Everything But the Kitchen Sink: 5 Simple Steps to Greener Food Storage and Prep

IMG_0365I’ll concede off the top that it takes a, well, special level of pickiness to go through your own kitchen cupboards with a gimlet eye, wondering which of the assorted containers, cookery, food processors, and other paraphernalia might be slowly poisoning you, a little bit at a time.

And it can be an expensive proposition to make over your kitchen to be less toxic, so unless you happen to be pregnant or chemically sensitive, its likely best tackled piecemeal or as you have the mental and physical energy to consider the changes and concomitant expense.

The two biggest offenders are plastic containers and nonstick-coated anything. The easiest, most general guideline I can offer is to ditch both of these.

Unfortunately, this isn’t easy. Plastic appears in places you might not expect it, like coffee-makers and food processor bowls. Some dishwasher racks are even made of PVC! And non-stick surfaces now cling persistently to bakeware and rice cookers, as well as specialty appliances like sandwich presses and waffle makers.

So I’ve pulled together the following list of common offenders and some safer alternatives. There’s a lot that can be said on each of these topics, so please consider this a cheat-sheet, for use when you’re rooting through your cabinets, muttering to yourself that it just shouldn’t be this hard….

IMG_6184Offender #1) Plastic food containers.

No plastic has definitively been found to be safe, and some have been shown to contain dangerous chemicals that are absorbed by food. The worst are those marked with a “3,” “6,” or “7.” The safer plastics are “1,” “2,” “4” and “5.” In fact, some now think that the BPA-free substitutes may be just as bad, or even worse, than BPA.

You may look around your fridge at the ubiquitous plastic containers from the grocery store, and doubt the purpose of this exercise. And you would have a point.

So here’s my best explanation for why you should bother: the single-use plastics in the fridge are not washed, heated, or run through the dishwasher, generally speaking. Plastic is inert when cold, but breaks down when subjected to heat and sunlight.

For this reason, you should never microwave in plastic, you should hand-wash any plastic lids or other items you do keep around, and you should not re-use plastic water bottles or other flimsy plastic items intended for single use. More to the point, you should think about replacing repeat-use plastic items or plastic food storage containers with more durable materials like glass or stainless steel.

If you can afford it, you may even want to replace your plastic-lidded glass containers with options that have no plastic at all. Why bother? Well, I wrote persnickety letters a while back to both Pyrex and Anchor Hocking about the contents of their plastic lids. Their answers were less than reassuring. Although I had only asked for the type of plastic, and not the “full ingredients,” the response from Pyrex was remarkably obscure, and left open the possibility that they use BPA substitutes (like BPS) that are equally harmful:

Thank you for contacting World Kitchen, LLC
We appreciate your concern regarding our products.  Our Pyrex brand lids are a composite of ingredients that, in the amounts included in the lids, meet all FDA requirements for food contact materials. We are sorry that we cannot provide you the exact ingredients in our lids. The actual list of those ingredients is proprietary to World Kitchen and its supplier. However, our supplier has confirmed that these covers do not contain any of the following ingredients. We hope this is helpful.
Polystyrene
Phthalate
BVP
PVC
Polychlorinated Vinyl
Bisphenol A (BPA)
Polycarbonate
For further assistance, please contact our Consumer Care Center. Sincerely,
World Kitchen Consumer Care Center

By comparison, Anchor Hocking was more transparent and informative, at least identifying the types of plastics used, which mostly appear to be the “safer” kinds:

Thank you for taking the time to contact the Anchor Hocking Company. Anchor Hocking strives to maintain high quality standards to provide the finest glassware and accessories available.  We are proud of our products and responsiveness to our consumer questions. The plastic covers for our ovenware and Kitchen Storageware products are made from a combination of LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene) and a material called POE (Poly Olefin Ester).  The plastic center for our “TrueSeal” and “TrueFit” product is polyethylene with the perimeter of the cover made from thermoplastic elastomer (TPE).  The custard cup covers are made out of Linnear Low Density Poly Ethylene (LLDPE). Our Bake N Store gasket fitment is silicone.  All materials used in our covers and fitments are Federal Drug Administration (FDA) acceptable.  Additionally all old plastic covers and fitments do not contain bisphenol (BPA). Plastic fitment to our storageware offerings is a poly and ethylene material composition (PE).

IMG_4760Greener alternative #1: Glass and metal containers.

The upshot for us is that we are gradually trading out our plastic lidded containers for either tiffins, these awesome plastic-free food storage wraps (about which there is more below), and rubber gasket stainless steel containers, all of which work well. The geniuses at Life Without Plastic have a number of options in this regard (like these), which we are slowly subbing in for our bevy of plastic-lidded glass containers.

Canning jars are another option, but many of them have BPA under the lids. Weck, Bormiolli and Le Parfait sell glass-lidded jars with rubber gaskets and metal clips, and the shapes are lovely.

Sadly, most food processors are also plastic, and most older ones have BPA in the food area (and adverts for newer ones do not say the substitutes for BPA being use, which could be as bad or worse). I use my glass blender whenever I can by adding more liquid, or wield a stick blender in a stainless pot. I also use a high-velocity stainless steel mixer from India which will pulverize anything. And when I invested recently in a real juicer (bought used off Craigslist!), I chose a high-end Breveille, with a stainless steel body and parts except for the compost bin that collects vegetables and fruits after use.

If you can’t get rid of all your plastic containers, remember to handwash them, as the chemicals can leach out due to the heat of the dishwasher.

IMG_1728Offender #2) Non-stick cookware.

As much as it makes me cringe to remember, at one point I loved my Teflon pans. They were a breeze to clean and like many people, I thought I was safe if I avoided scratches and dings that caused the surface to flake into food. But one of the primary chemicals used in non-stick surfaces is a nasty carcinogen called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and even a pristine pan undergoes a dangerous material breakdown when raised to temperatures frequently reached in cooking.

Greener alternative #2: Enameled or plain cast-iron and stainless steel pans.

Enameled cast-iron is easy to clean and doesn’t need to be seasoned. We’re also happy with stainless steel and occasionally use well-oiled cast iron. Pans from Le Creuset or one of their many competitors are expensive but last forever and come in shapes and sizes that are a breeze to use for many types of dishes. They are our go-to for pans and large casserole pots. We also have this great little two-part pot and pan set sold only by Sur La Table, which includes the smallest enamel pan I’ve found and is amazing for eggs.

Le Creuset also makes a wonderful reversible enameled griddle for gas-top stoves, which seasons just like cast iron and looks dark like cast iron, but is in fact enamel-finished. (I questioned store reps at the Bethesda location on this point last spring.) I also love the Dutch ovens they sell, with one adjustment: I replaced the knob with a stainless steel one (annoying that it’s sold separately) because I didn’t want a plastic knob going in the oven, even at temperatures that the company said were acceptable.

You can also find them sometimes at yard sales, on Craigslist, at outlet malls and discount stores or on sale after the holidays for considerably less. When using stainless steel or regular cast iron pans, we’re not afraid of having to scrub it on occasion. As readers know, I’m also simply mad about my crockery tagine.

For other pots, 18/10 stainless steel in basic shapes like this Dutch Oven works well. For cookie sheets and pie pans without teflon, look to professional bakeware marketed for chefs, most of whom would never dream of using non-stick. Here’s a link to the reasonably priced the cookie sheet I recently scored, and a pie pan made of high-quality stainless steel, both by Norpro.

Because no one’s really clear what’s in it, I part ways with many greener folks by remaining skeptical about silicone bakeware and spatulas or other kitchen items as well (though anti-plastic crusader Beth Terry agrees with me on this in her terrific book).

IMG_0369Offender #3) Drip coffee makers.

Most of the coffee makers I see sitting on kitchen counters are composed almost entirely of plastic. This is a terrible choice of construction material. Hot plastic releases toxic chemicals and coffee, which is naturally acidic, only makes the chance that chemicals will leach all the more likely. In the comically titled Slow Death by Rubber Duck, the authors intentionally raise or lower their blood levels of BPA by drinking out of a plastic drip coffeemaker.

Greener alternative #3: Chemex.

In the past we’ve used a stainless steel electric kettle and a tempered glass french press. It was a head-and-shoulders improvement over our old coffeemaker, but we have a new favorite: a Chemex. It contains no plastic. Clean up is easy-peasy. The coffee tastes great and can be refrigerated and stored for iced coffee.

If you’ve ever been to a coffee shop and opted for a “pour over,” this is what the barista probably used to make your premium cup of joe. Other plastic-free options are stainless percolators like this one. And there are porcelain one-cup cones like this one that go on top of a coffee cup. There are several kinds and sizes, so you may want to compare reviews. When buying paper filters, remember to get the unbleached variety.

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Offender #4) Some ceramic crock pots and ceramic dishes.

While I love slow cookers, some of them can leach lead due to the glaze used for their ceramic bowls. There hasn’t been a conclusive survey of which brands do and do not contain lead glazes, and the only information available is anecdotal. The best way to determine if your slow cooker is lead free is to buy a testing kit and give it a swab. Our Rival crockpot came up negative for lead, so I hope the test was right!

For a long time, lead was a common ingredient in glazes used for ceramic kitchenware. Most manufactures phased it out when it was shown to leach into food, but it still turns up with shocking frequency, especially in imported products. So swab your dishes down as well, and look for assurances that what you buy is specifically labeled lead-free. Be aware that cookware and dishes handed down from relatives should be swabbed before being used!

IMG_0378Greener alternative #4: Stainless steel pressure and rice cookers, and glass and stainless dishware.

Pressure cookers are wonderful, but most of them on the market are actually made of aluminum, as was the one we used for years before figuring this out. Aluminum has been found to leach out of cooking vessels, and while the link to Alzheimer’s is disputed, is known to be neurologically toxic at higher levels and among workers (PDF).

Thankfully, there are a few models on the market made of stainless steel, like this one we now own. Pressure cookers cut cooking times to a fraction of what they would be on the stove. Dried beans are a breeze to cook, which means you can stop buying prepared beans in BPA-lined cans. If you cook rice as frequently as we do, you can also now easily find affordable stainless steel rice cookers, like this one.

As for dishes, lead exposure is especially dangerous for young children, who have developing nervous systems and are more to susceptible to effects like learning disabilities and brain damage. Both out of this concern and to avoid plastic, as I discuss below, we found a stainless steel dish set from Lunch Bots that we like. It’s dishwasher and oven safe, lead and BPA free. Maya also enjoys her bus plate from Innobaby, of stainless steel. More recently, we’ve used Duralex dishes made from tempered glass, as pictured above (best prices I’ve found are here).

IMG_4040Offender #5) Plastic tableware and to-go-ware for kids.

Speaking of un-fantastic plastic, sippy cups, even, the ones made from “better” plastic, should be no exception, especially if you’re in the habit, like basically all parents, of putting them in the dishwasher. And those cute decorated white plastic, or melamine, dishes for kids are also dubious. In a recent study:

researchers from Taiwan found melamine in the urine of study participants who ate soup out of melamine bowls (melamine is a shatterproof plastic commonly used in tableware marketed toward children). While the amount was small — up to 8 parts per billion — melamine is a known carcinogen.

While it’s true that the FDA, in all its wisdom, says blood levels of melamine would have to be much, much higher to definitely cause cancer, why add to a toddler’s blood levels of a known carcinogen?

Plastic to-go items, like character lunch boxes and thermoses for kids, are also depressingly laden with harmful chemicals. Many of the plastic lunch boxes are actually made of PVC, a poison plastic! Soda cans are lined in BPA, milk and juice boxes all have a thin lining of polyethylene inside, and plastic sandwich baggies are often also made of PVC.

Greener alternative #5: Stainless steel bottles, and glass and stainless dishware and to-go ware.

As I’ve written before, my favorite cups are the Pura Infant and Toddler Kiki stainless steel bottles. They come with a silicone nipple and tests show no leaching of metals. There are also more grown-up versions available of both these and glass bottles; those made of a stronger glass like borosilicate are best. Lifefactory bottles, which are both kid and adult-friendly, come with a protective sleeve made of silicone that doesn’t contact the liquid inside.

I’ve added suggestions and links on dishes to Section #4, just above. To the extent we buy plastic wrap or bags, we look for ones labeled “PVC-free.” Other better options for to-go food that we find work include:

  1. Wax paper bags for dry items like these;
  2. Organic sack lunch bags like this cute dinosaur bag or this friendly one;
  3. Almost entirely stainless steel insulated containers from Klean Kanteen;
  4. Stainless snack containers from To-Go Ware or Kids Konserve;
  5. Stackable lunch tiffin from To-Go Ware and a sandwich-sized box from New Wave;
  6. The coolest lunch box ever from Planetbox (though I wish they were organic fabric!).

We’ve also ogled the organic sandwich bags at Mighty Nest from EcoDitty, the adorable organic lunch sacks from Hero Bags, a U.S. based fair trade company, and the kits and stand-alone stainless steel containers from Ecolunchboxes, but have not yet tried them. Life Without Plastic also has a large number of options for kids’ tableware.

IMG_0360Other good stuff I’ve found…

Once you’ve tackled the big stuff, you can look around your kitchen and starting nit-picking the little stuff and tossing the odd old plastic spatula. If you have stuff you’ve found, please share! Things I’ve picked up as needed or as they wore out include:

  1. A stainless steel baster;
  2. A stainless steel ice cube tray (which was great for freezing portions of baby food);
  3. Stainless steel popsicle molds;
  4. A no-plastic wrap that is amazing for cheese and sandwich storage and also deforms easily over the top of any pot or bowl;
  5. A reusable bamboo utensil set;
  6. Awesome, versatile stainless steel cooling cubes for drinks, coolers and endless other uses;
  7. Canvas (rather than “vinyl,” which is PVC) bags for cake decorating;
  8. …. and so on…

IMG_0370Note: None of the links in this post are commissioned. Happy cooking!

Tending a Winter Garden

IMG_6055The beginning of the year has been a time of fallowness and flu for us, as well as change. I’ve been having my own personal wrestling match with the Great Flu Epidemic for three weeks now, and canNOT seem to get sleep enough to shake this rattling cough, so please forgive the long silence. (I usually work on the blog at night, when all is quiet, and I’ve been worshiping my pillow instead…)

The weather here has been very cold, at least for the past few days. I’m craving chili and soup, hot cider and cozy blankets. And new projects: I’m in discussions with a good friend and brilliant professor about a book we may write (details to come on that, I hope!), and plotting to launch a green business with another friend. Things are germinating, but they are still only seeds. It’s the middle of winter, after all.

In the larger world beyond my pillow, some things are also apparently afoot. The world has decided to ban new mercury emissions in an important new treaty, which will save future generations a lot of trouble if it actually gets done (and actually addresses the mercury released in mining). President Obama has announced some reasonable new policy proposals to limit access to guns, and my home state of Maryland is moving forward on sensible new gun measures, all of which is as reassuring as first steps can be.

I personally enjoyed the pomp of the inaugural festivities, including the patriotic thrill of the speeches. Unfortunately, the music was kind of awful, though, wasn’t it? Why so pop and warble-y? Even the lovely James Taylor seemed flat. Kelly Clarkson, really? And all the hype over Beyonce? Puh-lease. As we all know now, she Milli-Vanillied it. But that wasn’t the only false note: there were far too many fluttery fake eyelashes and streaky blonde highlights overall, IMHO.

The Prez sadly missed a moment to highlight more stirring acts — like the local and fabulous Sweet Honey in the Rock (perhaps singing “We Are the Ones”) or real blues and jazz folks (B.B. King? Or someone — anyone — with a little soul in their warble?). At least the First Lady rocked out her gown and new hairstyle. Rowr.

Anyhow, my real point is: I’m baaack. With lots of plans for this blog and the new year. While you await the coming guest posts from exciting contributors and my promised download on pjs, here are a few easy ideas for creating your own winter garden of possibilities. Dunno about you, but on these bleak winter days I’m desperate for some green and growing things, indoors where we can see them take root.

Like the mushroom farm, these are manageable and worthy projects for toddlers and bigger kids as well. I saw both the terrarium and the tulips in small glass jars for sale for more than $20 in Whole Foods yesterday — but making your own costs only a few bucks, using materials you can find outside plus a few simple craft-store vases.

Easy Idea 1: The Cutting and the Terrarium

IMG_6088Raid a friend’s (or your own) plants for cuttings and set a few up in a wine glass where you can see the roots start to form and grow. Maya likes tracking the shoots downward and seems amazed by the changes.

Once it’s got a little root action going, feel free to use it to make your own terrarium with moss, a few stones, and a small glass container (with a lid if you have one).

Our cutting was too large for our container, so we used a left-over bit from another succulent instead, as well as some moss from a hike in the woods today, and a few smaller stones. We misted it with the small spray bottle leftover from our mushroom farm, and will cover it with a dish some of the time to keep it moist. Its zen feel is cheering me up already.

IMG_6126Easy Idea 2: The See-Thru Garden

IMG_6079For this, you’ll need:

  • A milk carton
  • Paint and other materials for decorations as you like
  • (Decently sharp) scissors
  • Masking tape (I used painting tape as what I had on hand)
  • Plastic wrap (non-PVC is best if growing herbs)
  • (organic) Seeds that will germinate in such small space and in the light conditions you have indoors (we used organic English Thyme, which need full sun, in our bay window)
  • (Organic, i.e., no chemical) soil, plus a few rocks or corks for the bottom

IMG_6081Using a cleaned milk carton, cut off the top and cut 2 rectangular “windows” in opposing sides. Paint or decorate as you like. Maya painted ours white with tempera paint and then I made flowers by cutting shapes out of a pretty blue watercolor painting she made. She helped glue them on.

IMG_6098Using masking tape, tape some plastic wrap into the windows by setting the tape on one side and taping, then rolling the other side to fit and taping that. Fill the bottom with a few  rocks or corks, and then soil up to the level for planting seeds. Let the toddler shake the seeds, count and plant them as the instructions say, making sure some are close to the “windows.” Top with soil and water per the seed packet instructions. Watch the plants grow!

IMG_6116Easy idea #3:  Bulbs and Rocks

IMG_6060 You will need:

  • Tulip or other bulbs, such as paperwhites (but beware the intense pollen from paperwhites if you are an allergic type!)
  • Rocks — roundish, in a mix of colors and tones
  • Glass vase (clear and round is best)

We like the children’s book, Paperwhite, which tells a lovely and simple story about planting a winter garden with rocks and bulbs, thus inspiring this idea. And collecting rocks to borrow is so much fun!

IMG_6111Soak the bulbs for an hour or so in warm water. After sorting through your rocks, place them carefully in the glass vase. Plant the bulbs (we used amaryllis in the middle and three tulips around the edges) and let the toddler or child water as needed.

IMG_6113Track the roots and shoots as they develop (you could even mark the glass with pastels). Some larger bulbs may need replanting in soil, as you like.

The projects look nice together as well:

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Easy Idea #4: Plant Your Spice Rack

When my Indian mother-in-law visited us several years ago, I came home and found she had planted some fenugreek seeds right out of the spice jar. They grew quickly with a minimum of fuss. And the sprouts were a delicious and healthy garnish on curries and rice.

Since then, I’ve tried cumin seeds, mustard seeds, and anything else handy, with good results. (Obviously, you need to use the spices that are “seeds,” and not dried leaves or another part of the plant.) So just a few days ago, I polished off a planter from outside and now have a batch of fenugreek, or methi, popping up in my kitchen window. Thanks, Nanama!

IMG_6162Other super-easy ideas:

IMG_6104While at the hardware store, I also came across a package with a small glass vase and hyacinth bulb, which I snapped up as well. I got it started, but as they need several weeks under a paper bag in a cool, dark place like our basement, it won’t be the ideal touch of green I hoped for upstairs. Still, we’ll keep an eye on it as the roots grow into the vase.

IMG_6092

IMG_6093I also love, love this small collection of air plants, which are so easy to maintain and look cool in these hanging planters above the kitchen window. (You can order them on Etsy from a number of green-thumbed individuals — including nice planters, such as these — if they would be hard for you to find locally.)

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How are you bringing an early spring indoors?

Let’s Get Pickled!

When Hurricane Sandy was still looming, I checked out the bottom of my veggie drawer and the more dubious corners of the fridge, and decided, then and there, to put up some lovely and super-easy vegetable pickles.

This simple preparation is actually a wonderful way to deal with the stubby tail-ends of veggies that are still hanging around (but not actually spoiled). You can also thinly slice and pickle stems, like those on broccoli or cauliflower, that you would otherwise throw away, which is a nice way to use the whole kaboodle.

As a side-benefit, they are surprisingly (and unduly) impressive to guests. I recently served them at a small brunch with friends, and they made a tasty giardiniera (or, less pompously, chow chow) to accompany our fritatta. Maya will occasionally eat them as well, though sour is still a taste category under acquisition.

Since most jars — including the Ball and Kerr jars (now all made by the same company) — evidently have BPA under the lids, I used wonderful Weck jars, which are nothing but glass with a rubber gasket and metal clamps. These are the 1-liter cylindrical jars, which come in a set of 6 (for $21) that is ideal for other kitchen storage, or even making canned goods into gifts. There are loads of other sizes and shapes available as well.

Sidebar: If you’re really into canning per se, about midway down this page is great information about BPA-free options, including how to source vintage glass lids and gaskets on Ebay. In addition to Weck’s jars, Bormiolli and Le Parfait sell glass-lidded jars, though the shapes are more difficult to work with and the price is generally higher.

There are also reusable canning lids, here, that are BPA-free, but are still plastic, and even contain some formaldehyde that the company claims doesn’t get into the food. Er, no thanks! If you know of other options, please let me know!

Anyhoo, back to pickling. Fermented foods, because they contain digestion-friendly microbes and enzymes, are helpful to the health of the gut. There’s almost no limit to the health claims folks will make these days on behalf of ample gut flora, and it’s sometimes hard to sort it all out. Still, what seems indisputable is that most traditional cultures included pickles as a significant part of meals — think kimchi, sauerkraut, kosher condiments, kefir, even the mighty dill spear — yet pickled and fermented foods have largely now disappeared from the Western diet. It also appears that vinegar, when consumed as part of a meal, helps to lower blood sugar levels.

So, we’ve added probiotics (buy the refrigerated kind that boasts about containing millions of live bugs) to our diets, as well as plain kefir, kombucha, lots of yogurt (sometimes homemade), and, when we really put it together, pickles!

Sorry, but those sugary ball park pickles and relishes don’t count. You need fresh pickles without a ton of sugar or heat pasteurization. The good news is that these live foods are easy to make.

There are obviously many options for recipes, but my stand-by is from the always-incredible Jacques Pepin, whose minimal approach still retains the basics of what’s needed for healthy and delicious pickle-y goodness. As adapted from Pepin’s Simple and Healthy Cooking:

Ingredients:

Assorted vegetables, sliced thin as appropriate: this can include (organic) carrots, green beans, fennel (a favorite of mine), red bell pepper, cauliflower (love), turnips, zucchini, turnips, broccoli, and whole or half cloves of garlic, depending on size. Beets are also lovely of course, but will turn the whole thing pink, and so should really be pickled unto themselves.

Fresh dill is optional. (For my pickles, I just stuck the fennel fronds along the sides while layering the vegetables.)

1 cup distilled white vinegar to 2 1/2 cups water

1 1/2 Tablespoon salt

Generous pinch of sugar (optional)

1 Tablespoon Pickling Spice blend, or as much as you have on hand to make same of: cloves, allspice berries, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, dill seeds, and bay leaves.

Directions:

Figure out how much liquid you will need for your jars and the right ratio based on the above. But note that it’s not picky, really.

Pack the vegetables 1/3 of the way in, layering them in the jar.

Bring water, vinegar, salt, sugar, and spices, to a boil and boil gently for five minutes. Pour liquid to barely cover the vegetables in the jar, and, using a spoon or strainer, add a few of the spices floating about in the liquid. Add 1/3 more vegetables and more spices and liquid, packing it all down with the spoon. Repeat these steps one more time. (This slightly elaborate process is to address the issue I’ve found that if you pour the liquid all at once, the spices just sit on the top.)

Ensure that the vegetables are below the liquid and let the jars cool, and even sit out a bit. You can then store them in the back of the fridge. After a week or so, they will be somewhat pickled, and after two weeks, even more so. You can also reuse the pickling water, which becomes more flavorful with repeated use.

You like? Then here’s another post on pickling from me, and another from Men’s Journal:

And do tell, what do you pickle?