Having a mildly rebellious spirit the idea of Valentines Day leaves me a little cold. I don’t like being told that on any given day I should be particularly loving or affectionate. It always seems staged, lacking in spontaneity, and the mere fact that I am expected to do something makes me not want to do it at all. I like to think of myself as a romantic for the other 364 days a year and then I take a break on the 14th of February! Still, that’s probably just the grumpy old man surfacing so this year I am trying to conform. There is, however, one very good aspect of Valentines Day and that is the amount of cardboard hearts that seem to appear everywhere. If nothing else it makes me think of that organ and how we really take it for granted. That little pump in your chest keeps everything going and yet we give it little thought on a day to day basis. Modern humans are very funny. We’ll spend time and money having our cars serviced, heating boilers checked, water pumps assessed and yet in the main we pay little attention to our internal pumps and filters, many of which are irreplaceable!
The month of February is a great opportunity to think about the heart and how we treat it. Obviously heart health is about more than food, but diet definitely plays a part. We can help our hearts by cutting back on salt and losing the bad fats particularly the man made chemical versions. It can be a bit of a minefield, but rather than stopping certain things it might be easier to approach it from an adoptive path. How about becoming a little more Mediterranean in your outlook? Countless studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet reduces risk of heart disease. Personally I think the nice weather could have something to do with their overall health as well, but the diet is rich in fruit, vegetables, nuts, olive oil and avocado. In essence it is a diet very much based on real food; fresh fish, fresh and cured real meat, vegetables, fruits and grains using fresh herbs to add flavour.
Pesto is a basil based Mediterranean concoction that we mainly associate as a partner for pasta, but this bright green sauce is fantastic with so many other things and heart healthy. You can buy green or red pesto but it is easy to make and you won’t have to worry about it having too much salt. Pesto is based on five main ingredients; fresh basil, olive oil, parmesan, pine nuts and garlic. A classic pesto can be whizzed up really quickly in a food processor by using 3 generous handfuls of basil leaves, a handful of pine nuts, a handful of grated good quality parmesan, 5 to 6 tablespoons of olive oil, a clove of garlic, a pinch of Maldon salt, black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice. Process the lot to a smooth sauce. You can always play with the basic recipe by using walnuts instead of pine nuts and while basil is traditionally the herb of choice, rocket, parsley or baby spinach make interesting alternatives. You can also add a little red chilli or even an anchovy for an extra taste kick if you are feeling brave.
Pesto is not just for pasta. If you are making a risotto, stir through a few teaspoons of pesto and it really lifts the taste. Pesto works well on chicken, chops or steak. It makes a really nice, fresh alternative to calorie laden creamy sauces. From what I can gather chicken breasts seem to be the dieters’ choice, particularly at this time of year. I often hear women in the shop asking about interesting things to do with chicken breasts. Pesto will certainly cheer it up. Slice the breast lengthways, without cutting all the way through. Fill the pocket with 1 tablespoon of pesto. Add a little spinach and secure with a skewer. Bake or grill until the chicken is cooked. It works equally well on fish. I often put some white fish on baking paper spread each fillet with a little freshly made pesto, then fold over the paper to make a parcel and bake for about 10 minutes at 180 – 200°C/Gas 6 or until the fish flakes when tested with a fork. A friend even uses pesto on sandwiches in place of butter and if you have left over potatoes, then this adds something special to potato salad. Just mix the pesto with some sour cream or mayonnaise, add some chopped spring onions, snipped chives and combine it all with the cold potatoes and serve. For a super snack thinly slice a French stick then spread each piece with pesto and top with some grated parmesan or mozzarella. Bake at 180°C/Gas 4 for about 15 minutes. You can mix it through eggs before you scramble them or add it to white wine vinegar and a little more olive oil in a jar, shake and you have a great Italian style dressing for anything. I’m sure there are a number of other ways it can be used also and the only limit is the imagination.
There are many other things we can do for our hearts when it comes to eating well but the best thing is to eat as much fresh, real food as possible. You won’t go far wrong by eating local food grown and reared in Co. Tipperary. For more information and recipes on fresh food check out my website, Jameswhelanbutchers.com and the tipperaryfoodproducers.com site as well.
This post was written by me, Pat Whelan, owner of James Whelan Butchers and a passionate advocate of local artisan food. My family have been producing quality Irish Angus beef for generations using a traditional dry aging process. This tradition is one that I continue to practice at our abattoir on our family farm in Garrentemple, Clonmel. These posts aim to impart some of the wisdom to readers and help them get the best out of the meat they eat! Our meat is available online here! I welcome your feedback to Pat@jwb.ie