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Staff Writer

Ants, mosquitoes and pop-up storms aren’t the only things that can put a damper on a picnic.

Cookouts can dish out an unwanted invitation to food-spoiling bacteria like salmonella and listeria, according to Jennifer Little, dietetics internship coordinator at Bluffton University.

“Food safety is something that’s really, really important,” she said. “So much of what people think of as the flu, it does turn out to be more of that foodborne illness than you think.”

That’s especially true with summer temperature and humidity levels on the rise. Those two factors, heat and humidity, combine to create a prime breeding ground for bacteria, said Little.

“And then with picnics you tend to be sharing food more,” she said. “Around the holidays and around the summertime you have more foodborne illnesses because you have more people preparing, more hands in the food. And not everyone has the same standards for clean that you have.”

In a recent program at the Findlay-Hancock County Public Library, Little, a registered dietitian/nutritionist, offered five simple ways to keep food safe at your next picnic:

1. Chilling and grilling

When you think about summer meals, you want entrées that don’t heat up the kitchen. That’s where the grill comes in handy, said Little.

First, get the grill hot before putting anything on it. “Kind of like when you’re baking, you want to start with a preheated oven,” she said.

It’s also good to brush the grates with oil, which helps keep foods from sticking and adds a nice flavor.

Once you put meat on the heat, resist the urge to flip.

“Don’t touch the meat. Don’t flip it over 100 times,” Little said. “Let it cook the majority of the way through. You want it to be almost done before you flip it over. Only flip it once.”

Remember to use separate plates/platters to transport raw and cooked meats to and from the grill, and cook meat to recommended temperatures — poultry and hot dogs, 165 degrees; hamburgers, 160 degrees; and steak, pork chops and seafood, 145 degrees.

Typically, the rule of thumb is refrigerating leftovers within two hours of cooking. But in hotter weather (90 degrees or higher), or if food is sitting out in the sun, get it into the fridge within an hour or less.

2. Making merry (-nade)

Minimize the production of HCAs (heterocyclic amines) and PHAs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) — chemicals formed when muscle meat, including beef, pork, fish or poultry, is cooked using high-temperature methods such as grilling — by marinating meat in an acidic substance such as salad dressing for at least 15 minutes before cooking. This decreases the production of those substances, said Little.

“And you don’t have to necessarily marinate things overnight. You can actually marinate it for about 15 or 20 minutes,” she said.

Any extra marinade should be thrown out. “You don’t want to brush that over your meat as you’re cooking it, because you’ve marinated raw meat in that juice” which now has possible bacteria in it, she said.

If you want to do basting while the meat is cooking, start with fresh marinade or barbecue sauce, she said.

3. Don’t blame the mayonnaise

Potato salad is often blamed for causing foodborne illness due to the mayonnaise, and the fact that it contains eggs. The truth is, low-acid potatoes are added to the mayonnaise. Although the mayonnaise is acidified to make it safe, the low acidity of the potatoes offsets the acidity of the mayonnaise, creating an environment where bacteria can thrive, explains the Idaho Potato Commission website.

Take care when making potato salad, said Little, then continue to think safety while serving. She suggested using two bowls, one smaller and one larger. Fill the larger one with ice, then rest the smaller one containing the salad on top.

“That’s really the best way to go, and of course, leaving stuff in the cooler until right before serving time. And when people are done eating, put it back away in a cooler.” she said.

It’s also important to keep food-laden coolers in the shade, like under a picnic table. And invest in some ice packs. Or better yet, put ice cubes into freezer bags (they have a better seal than regular bags) and wrap them around the food in a cooler. Anytime you can surround things with ice, it’s better, Little said.

4. Scrub-a-dub-dub produce

If you are preparing hard-skinned produce like cucumber, melon and potatoes, it’s a good idea to rinse them under water and use a vegetable brush to remove residue. Any vegetable that sits on the ground is more likely to have dirt or bacteria on it, said Little.

“Even if you’re not consuming that skin (like a melon), you’re still cutting through that skin with the same knife you’re cutting up the rest of it,” she said.

Produce with a thinner skin should also be rinsed in warm water.

FYI: Rinsing poultry before cooking used to be recommended, but no more, said Little. That practice just throws bacteria all over the kitchen, she said.

5. Separate but equal (cutting boards/grocery bags)

When preparing food, make sure you use separate cutting boards for raw fruits and vegetables and for raw meat to avoid cross-contamination, said Little. And if you use reusable grocery bags, put meat and raw eggs in a separate bag from produce. You’ll want to wash those bags on a regular basis, too.

“If you’re transporting food back and forth, something drips, the outside of a package is a little dirty or whatever, your bags get dirty. You want to make sure you’re washing those,” she said.

And don’t leave bags — or coolers — in the trunk of your vehicle.

“In the heat of the summer, your trunk gets really, really hot. So if you’ve got anything on that bag, it’s just kind of a happy place for bacteria to grow and flourish,” said Little.

Little’s next program at the library, from 4:30-5:45 p.m. Aug. 8, will focus on zucchini.

Sweet as Frozen Lemonade Berry Cream Pie

People have a natural attraction to sweet things, which is easy to overdo in rich summer desserts like ice cream and cheesecake, said Jennifer Little, dietetics internship coordinator at Bluffton University.

“Adding a fruit dessert, it adds color, it adds flavor, it adds that sweet taste without necessarily adding a lot of calories or sugar,” she said.

Her Frozen Lemonade Berry Cream Pie fits the bill. Little adapted the recipe from another, creating a pie that’s lighter and lower in sugar.

Frozen Lemonade Berry Cream Pie

1 graham cracker crust
1 cup chopped strawberries
½ cup raspberries
¼ cup sugar
1 tablespoon water
4 ounces light cream cheese, softened
¾ cup lowfat sweetened condensed milk
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1/3 cup lemon juice (from 2-3 lemons)
1 cup light whipped topping

Make the filling by bringing chopped strawberries, raspberries, sugar and water to boil in small saucepan over medium heat. Reduce the heat and simmer until liquid is syrupy and fruit is soft, about 4-5 minutes. Mash solids with a spatula until somewhat blended into juice. Cool.

Beat softened cream cheese in a large bowl with mixer until smooth, about 30 seconds. Add sweetened condensed milk and beat until smooth. Add cooled berry mixture and lemon zest with juice and beat until smooth. Fold in whipped topping.

Spoon filling into crust and spread evenly. Cover with plastic wrap and freeze until firm, about 4 hours.

About 15 minutes before serving, remove pie from freezer to soften. Slice pie and top each piece with a dollop of whipped topping, strawberries and lemon zest, if desired.

Wolf: 419-427-8419

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