Today is Don’t Fry Day in the United States – an unofficial celebration which is not quite what it seems. In this case “fry” is not about food, but concerns your skin. The day is promoted by the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention, and occurs on the Friday (i.e. “Fry Day”) before Memorial Day because Memorial Day launches the summer season in the U.S. Their basic mantra is, “That ‘healthy tan’ is killing you.” I grew up in Australia which has the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world. My U.S. dermatologist used to want to see me every 6 months, and each time he took off bits of my skin for analysis. Always benign, but you can never be too careful. Nowadays I use sunscreen, wear a hat, and walk on the shady side of the street.
So, that’s the overt reason for Don’t Fry Day. There are also dangers associated with fried foods. Most of these are common knowledge: increased fat intake, the dangers of trans fats etc. No need to dwell on them. But there is one possible danger that is less well known – acrylamide. Acrylamide has many industrial uses including wastewater treatment, the production of polymers, plastics and paper, and mineral processing. It was discovered in foods in 2002 by Eritrean scientist Eden Tareke in Sweden when she found the chemical in starchy foods, such as potato chips (potato crisps), French fries (chips), and bread that had been heated higher than 120 °C (248 °F). It was not found in food that had been boiled or in foods that were not heated. Acrylamide levels appear to rise as food is heated for longer periods of time. Although researchers are still unsure of the precise mechanisms by which acrylamide forms in foods; many believe it is a byproduct of the Maillard reaction. Later studies have found acrylamide in black olives, prunes, dried pears, and coffee. The FDA has analyzed a variety of U.S. food products for levels of acrylamide since 2002.
Although acrylamide has known toxic effects on the nervous system and on fertility, a June 2002 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization concluded that the intake level required to observe neuropathy (0.5 mg/kg body weight/day) was 500 times higher than the average dietary intake of acrylamide (1 μg/kg body weight/day). For effects on fertility, the level is 2,000 times higher than the average intake. From this, they concluded acrylamide levels in food were safe in terms of neuropathy, but raised concerns over human carcinogenicity based on known carcinogenicity in laboratory animals. According to the American Cancer Society it is not clear, as of 2013, whether acrylamide consumption affects people’s risk of developing cancer.
The Heat-generated Food Toxicants (HEATOX) Project was a European Commission-funded multidisciplinary research project running from late 2003 to early 2007. Its objectives were to “estimate health risks that may be associated with hazardous compounds in heat-treated food, and to find cooking/processing methods that minimize the amounts of these compounds, thereby providing safe, nutritious, and high-quality food-stuffs.” While it found that “the evidence of acrylamide posing a cancer risk for humans has been strengthened,” it also pointed out that home-cooked food tends to contribute far less to overall acrylamide levels than food that was industrially prepared, and that avoiding overcooking is one of the best ways to minimize exposure at home.
I see this all as reasonably good news. I rarely buy commercially produced foods and I don’t fry or eat fried foods that are high in carbohydrates very often. Furthermore, I don’t prepare every recipe that I give here on the day that I give it. Otherwise I’d look like a blimp. I do test most of them, of course, but my eating habits are much more Spartan. In particular I am partial to salads, and so for Don’t Fry Day I’ll focus on them.
I don’t mind making salads containing proteins such as meat, eggs, or cheese, but they are not my favorites. I like my proteins served separately. The standard salad in Argentina is lettuce, tomato, and onion, chopped and mixed together, and drizzled with a little olive oil. That’s all right as a side dish, but not very exciting as a main course (plus, I don’t like raw onions and lettuce much). I prefer something more complex. My main thing is that I don’t like “dressings” whether commercial or home made. I’ll happily eat a salad with nothing on it all, or with a little olive oil. Here’s a brief list of my usual ingredients:
Lettuce. My least favorite salad ingredient. I used to grow my own varieties of leaf lettuce which were very flavorful. Store-bought lettuce can be dull, and I am not interested in fillers. Most important thing to remember is to tear the leaves (as you should with all leafy greens). Cut edges often turn brown.
Spinach. By contrast, my favorite leafy green component. I grew spinach too when I had a garden and would choose small, young leaves for salads.
Belgian endive. Adds some crunch and visual appeal.
Mushrooms. Regular commercial agarics (white mushrooms) will do in a pinch and I like them raw. But I’ve been spoilt in recent years in China and Italy by the seemingly endless variety of wild mushrooms. As with leafy greens I break them in pieces rather than cut them.
Tomatoes. I like whole cherry tomatoes in a salad. If I use bigger varieties I cut them small and remove the seeds and centers to avoid getting the salad soggy.
Onions. Here I’ll include the whole onion family – chives, leeks, shallots, etc. Generally, I find raw Spanish onions to be a trifle strong in salads, but I’ll normally add something from the family such as scallions or green onions. I like chive flowers too when I can get them.
Zucchini. I prefer sliced young zucchini over cucumber because it’s less watery and crunchier. The flowers are good too – very popular in Italy. Zucchini with tender edible flowers tend to be small.
Avocado. A perennial standby of mine, but they must be perfectly ripe, and added right at the end just before serving with a good sprinkling of lemon or lime juice to prevent browning.
Carrots. Can’t stand them in salads.
Herbs. In Medieval cooking parlance a “herb” was any leafy annual. Lettuce was as much of an herb as basil or parsley. I don’t use flavored dressings, but when I can I will use fresh herbs right in the salad. One has to be sparing, though. I used to grow 18 varieties of mint, which were wonderful, but very strong. Sage and tarragon are also good.
I’m not the arbiter here. Pick what suits your palate. I make salads with what I have on hand, so mine vary a lot. I’ll generally chill a salad before serving, but not for very long. The cooling process is a mixed blessing: it makes the salad refreshing on a hot day, but diminishes the flavor.