of feathers sitting on your windowsill and throw it in the broiler. Tony says it’s good!

Ok, we’re “stuffed” now with pigeon. Is it too soon to mention dinner? Why no in fact, and Tony has linked up a with a local Egyptian businessman to make sure the gluttony train keeps on moving. They visit fast food chain Abou Tarek to get a taste of local specialty kushari. Kushari is practically the Egyptian national dish – as Tony points out, to not try it while in Egypt would be like going to New York and not eating at a deli. The simple meal is composed of a starchy mix of rice, spaghetti, black lentils, chickpeas and then topped with fried onions. The choice of topping sauce is a matter of personal taste – a tomato-cumin, vinegar-garlic and hot sauce are all on offer.

To wrap up his night, Bourdain and his Egyptian companion go to a traditional Egyptian cafe to drink tea and smoke from hookahs. Though Tony has given up smoking, he can’t resist a pull off the old hookah pipe. The editors got a little too cute here – was the Bob Marley-style reggae music in this scene really necessary? He’s smoking flavored tobacco, not ganja!

Too much urban living can make anybody anxious, so Tony takes his cue to get outta town for some Egyptian-style R&R. The Bourdain crew stops at a small farming village along the Nile River Valley. The town is emblematic of the narrow slice of land which runs along this fabled body of water – the fertile silt of the river provides the perfect soil for all manner of agricultural products.

Tony visits the home of a local family to eat. To get the meal ready, they head to the roof, where they keep their livestock. Tonight’s menu includes duck, freshly made bread, freshly made cheese and freshly made butter and a local soup made with a plant called Melokhia. It is a warm and friendly outing – the food delicious, the people friendly, the setting – majestic. All is right with the world in Anthony-Bourdainland.

The final portion of Tony’s Egypt trip is a visit with a group of Bedouins. Though the word “bedouin” frequently conjures visions of robe-clad peoples riding on camels, modern-day bedouins defy easy categorization. For one, their transportation of choice is now Toyota Land Cruisers. To celebrate his visit (when isn’t a visit by Anthony Bourdain cause for celebration???) the bedouins prepare a feast of lamb.

The animal is killed according to proper principles – they dispatch it with the head facing southeast towards Mecca and all blood is drained before dressing the carcass. While the animal cooks, Tony spends an inordinate amount of time waxing philosophical about the desert – its emptiness and solitude and stark beauty and blah blah blah. If he didn’t have so many tattoos, I think I might have mistaken him for a desert-bound version of Thoreau. Tony, it’s quiet, empty and picturesque, we get it! When it’s time to eat the lamb, they accompany it with rice and some “sun bread” – hardened bread that travels well a
nd is softened in water for consumption. Mmmm mmmm!

That’s it. No visit to the Pyramids. No visit to the Sphinx. For some tourists, that’s a failure. But then again, for Anthony Bourdain, famous landmarks are not really his narrative and a famous place like Egypt was really no exception. Instead, we find an unexpected side of Egypt. A place where cuisine is dictated as much by thousands of years of precedent as it is by the country’s remarkable crossroads of cultures and influences.