Food for a group - whether it be a big dinner party, a church social or a back-yard buffet - can be a lot of fun. But it also presents a special challenge due to the quantities involved.
Here are some of the questions on big-party preparation that have been asked on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Hotline.QUESTION: I'm planning a large dinner party and I like to cook ahead. Last night I cooked three large briskets in the same big roasting pot. I refrigerated the cooked meat in the roasting pan while still quite hot. This morning the meat was still warm. I've got a big investment in there, but is it safe?
ANSWER: Unfortunately, the meat may not be safe. It has taken too long to cool. In that time, and in that warm, moist atmosphere, bacteria have had a good opportunity to grow and multiply. Further cooking now could not guarantee the destruction of toxins that may have formed.
When cooking ahead, it's best to divide hot, cooked foods into small, shallow containers to promote fast cooling in the refrigerator. Don't worry about putting warm foods, in smaller packages, directly into the refrigerator. It's not safe to counter-cool them first.
QUESTION: I bought a cooked, stuffed whole turkey from the local gourmet deli and picked it up at 1 p.m. for a dinner at 6. The butcher told me to leave it in the foil-covered container on the counter and reheat it in the oven the last hour before serving. Will this be OK?
ANSWER: It is best to bring home a hot deli stuffed-and-cooked turkey and serve it immediately. We would not recommend buying a fully cooked, stuffed turkey for reheating later at home. Plan to pick up the precooked turkey right before eating.
QUESTION: I'm taking 100 pieces of marinated chicken to my church for a dinner. I'm thinking about transporting them in one of those large plastic trash bags. Is that a good idea?
ANSWER: First, consider that the bag will not provide the insulation required to maintain a safe temperature during the transportation of your foods if it takes more than two hours.
Then check the package containing the trash bags. Very often there will be a statement indicating if the bag is approved for use with food. If there is no such statement, assume that the product is not approved, and do not use it to store or transport food items.
Materials used in production of the bag do not have to be tested for consumption safety if the product is not considered to be generally used with food. The chemical process may not permanently bind harmful components in the bag material, and it's possible that the acid in the marinade, for example, could allow chemicals in the plastic bag to get into the chicken.
QUESTION: We have a sign-up sheet to bring food for the annual school party. What kind of food should I offer to bring and how will I get it there safely and ready to eat without extra hassle?
ANSWER: Don't try to duplicate your in-home entertaining away from home. Select simple dishes that can be put in a cold chest filled with ice or frozen gels. Select foods such as dips with vegetables, pasta salads, a meat-and-cheese tray or fresh fruit cubes to be speared with toothpicks. Just remember that cold foods should be kept cold (at 40 degrees F.) and hot foods should be kept hot (140 degrees F) until ready to serve.
QUESTION: A lot of catalogs offer luscious-looking party foods. But is it safe to order through the mail?
ANSWER: Mail order food is a booming business, and a lot of food is shipped that way; the industry enjoys an excellent safety record.
Generally, to be safe, meat and poultry should arrive frozen or "hard cold" with ice crystals. If they arrive defrosted or are warm, do not use them. The shipper usually supplies ice or dry ice in the packaging and sends it by a speedy method. But timely receipt of the package is your responsibility. You can help ensure proper delivery by providing a complete mailing address and arranging for someone to be available to receive the items.
Some hams and dry sausages are safe unrefrigerated. Check the labels for this information.
USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline is a toll-free consumer service. If you have a question about the safe handling and storage of meat, poultry or other foods, you can call 1-800-535-4555 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mountain time.
Coping with food allergies
Millions of American suffer from food allergies. Allergic reactions to food include asthma, hives, stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting and may occur just after eating or hours later.
Not all reactions to food are caused by allergies, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Human Nutrition Information Service. Some reactions are caused by "intolerances" rather than allergies. True food allergies involve the body's immune system. A food intolerance is caused by an enzyme deficiency, a toxin or a disease.
Some people can't tolerate milk, for example, because they don't have enough lactase - an intestinal enzyme that digests lactose (milk sugar). But there is a significant difference between that and an allergy. If you are allergic to milk, you may have to avoid it and all of its components and products. If you have a lactose intolerance, you can probably drink milk to which lactase has been added, and you may not have to worry about eating small amounts of dairy products, especially as part of a meal. But you should check with your doctor.
"Currently, the only way for people to control food allergies is to eliminate problem foods from their diet," says Lois Fulton, home economist with the Information Service.
Become familiar with terms indicating the presence of foods you must avoid (see chart). Then use ingredient labels to identify products you shouldn't use. Some of the results may be a big surprise. For example, if you are allergic to corn, you may need to avoid powdered sugar, baking powder, baking mixes, canned or frozen fruits or juices, gum, mints, candy, soft drinks, sorbitol, sugar-cured ham and bacon because these products may include additives made from corn.
The USDA has prepared a bulletin on "Cooking for People with Food Allergies" that includes advice and recipes.
For a copy, write to the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402-9325. Specify stock No. 001-000-04512-1 and include payment of $1.50. For faster service, you can order by telephone (202 783-3238 and use your credit card.
If you are allergic to specific ingredients, learn to recognize other terms that indicate the presence of those ingredients. Here are some of the most common:
Dry milk solids
Nonfat dry milk
All items listed under wheat and:
Substituting for health's sake:
Savvy health-conscious cooks can make a difference in recipes by substituting lighter ingredients for some of the rich favorites.
Experimentation may be required to get the best results with some recipes, but in general:
If the Recipe calls for... You may substitute...
Milk Low-fat or skim milk
Evaporated milk Evaporated skim milk
Heavy cream Low-fat vanilla yogurt
Sour cream or mayonnaise Plain low-fat yogurt
Cream cheese Neufchatel or 'light' cream
cheese or part-skim ricotta cheese
Other cheeses Low-fat or part skim/reduced sodium
1 egg 2 egg whites
1 square unsweetened chocolate 3 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
plus 1 Tablespoon margarine
Nuts Half amount of unsalted, dry-roasted
1 cup sugar 1/2 cup sugar plus 6 packets sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour 2/3 cup all-purpose flour and
1/3 cup whole-wheat flour
White rice Brown rice
Canned fruit Juice-packed canned fruit
Canned vegetables Frozen vegetables or low-sodium canned