Monday, February 13, 2017

Much Ado About Fresh Foods

Modern refrigeration as we know it is one of the most critical inventions in the last century because they improve your access to safe food supplies. Fayetteville is known as a food desert* and when one is without refrigeration this fact is exacerbated to a potentially intolerable level. About two weeks before Christmas my refrigerator decided to die on me. I knew something was wrong when I opened the freezer to find all of 2016’s frozen harvest defrosted completely. Since I did not know how long it had been that way unfortunately there was no good reason to try and salvage most of it. Once I did notice that there was a problem, the first task was to verify that the refrigerator was actually broken. I raised the cooling settings to maximum and then placed a thermal sensor in the freezer and the refrigerator section and afterwards checked them every hour for six hours. When you change the settings of a refrigerator it takes 24 hours for the settings to take effect so six hours was a good time frame to estimate the refrigerator’s functionality. At the end of six hours the fridge was cool at about 50 degrees and the freezer was at roughly 48-49 degrees; the normal temperature should have been 32-40 for the refrigerator and 30-32 degrees for the freezer. While looking for the unit specifications I found that the refrigerator was made in 2014, and thus it had depreciated enough that repair would cost more than replacing the unit. The next step was to clear the refrigerator of anything that posed a health threat via spoilage or contamination. Nothing in the freezer was salvageable so everything that was not packed in oil went out to the compost pile, you could say that the decomposers in the pile got big Christmas present this year.

The process was repeated for the refrigerator section though a lot of things in the refrigerator were just fine at 40-50 degrees. A good example of things that did not need to be thrown out would be your basic condiments. For example, mustard, soy sauce, siracha, non-sweet salad dressings, and anything that is acidic such as pickles were relatively save in the short term. Eggs, butter and, cheese were also alright because they could withstand a wider temperature range than milk, yogurt, cut fruit and vegetables and fruit juices which had to go in the cooler. Meat products were handled cautiously because at 45 degrees it would not take long for food-borne microbes make them hazardous. Any meant brought in had to be cooked the day purchase and consumed within 48 hours. I found that it takes a 20lb bag of ice to effectively cool an 18 cubic foot capacity refrigerator per two days.  The trick was to use plastic containers to spread the ice around and ½ to ¼ fill the vegetable crispers full of ice. This kept the refrigerator at around 43-46 degrees which reduced any further losses of food. I also used a 48 quart cooler with 10 pounds of ice to super-chill what absolutely needed to be cold**. It was a good thing the refrigerator failed during winter because if it had it done so during summer it might have been impossible to keep anything cold. So life settled in to a pattern, every two days or so I would go out on an ice-run, and while there I would buy the fresh foods needed to make two days’ worth of meals. It briefly became a normal aspect of life that everything had to be cooked fresh every second day. This was made possible by taking normal recipes with the amount of ingredients reduced by half. The half-scale style of fresh cooking meant that I made twice as many trips for food but the cost of food remained the same overall.

The biggest lesson learned was that it is very possible to have a fresh and organic food diet that was nearly vegetarian without the presumed big price tag. It took some planning to have a menu that would not get boring; my diet varied a bit for two weeks with the following selections; Kale-bean soup, Grilled vegetables with basmati rice, Tuscan Stew, Sautéed yellow squash with sweet onions, traditional hearty stew, Broccoli Rabe with fresh garlic over penne pasta, Steamed broccoli served with Turkey drumsticks and basmati rice and a rich mushroom gravy. I will admit the aforementioned list is just dinner, I kept lunch and breakfast limited to one-off dishes that were made and consumed on the same day. The point is that you can eat fresh, but creativity is critical to a reasonable fresh diet, and that starts with you determining what you do and do not have a taste for.

*The USDA has a food desert locator;
** Things such as cut vegetables & fruit, milk, dairy products, and fruit juices, opened jams and jellies and, meat should be stored in the cooler.

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