Friday, July 17, 2009

Safe & healthy grilling

As much as I love outdoor grilling in the summer I’m still not entirely comfortable around a gas barbeque. May be it’s the childhood memories of undercooked chicken legs served at neighbourhood barbeques. Or it could be the fact that, years ago, I got singed more than once igniting our grill with a match. But those worries pale in comparison to the discomfort I now feel after having done a little research into health issues concerning grilled food.

Before you get too worried there are many ways to grill safely. But let me first tell you what happens when you don’t.

Are you someone who likes to eat the crispy charred bits on your meat? Are you unfazed by grease flare ups that send flames above grill level? Here’s a reality check:

When fat drips onto the coals causing flare ups it forms a number of noxious chemicals (PAHs for short) that rise up in the smoke and cling to your food. The intense heat from the flame can cause other toxic chemicals form in the fatty juices that coat your food (called HCA’s). HCAs and PAHs are menu items that you want to avoid. They are known carcinogens and studies have linked them to an increased risk for colon, pancreatic and breast cancers. (Red meat isn’t the only food that this can happen to – any animal fat will do it, or fish.)

No need to avoid the BBQ. Follow these tips for healthy grilling:

- Simple marinades with citrus or olive oil can help to reduce the occurrence of these chemicals, and make your meal more flavourful in the process.
- Some herbs can reduce the formation of these chemicals. One study in particular credited rosemary with reducing the occurrence of HCAs.
- Have your spray bottle of water handy to douse any flames.
- Try cooking on indirect heat. My greatest grilling success yet was a half chicken cooked over indirect heat (only one burner on and your meat on the unlit side, with the lid closed.)
- Another way to grill indirectly is to cook your food on a grill pan or on a cedar plank.
- Don’t eat the charred bits on your meat, that’s the worst offender (contains the greatest amount of PAHs and HCAs).
- Trim visible fat off your meat before grilling. Better yet, choose lean cuts of meat.
- The longer you cook your meat the more toxic it can become. So choose small cuts of meat that cook quickly, or choose fish or seafood.
- Keep the bottom of your grill clean (to minimize smoking fat).
- Clean your grill racks well. Soak them overnight in hot water and baking soda. If you’re rushed for time, scrub them on the lawn with a paste made out baking soda and water. Then hose them down.

Smart grilling can keep you safely enjoying your summer favourites.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Backyard gardening - it's never too late to start

This spring we turned our front yard into a tomato garden. We had outgrown our backyard vegetable garden and since I have an obsession with tomatoes we decided that reducing the square footage of our lawn was hardly a sacrifice.

As it turns out people all over are getting back to vegetable gardening. It used to be that everyone had a “kitchen garden,” but sometime within the last generation the whole concept went to seed (so to speak) as most people got more dependent on easy access to fruits and vegetables in grocery stores.

Now all that is changing. Last year the number of American households that grew food gardens grew by 10% over the previous year and it’s expected to grow another 20% this year. Sales for seeds are on the rise too. Keep in mind that these projections for 2009 were made before Michelle Obama dug up the South Lawn of the White House to plant an herb and vegetable garden. She has helped to spawn a whole new generation of (well-dressed) gardeners.

I am not an accomplished vegetable gardener. Even so, my meager harvest makes me feel self-sufficient (with herbs and lettuce anyway) and provides me with a connection to the earth that I find very comforting and inspiring. I love that my children have planted our garden by my side and ask daily when they can pull the carrots. My daughter uses the word “harvest” when it’s time to cut salad greens and nibbles chives when she’s playing in the yard. My son finds the plump red radish heads poking out of the soil irresistible.

All of this backyard gardening is providing us with food that is better in many ways: it’s helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (food doesn’t have to be transported long distances), it’s chemical fee, and there is no packaging. Plus it’s reconnecting us with the true source of our food – which is the earth not the grocery store.

If you’d like to try your hand at vegetable gardening it’s not too late to plant your own, in the ground or in containers.

· If you want to sow your own seeds there are several vegetables with a relatively short time to harvest. Leaf lettuce and blends of different greens can take less than a month to go from seed to harvest. Swiss chard can take just a month to yield baby leaves and green beans can take less than two months to start producing.

· You can play catch up by buying mature tomato plants and other vegetable plants that are already growing well. Plant them in well prepared soil for and instant garden that takes less time to reach maturity.

· Plan for next year by getting an herb garden established this summer. Herbs like thyme, chives, sage, mint and oregano are perennial so you can plant them during the summer.

My son has just requested his own pot to grow his own sugar snap peas, which is in and of it’s self one of my greatest gardening successes yet.