I Practice ‘Unsafe Leftovers’

Yes, it's true: I practice 'unsafe leftovers'.

I have from, time to time, usually by accident, read the 'guidelines for proper and safe handling of food'. It usually scares the crap out of me and makes me amazed that I am still among the living. 

My biggest offense comes after I make soup.  I'm not talking about lovely little first course soups, but the hearty, full-meal soups we (former) Mid-Westerners so dearly love: minestrone, beef and barley, split-pea with ham, Senate Bean, etc.  It's difficult to make these in small batches.  The variety of ingredients needed to get the flavor right calls for the big soup pot.  Can you imagine trying to make beef vegetable soup for two:  1/4 cup shredded cabbage, 1/8 of an onion, 1/4 stalk celery, 1/2 carrot, 1/8 lb beef,1/3 potato, etc.?

According to the guidelines, when the soup is done it should be 'cooled rapidly, divided into small containers no greater than 3 inches in depth and refrigerated within 2 hours after cooking.  Leave ample space around each container to facilitate air flow for even cooling'.  What, they think we all have walk-in coolers?

I usually put the covered pot outside overnight – which is why I only make soup when it's cold out.

Unsafe information here:  Last summer our friend, Julian, who lives in Spain invited us to his birthday party. We went a few days early to help him get ready.  He was expecting about 60 people for the party on Sunday evening.  In Spain one does not walk around with plates of nibbles (at least, not in remote mountain villages); one has a sit-down dinner with proper plates and cutlery, that will last about 5 hours.  When we arrived Friday evening he had already been cooking for 2 days and had most of the food made.  He loves to cook and had decided to introduce his Spanish friends to his favorite foods: Indian and Thai curries of varying degrees of heat.  (He would have all the usual lamb chops, sausages, etc. cooked outside on slate tiles as well, but that's a different story.)

Sitting on the kitchen counter, in the heat of a Spanish July were 3 huge vats of cooked chicken and pork stews.  I, far too aware of the 'proper food care guidelines', asked where he was going to keep them for the three days before the party.  He said "Oh, they're fine where they are.  If they're in the way I'll move them."  Now this is someone who fought the Mau Mau, lived in the wilds of New Guinea and eaten things I don't want to know about.  He learned Thai cooking in Thailand.  I was not about to instruct him on food safety.  I just decided that I would eat the other food and consoled myself with the fact that all these remote places were accessible by emergency helicopter service.

It started making sense on Saturday.  Mon mari lifted the lid on one of the pots to check it out.  Fortunately Julian saw him.  After cursing him roundly for not being able to keep his fingers out of the food, he put the pot back on the burner and heated it to a full boil.  After covering it and letting it boil for a few minutes he turned it off and all was okay again. 

So here's the deal, as Julian explained it:  If the food is boiling hot it will sterilize the air inside the pot.  As long as no one lifts the lid letting in un-sterile air (read bacteria) it will be safe for short periods of time, even without the much-vaunted refrigeration.  He brought each pot to a rolling boil each day to re-sterilize it. This method kept the food safe, even in the heat of summer, for the 3 days before the party.  Everyone ate all of it, there was none left, no one died or even got sick.

I guess if you don't have big, American-size refrigerators, (which we don't here in the wilds of Europe) or any refrigerator at all, you learn different ways of keeping your food safe.  Wouldn't the FDA be appalled?  Can't you just hear them scurrying around trying to figure out how to protect the human race from such non-conformist folly?

Oh yeah, the other thing the FDA says about leftovers is 'before serving, cover and reheat to 165F for dry foods and a full, rolling boil for soups and stews. 

I'm not sure, but does that mean standing in the refrigerator door with a spoon in one hand, lifting the lid with the other is out?   Standing over the sink eating cold pizza – a no-no?  Please don't tell the food police…..

8 thoughts on “I Practice ‘Unsafe Leftovers’”

  1. There is some logic in your friends technique. I’m just reading about making beef stock and one of the directions is if kept over 3 days in the refrigerator it should be reheated to boiling and then used within 3 days.
    Yes, the FDA would have a field day with some things are seem to work just fine.

  2. I am notorious for leaving stuff like cheese or salad dressing out overnight. I’ve never gotten sick from it.
    But I have gotten bad food poisoning from restaurant food.
    Your friend does make sense…

  3. In France they do seem more relaxed about all of these issues. I just leave my soups to cool on the stove and put them in the fridge the next day! I usually don’t have meat in them, though…

  4. Maybe the people died but couldn’t get a message to you to let you know about it? :p
    A lot of other countries are much more relaxed than us Westerners about this sort of thing – and they seem to live longer, too!

  5. Hello Katie,
    we all should be more relaxed. I think your friend is perfectly right in handling things like this.
    I do myself leave a chicken soup to cool down in the kitchen at night to find it covered with greavy next morning. I thought it an easy method to get rid of surplus fat. 🙂
    Of course I reheat it before serving and no fingers, used spoons in it. 🙂

  6. Katie,
    Hmmm, I should try that with the leftovers in my fridge. The only thing is they seem to have become life forms. I may have to knock them on the head first.

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