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.


Georgia said...

Question: when you use the word "water" are you using faucet water or purified water (purchased by various vendors in garrafones)? I tend to do my first good wash with faucet water and then with the disinfectant I use purified water from Ciel.

DonCuevas said...

We use tap water. We figure the Microdyn kills any bugs in the water. Of course, our landlady swears that our water,supplied from a deep well, is pure. I'm not taking any chances, but using purified water for disinfecting produce is just too extravagant for us.

But, whatever works well for you, do it!

Don Cuevas

jennifer rose said...

Pineapples, melon, butternut squash -- disinfect or not?

I agree that disinfecting with Ciel is overkill. If guests are not at the table, I don't disinfect what I purchase from Costco or pluck from my garden. But then Mexican citizenship confers immunity, you know.

Scott said...

Greetings! I had seen your posts previously and noticed that you post on Steve Cotton's musings. I am enjoying reading your other posts, such as the multi-part Oaxaca trip and the awesome Dim Sum Sunday.

Even for us food lovers who are NOB, topics like these (sanitation) are always important. I have read another (Kathleen's Cooking in Mexico) which confirms as you state that purified water is not needed for this process. (

Referring to the Kings (cabbages) she mentions, "To clean tight heads of lettuce and cabbage, remove the outer leaves. The inner head is already clean, as it grew from the inside, protected by the outer leaves." (Unless the head has already been cut in half). Do you find this to be true as well?

Again, wonderful blog!

Scott in Fort Worth

DonCuevas said...

THank you, Scott, and welcome to my blog.

It may have been (by the way, that URL doesn't work) where I first learned of a systematic approach to cleaning and disinfecting produce.

About cabbage and lettuce cleaning: I only buy whole heads.

Don Cuevas

Scott said...

Here it is. For some reason, the address bar on the page I copied it from had a close paren at the end, which is not normal.. Odd.

DonCuevas said...

Scott, many thanks. That's a very good reference article, much more detailed than mine. And definitely, that is where I originally read about the best methods of purifying produce.

Credit to Kathleen Is Cooking In Mexico!

Don Cuevas

Kim G said...

I've read that a few drops of chlorine bleach is cheaper and more effective than microdyne, which doesn't kill a number of food-borne pathogens. Check out this very well-researched article on for a review of common food-borne pathogens and how to fight them.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where we have to admit to being somewhat cavalier about washing vegetables.

DonCuevas said...

That's well and good, but after disinfecting the prduce in bleach water, you then have to rinse that off in agua purificada.

One can take this to whatever level one wants.

Last Sunday, our cleaning lady's daughter brought us some Pollo en Adobo, plus verdura. She assured us that although the carrots were unpeeled, for vitamin retention, they had been disinfected before cooking!

Gotta love it.


Kim G said...

The bleach just evaporates; you don't need to rinse it off. And it's only a few drops in a couple of litres of water, so it's pretty dilute. Did you read the article I linked? It's frankly kind of scary. Saludos!

Barbara said...

Kim, I enjoyed reading that article. I've been to a number of areas of Mexico on numerous visits and in this century the only place I have gotten sick from the food is the Yucatan--hit pretty hard twice in two weeks. The statistics in that article provide an explanation.

When I was a teen I volunteered for a bit at a place that fed the homeless and I remember them rinsing the dishes in bleach. My mom also taught me to wipe down everything with a bleach solution after preparing a turkey. It is such an inexpensive solution.

Is Microdyne easier/cheaper to buy or use in Mexico, compared to bleach?

DonCuevas said...

No, I had not gotten to read that article yet, but I will. Thanks.


DonCuevas said...

Bleach is very cheap and commonly used in household cleaning. Our cleaning lady's daughter likes to apply it copiously when cleaning our bathroom. We had to hide the bathmat and any cloths hanging from the shower rod so they wouldn't be destroyed by stray splashes.

I just suppose that Microdyn has been more effectively marketed than "cloro". I consider Microdyn safer to use, apart from its disinfecting effectiveness, than bleach. It's hard to overdose with it. Undiluted, it won't burn your skin. (Haven't tested this theory.)

(I need to read the article referenced by Kim G.)

Don Cuevas

Kim G said...

Hola Barbara,

Bleach is cheap and easy to buy anywhere in Mexico. I seem to recall that even Oxxo has it. But Microdyne is probably also easy to buy, but probably more expensive to use than bleach, and of course it's not helpful with your laundry.

The thing I found particularly scary about Dr. Fry's article was the idea that a lot of food prep people were a combination of barely schooled and living in places without any sanitary facilities.

All that said, on my last trip to Yucatán where I spent a bit more than a week, I had zero problems with food.

Good luck in your future travels & Saludos!