Monday, May 11, 2015

Rites of Purification

Cabbages may be Kings in the Pátzcuaro Mercado. But even a King needs to be purified.
Mexico's mercados are a joy to the dedicated home cook and foodie. But there's a dirty underbelly to the abundance of inexpensive fruits and vegetables offered there. If you, as we are, are interested in maintaining your health while enjoying the bounty of fresh produce, there are a few simple steps you can take to do so.

Some of these tips were picked up several years ago on Victoria Challancin's  blog, Flavors of the Sun, but I don't have the exact quote.

The essence is that when you get home with your mercado swag, you do not put them away until you sort them, trim them and clean them.

Here, at Las Cocinas del Rancho Las Cuevas, we first open all the bags and lay out the produce on our ample kitchen counter. The different vegetables are roughly sorted according to type and dirtiness.

La Cocina in pristine condition before we moved in.
For example, sweet peppers have the least dirt; celery is relatively clean; parsley, not bad; cucumbers, deceptively clean looking but really carrying sand and earth; celery somewhat more (often with dirt hidden en sus áreas escondidas.); lettuce, usually more, requiring extra vigilance; and the worst culprit, cilantro, which often has clay, etc (¿cacá?) clinging to its roots.

Then we go to the cupboard for a few simple tools.
1. A bowl big enough to hold a medium sized cabbage or a "tree" of celery for washing.

2. A tall plastic container used for the disinfectiing solution.

3. A colander, sometimes two, if we have a lot of produce to purify. With two, you can set up an efficient line of purification , but for small amounts of produce, one will do.

4. Clean kitchen towels or aprons; or plastic bags.

Simple tools of purification
There are a few easy steps to make your produce safer to eat raw.

1.  Spoiled or discolored areas, such as outer leaves are trimmed away with scissors or a sharp knife. Pick out any yellowed or ugly parsley  or cilantro branches. Then taking the cleanest items first, they are washed under cold water in the bowl, scrubbing with a brush if necessary. Rinse in cold water.

2. The tall plastic container (or another bowl, what have you) is filled with cold water, then Microdyn disinfecting drops are added. I usually put 4 drops per liter of water, then add a few more for good measure.

The Microdyn bath
Pepinos Persas prepare for purification
Pepinos get washed in cold water
The washed fruit or vegetable item is then immersed in the Microdyn and water solution, for abut 5 minutes,. Fairly clean vegetables, such as sweet peppers or cucumbers are left for about 3 minutes. Nasty, dirty stuff such as lettuce or cilantro, up to 15 minutes.

Cilantro tends to be schmutzig, sucio, dirty
Trimming roots, clay, y ¿quien sabe? from cilantro
before washing and disinfecting
3. The now disinfected produce item is then drained for a couple of minutes in the colander(s).

Pepinos Persas drain while new vegetables are washed and disinfected.
At this point, you can choose to wrap disinfected green, leafy herbs and vegetables either in ...
A. clean kitchen towels or aprons
B. Clean plastic bags.
(And, NO! Don't reuse the plastic bags from the mercado to re-bag the produce, for if you do, you will have just undone all your careful work!)

Cilantro, now clean and pure, about to be wrapped and refrigerated.
Cilantro, in a paper towel then bagged in a Bol Lock bag.
It's best to thoroughly drain the leafier produce before wrapping or bagging.

Then refrigerate.
Doña Cuevas is a fan of the kitchen towel/apron wrap method, for increased longevity of the greens. I, prefer clear clean plastic bags for their visibility of what's inside them.  Searching for apron and towel wrapped Anonymous Produce tends to make me crazy.Your kitchen needs will vary.

A side note: if you keep your produce drawers clean and well organized, your fresh produce will keep longer as well as be easier to locate when you need it.

There are a few exceptions to this ritual of cleaning and disinfecting. Optional items like tomatoes, avocados, green beans, or chard or spinach, and especially nopales we don't wash and disinfect until just before use. And obviously, if it is to be cooked, it's only washed well, but not disinfected, just before cooking. I don't disinfect nopales ahead, as I found that they become slimy before their time.

Besides disinfecting your produce purchases, pay attention to the work surface and knife and cutting tablet to  keep them clean and sanitized. We wash the kitchen tools with dish detergent and water. Our wooden block butcher's and baker's table is similarly washed, but with very little detergent, then gone over with a solution of white vinegar and water, then dried. The same methods can be used to clean the counters.

With these simple but effective Rites of Purification, you greatly lessen your chances of food borne illness.