Salsa & Guacamole: How to Avoid Food Poisoning From the End of the Supply Chain

We're all at risk for food borne illness, especially during the summer months. It's no secret that bacteria grows fast when exposed to high ambient room temperatures. If you've ever worked in, or visited, an average restaurant kitchen you know where the expression "If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen" originated. And while most professional chefs and cooks are vigilant in monitoring proper food temperatures and sanitation, some of our favorite summer foods present significant safety concerns.

Today's WSJ has prompted me to contribute my two cents to this matter by reporting that salsa and guacamole "were blamed for one in 25 identified outbreaks of food poisoning at restaurants between 1998 and 2008 -- more than twice the rate of the previous decade, the CDC said." It's also possible that far more of this cooling and delicious fare is being consumed throughout the U.S. but none-the-less, "Uncooked foods, such as salsa and guacamole, are risky because there is no heat to wipe out bad bacteria ... [and] salsa and guacamole sometimes aren't refrigerated appropriately and often are made up in large batches, so even a small amount of contamination can affect many customers. Awareness that salsa and guacamole can transmit food-borne illness, particularly in restaurants, is key to preventing future outbreaks" according to experts quoted in the article.

I would also add that one's risk of contracting food poisoning is significantly higher when summer temperatures spike to 90 degrees F and above -- especially from a sweltering hot restaurant kitchen. If you're curious about the heat in the kitchen's of your favorite restaurants, ask for a tour. If you're declined, run. Then plan to make these fresh delectable dishes yourself. Here are my personal recipe's for Salsa and Guacamole that can't miss: Note -- these recipes might seem like a bit of work the first time, but when you make them once nothing else will compare -- promise.

1. Buy fresh roma tomatoes (the oblong kind), red, orange and yellow sweet peppers, sweet yellow onion, red onion, scallions (green onion), jalapeno or Italian long hot pepper (to taste) one mango, fresh limes and cilantro.

2. Wash your hands with hot water and soap and scrub your nails

3. Wash all the peppers and tomatoes in a warm mild vegetable wash or a drop of regular (not automatic) dish washing detergent to a sink full of water and rinse. Peel the first outside layer of all the onion before chopping.

4. Chop everything into approx. ¼" cubes except the lime and cilantro. I would also suggest removing all seeds including quartering the tomatoes and removing the moist seedy stuff as it waters down the salsa and the seeds are bitter (this is always a good way to prep fresh tomatoes).

5. Wash the cilantro repeatedly in not quite warm water, finely chop and add a table spoon or two to the vegitables

6. Squeeze fresh lime juice -- at least 2 limes – over the vegetables and mango, add salt and freshly ground pepper, and a good squeeze of catsup and mix it all up. Be careful with the salt as you're likely to serve the salsa with salty chips.

7. Refrigerate until serving and if your venue is really hot, consider placing the serving bowl in a larger bowl of ice.

BTW: pour off the juice before serving and save it for Bloody Mary's

1. Buy ripe avocados or unripe and allow a day or two to ripen at room temperature. They're ripe when they give ever so slightly when pressed.

2. Bisect lengthwise to the pit and pry apart. Stick a sharp tipped knife in the side with the pit and twist – it will come right out. Then scoop the contents with a spoon all the way to the skin and chop or mash with a fork.

3. Add a few cloves (or more) of crushed fresh garlic (not pre-chopped from a jar), freshly squeezed lime juice, salt, freshly ground pepper and some fresh tomato, peppers and onion from the salsa prep. Chopped fresh hot pepper to taste along with finely chopped cilantro washed as above and stir well.

Note: Other than the compulsory catsup squirt in the salsa, resist the temptation to use bottled hot sauces or juices. Freshly chopped, hot peppers add a special deep heat that is far superior. Enjoy!

William Busch

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