It’s time to spring-clean the kitchen, which reminds us how important it is to keep the refrigerator clean and set at the proper temperature. The risk for foodborne illness from harmful bacteria increases due to improper handling and storage of food.
Some bacteria are harmful, and some are not. Harmful bacteria are among the main source of foodborne illness in the United States. One of the most important guidelines to prevent food-borne illness is to start with everything clean, including the refrigerator.
It is a good idea to clean out the refrigerator weekly. Choose a day of the week — preferably this would be just before stocking up at the grocery store, when the refrigerator is the emptiest — and develop the habit of cleaning it the same day every week. This helps eliminate bacteria and odors that can occur from spills and leaks. Bacteria can easily travel from one part of the refrigerator to another.
Start cleaning the refrigerator by going through the contents and throwing out all perishable food that should no longer be eaten. “When in doubt, throw it out” is a great motto to follow here. It is never worth someone getting ill from eating food that is spoiled. If the expiration date has passed or if you even think there is a possibility the food could be spoiled, throw it out.
Next, remove other foods from the refrigerator, placing foods that spoil quickly in coolers with ice packs to keep them cold.
Start cleaning at the top of the refrigerator and work your way down to the bottom to prevent dripping on the areas that have been cleaned. Use hot, soapy water and a clean sponge to wash the inside of the refrigerator, including the shelves, drawers, food compartments, sides and knobs. Rinse with fresh hot water and dry with a clean towel or paper towels.
Avoid using cleansers with fragrance that could pass odors to food. Keep an open box of baking soda in the back of the refrigerator to prevent odors from forming. Remember to clean the outside of the refrigerator door and the handle also.
Follow the refrigerator manufacturer’s guidelines for cleaning the front grill, condenser coils and for defrosting and/or cleaning the freezer.
Proper refrigeration slows bacteria growth. Bacteria can grow rapidly between 40 degrees and 140 degrees. A refrigerator set at 40 degrees or lower creates an environment less conducive to bacteria growth. Use a separate appliance thermometer in the center of the middle shelf, not in the door, to check the internal temperature of the refrigerator and freezer. The temperature control dials may not always be accurate. If the temperature is above 40 degrees, adjust the refrigerator control dial to lower the temperature. The freezer should register 0 degrees or lower.
After the refrigerator is cleaned, keep it that way by cleaning spills immediately as they occur. Defrost meat, poultry and fish in a covered container in the bottom drawer or shelf of the refrigerator to avoid contaminating other food with the raw juices. Raw meat, poultry and seafood should also be placed in covered containers or sealed plastic bags and stored in the bottom of the refrigerator to prevent the possibility of juices dripping on other food or on refrigerator surfaces. Store foods in covered containers or wrapped to prevent moisture loss and the absorption of odors.
Refrigerate leftovers promptly. Perishable foods and leftovers should be put back in the refrigerator within two hours of being taken out. In hot weather (temperatures above 90 degrees), food should be put back in the refrigerator within one hour. Date all leftovers and use quickly.
Some people are turned off by leftovers, so call a dish made from leftovers an encore dish. A great encore dish this time of year is seasonal vegetable soup. Combine leftover cooked or raw vegetables, rice or pasta and liquids such as broth or vegetable juices in a medium to large pot and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Fresh herbs boost flavor. You can also add some frozen vegetables or canned tomatoes if there aren’t enough leftovers to make enough to serve. No two pots of soup will ever taste the same, and it is a wonderful way use leftovers to stretch the food budget.
I like to store leftovers that would work in an encore recipe together on the same shelf in the refrigerator to make them easy to find and use.
Spring Vegetable Encore Soup
1/2 large raw red bell pepper, diced
1 cup leftover canned green peas
3 raw carrots, sliced (about 1 cup)
3/4 cup leftover cooked frozen corn
8 celery sticks (left from a raw vegetable tray), sliced
1 1/2 cups frozen sliced okra (has been in freezer for a while; wanted more vegetables in soup)
1 cup leftover cooked whole-wheat fusilli pasta
1 1/4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
14.5-ounce can stewed tomatoes
2 cups of water to add more liquid
•Combine all ingredients in a medium pot and heat to a simmer. Place lid on pot to minimize liquid evaporating.
•Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.
Nutrition information: These ingredients made 6 cups. Each 1-cup serving contains approximately 122 calories and 1 gram fat.
Serving suggestions: Serve a cup of this soup with a couple of whole-grain crackers for a nice snack or as an appetizer to a meal. Serve paired with a sandwich or a green salad including some lean protein such as cooked chicken, turkey or tuna for lunch. Or add some leftover cooked lean ground beef or chicken to make it into a main-dish soup.