One of the best things about summer is being able to cook on an outdoor grill.
Sadly, since downsizing our empty nest and moving to an apartment last year, grills are banned. That's the one thing I really, truly, desperately miss.
But that's not to stop me from thinking ahead and thinking of others. Who knows? Maybe the rules will change. Maybe we'll move again. And maybe – hint, hint – we'll be invited to a friend's house for a good old -fashioned barbecue.
The odds of getting food poisoning grow during the summer because more people are eating outdoors and bacteria loves to grow in hot weather. Add to that the fact that a very small percentage of home cooks use a food thermometer to check if their food is cooked enough to kill that bacteria. And there's also that juice from raw meat or chicken, for instance; that meat or chicken that you don't wrap properly, toss in a cooler and whose juice wanders onto other items.
Some Tips Before You Grill
Lean and tender cuts are easiest to heat evenly.
Get your grill ready with a stainless-steel stiff-wire brush. Clean both sides of the grate while they're hot.
Don't use chemicals to clean – they can leave residues and cause dangerous fumes.
After brushing, moisten a paper towel with salt water and grab it with a pair of tongs; drag it over the grates to remove broken bristles or pieces of charred food, which can linger and transfer potentially harmful chemicals into your food.
Time to Cook
Watch the flame. Aside from being a fire hazard, there are other reasons to control the blaze. Sure, a charred or blackened piece of (fill-in-the-blank) is the height of barbecue perfection, but it's not the healthiest choice. Why? There may be potentially cancer-causing compounds that are produced when amino acids and chemicals in muscle meet high heat. Add to that some other unhealthy compounds that can form when fat drips off that piece of steak and dances off the flame.
No one is saying that you shouldn't treat yourself occasionally, but it's best to avoid these compounds when possible. Trimming the fat and coating the meat with marinade before you place it on the grill easily accomplish that.
Watch where you marinate. Marinating meat or seafood on the counter is a no-no; harmful germs can multiply very rapidly at room temperature. Instead, always marinate in the refrigerator. And please, don't use that leftover marinade on your cooked food, since germs from the raw meat or seafood can spread to the cooked food. But it is safe to use if you boil it right before pouring it on.
Are We There Yet?
Cooked food is only safe to eat once it's been cooked to a temperature high enough to kill off harmful bacteria. That's where a food thermometer comes in handy. Eyeballing it is not enough – any cooked or uncured red meat (including pork) can still be pink even when the meat has reached a safe internal temperature.
Steaks, roasts, chops and fish should reach a minimum of 145 degrees Fahrenheit; ground beef and pork are done at 160 degrees Fahrenheit and poultry at 165.
Let it rest. Allow the food to rest for about three minutes before you serve it. During this time, its temperature will either remain constant or continue to rise, which helps to further destroy harmful microorganisms.
Ready to Eat
Never put the cooked food back on the plate that held it when it was raw. Germs from the raw meat, poultry or seafood can spread to the cooked meat.
Serve hot foods right away. If there are cold dishes like pasta or potato salad, keep them in the fridge (or a cooler) until you're ready to use them. Just being out in the sun for as little as an hour can spoil them.
And don't forget your hands. When both prepping and eating food, you need to wash them often to prevent spreading germs – especially after handling raw meat, poultry, eggs or seafood. The best way to do this is to wet your hands first, the apply soap; rub your hands energetically under clean, running warm water for 20 seconds, then dry them thoroughly.
Now you're ready to grill.
Oh – there's one more thing you need to do.
Pick up the phone and invite me, would you?
Sheryl Kraft’s work has appeared in various print and online publications including AARP, Prevention, WebMD, Woman’s Day, Everyday Health, Grandparents.com, HealthyWomen.org, Senior Planet, JAMA, Weight Watchers, Bottom Line/Health, Bottom Line/Women’s Health, Caring Today, Westchester Magazine and more. She lives in her empty nest with her husband, Alan, and enjoys weekly Sunday visits from her two hungry 26 and 28-year-old sons (who also occasionally bring a load of laundry). When she's not working, Sheryl enjoys exercising, reading, walking and biking the neighborhood, seeing Broadway shows and spending time with friends. Visit Sheryl's website at www.sherylkraft.com or her two blogs, MySoCalledMidlilfe and Midlife Matters.