Tips on Making Food Appealing, Food Safety and BPA (again)

salmon patty with sour creamThe first two Q/As below are about good food but not in the sense of nutrition; they're about good food meaning the person eating it does so with pleasure and enthusiasm. The third and fourth Q/As are about developing a protective sense as to what stores offer that might be a health risk--food possibly contaminated by temperature abuse or store receipts that might get BPA on your hands.


Q. When I cook for people who have a diminished sense of taste (for example, my elderly uncle and a friend who smokes) it's difficult to find something to serve them that will taste good and appeal to them. Any suggestions?


A. You may have more dinner guests with diminished taste than you realize. The University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter (April 2015 ) explains that, although the number of taste buds a person has does not decline with age, "the nerve receptors within taste buds, which live only one or two weeks, are replaced more slowly at older ages."  Furthermore, the article goes on to say, certain illnesses (such as diabetes) and conditions (such as dry mouth or dentures) can prevent the chemicals in foods from activating taste buds. In addition, some medications and the use of tobacco can adversely affect taste.


Now for solutions: The Wellness Letter suggests choosing stronger-tasting foods or more spices and herbs (but NOT more salt or sugar). If you are unsure about how to doctor your own recipes to add a dash of excitement, purchase a cookbook containing recipes that focus on more flavorful dishes.


Q. Can you tell me how to make my dinners more appealing?  I'm a decent cook, but the food I serve doesn't seem to impress my guests.  I don't see them attacking it with gusto.


A. Funny you should ask that because the Wellness Letter quoted above suggests an appetite-stimulating idea--using CONTRAST to make your dinner plates more attractive and more likely to wake up taste buds.  The kinds of contrasts recommended in the newsletter are texture, temperature, and flavor.  Let's expand on those themes and other contrast methods.


We asked for comments from food scientist Dr. Karin Allen (a Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board member who has taught college-level culinary courses).  Here's what she said: "Contrast is essential in a meal." She's told students that a plate with all-beige and brown foods--such as meat and potatoes--is 'blah.'"  But Dr. Cutter has this warning: Don't try to get effective color contrast by adding garnish (such as a decorative piece of parsley) to your beige plate. Add at least one part of the meal that has bright color. "Stir some red pepper into the green beans."


Variety of texture is another way to achieve contrast.  But, Dr. Allen warns, "The texture must be appropriate for the food. Potatoes shouldn't be crunchy."  [I'm glad she said that.  Who decided that mashed potatoes should have hard pieces of potato skin or bacon in them?  Not I.]


Contrast in flavor can come either from the foods themselves or from seasoning.  Asparagus has a strong flavor, so balance it with something bland, Dr. Allen recommends. Don't serve a plateful of spicy foods. Older people especially may not tolerate a lot of spices.


Now we get to my favorite form of contrast: temperature.  In case you couldn't tell, the photograph accompanying this article shows a salmon patty with a blob of sour cream on top.  It may not be gorgeous, but (I hope you'll agree) the patty looks more interesting with a white "hat" than it would without it.  More important, the temperature and texture contrasts improve the taste.


If you're not into salmon patties, here are a few other combinations that provide delicious temperature contrast: a Middle Eastern gyros sandwich topped with tzatziki {a cool white sauce, usually with cucumber pieces); hot soup with a dab of something cool smack dab in the middle of the bowl--perhaps veggies or yogurt; a toasted bagel with whipped cream cheese, lox, onion, and tomato; and these fabulous desserts: hot apple pie á la mode or with cheddar cheese or (the ultimate wonderful example of contrast in color, temperature, and texture) an ice cream sundae with vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, crunchy nuts, and whipped cream.  The cherry on the top is the final touch of color contrast.


Ignoring the idea of contrast altogether, food scientists Dr. Timothy Bowser (another member of this site's advisory board) gave us a more personal response to the question of what makes food appealing: "The most appealing meals for me are cooked by my beloved wife! She knows what I like and how to fix it. Plus she is an expert cook that was taught from a young age by her parents and a precious nanny. I think that is where we need to go with food for the elderly. It should look like a meal that they had when they were younger that was cooked by someone they loved, or a meal that they ate with their loved ones. Probably the most memorable meals for them are those associated with holidays, dates, and vacations."


Additional comments from the editor: A neat, attractive display of the items on the plate will also be appreciated by diners. If you have a knack for original, creative arrangement of food, that's great. A surprise is fun and a nonverbal invitation to dig that fork in with gusto.  My favorite examples of this: a French restaurant in Evanston, Illinois (Jilly's Cafe) that serves a hot chicken entrée in the shape of a pear.  Another example: a famous Asian/fusion restaurant in Chicago (Yoshi's Cafe) serves an edible cheese-and-breadstick "spoon" served with a bowl of soup. But it isn't necessary to go gourmet in order to get contrast. You probably do this already to some extent. 


Novelty is my final tentative suggestion--something your guest(s) rarely eat or have never eaten before will appeal to some guests. Yes, I admit, it might make others shudder.  But keep this in mind: don't make the entire meal food your guests are totally unfamiliar with.  Keep the contrast goal in mind: your novel entrée should be paired with some recognizable, familiar edibles.  Novel food is probably best for adventurous young or middle-aged adults. It's risky for most kids, who generally prefer food they "know"-macaroni and cheese, pizza, and peanut butter.  And seniors, many of whom have mean doctors who limits what they're allowed to eat, may be wary of a dish they can't identify.


This wonderful description of contrast appeared in a Chicago Tribune article about hummus pancakes written by Dorie Greenspan:  "My standard, no matter what position the pancakes play, is to include the mayo,; something green like arugula; something crunchy, like cut-up cucumbers; and something colorful and juicy, like grape tomatoes."


Q. A Middle Eastern grocery store I visited sells pastries topped with cooked vegetables. A kosher bakery I visited sells pastries (called "bourekas") stuffed with cooked potatoes and veggies. In both cases, when offered for sale, these products are displayed on the store counters. Is this safe, or, after several hours at room temperature, will they become contaminated with microorganisms that could cause food-borne illness?


A.  We asked 2 scientists about the bourekas, assuming their responses would be the same for the Middle Eastern item. As sometimes happens when we turn to experts, the answer was "It depends."  Food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter explains: "Ideally, you would want the product refrigerated unless the bakery can prove it's shelf-stable (doesn't need refrigeration).  Shelf stability may depend upon the water activity (the amount of available water in the product for bacterial growth), preservatives in the filling and dough, pH [acidity] of the filling, how much moisture migration there is between filling and dough, etc.  There are molds and some spore-forming bacteria that may cause food safety issues."  


Martin Bucknavage  senior food safety extension associate at Penn State University, echoed Dr. Cutter's thoughts and added this advice: ask the company selling the products how long the customer should hold them and at what temperature to reheat them.  "If the shop can't answer your questions, I wouldn't eat the product. You can also call the local health department and ask them how they regulate that type of product."


Confession: My husband and I each ate 2 bourekas and one Greek pastry and one Middle Eastern pastry (at different meals) even though I was a bit nervous about doing that.  We didn't get sick.  However, I did not order these products to serve at a party. I just couldn't bring myself to feed my friends items that might contain botulism spores. 


Q. Recently, Shelf Life Advice posted an article about BPA that mentioned exposure to BPA from handling some store receipts.  How can a customer tell when a receipt is on thermal paper and therefore is transferring BPA to his/her hand and, perhaps, his/her pocket or the hamburger he/she picks up for lunch?


A. At a glance, it is difficult to tell the difference between most thermal paper receipts from others. Thermal paper can be identified by exposing it to heat, such as an open flame (e.g., a lighter), or friction (e.g., rubbing with a coin or key). Heat from the flame or friction will cause the paper to discolor [create a dark smudge]. Thermal paper is often very thin and slick in appearance. The ink is not physically printed on the paper. A thermal print head is used to “write” characters on the paper.





Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences


Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D. , Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Catherine Nettles Cutter, Ph.D. , Pennsylvania State University, Department of Food Science


Martin Bucknavage, Pennsylvania State University Senior Food Safety Extension Associate and editor of PSU Food Safety News.


University of Berkeley Wellness Letter, "Taste Test," April 2015.


Chicago Tribune "Hummus pancakes deliver a world of flavor" Good Eating section, May 20, 2015.



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