James Whelan Butchers: The Art of Salad

I think it’s safe to say that current generations growing up in Ireland will undoubtedly have a much more sophisticated palate than those of us in the vicinity of the half century mark.    What we have had to work hard at in order to re-educate our taste buds, they take very much for granted.  I know four year olds who call from the table for someone to “bring the balsamic”.  I know a three year old who is barely out of nappies and yet insists on using the micro plane unassisted in order to grate parmesan cheese over her pasta.  In school they are learning about healthy snacks, thank God, and the range of fruit available to them is no longer limited to a dry red apple.  Oh the red apple, that in my day, was put in the lunchbox but only ever eaten in desperation.   It rattled around with the flask the entire journey home only to stay on board again, a tad bruised, for the following day’s lunch.  They will also grow up with a knowledge and love of summer fruit and vegetables and will not be the salad dodgers that many of my contemporaries are.

Vine Tomatoes

It’s not surprising that the prospect of ‘salad’ doesn’t really ignite the fireworks in the average Irish adult’s mind.  We were led to believe that a head of iceberg lettuce, a regular tomato and onion slices, smothered in dodgy vinaigrette was the pinnacle of summer eating.   There was often the added bonus of a mayonnaise drenched bowl of shredded carrot that was audaciously offered as ‘coleslaw’!  Who were we kidding?  But we ate it and decided it had summer written all over it.

Today we are faced with a wonderful myriad of greens from peppery rockets to something with a little more bite like Romaine.  Even iceberg lettuce can still be a star in the company of the right things and recently I’ve revisited simple home grown garden lettuce, which is moist and soft and very flavoursome.  I love to throw in spinach leaves, lambs lettuce and often will chop in handfuls of fresh coriander, chives, basil or mint from the garden.  My bowls of green goodness are good without a dressing or even another ingredient being added.

My main salad inspiration comes from France.  The French know how to do it. By observing what they do, I have been inspired to create some pretty good ‘Chez Whelan’ signature salads of my own.  The first rule of the French salad is excellent ingredients.  This is the first rule of food in any language if you ask me.

Get the vinaigrette dressing right; take time to experiment and perfect it.  The simplest contains olive oil (the good stuff I’m afraid!), wine vinegar, salt and pepper all whisked together.  You want the overall dressing to

Warm Chicken Salad with Cashew Nut and Mango Dressing

be pleasantly tart but the flavour of the oil must still come through.  ‘Dressing’ a salad is also something to be considered.  Let’s start with the verb; it’s ‘to dress’ not ‘to drown’.  Think of the salad as you on a hot summers’ day.  You want enough ‘dressing’ so people can see you are dressed and you are not totally naked, but you want those clothes to be light, complimentary to your frame, enabling you to breathe and leaving plenty of bits open to the air.  Dress your salad by all means, just don’t drown it.

Once you have mastered a basic vinaigrette (of course you can buy it in a bottle but that’s no fun), then you can start experimenting with other oils and ingredients.  Use a rapeseed oil instead of olive oil.  Add some mustard perhaps and or some very finely chopped garlic or a maybe a shallot.  If the dressing is becoming too muddy and thick, add a tablespoon or two of warm water to loosen it out again.  Don’t forget your seasoning and taste continuously as you mix.

A salad should have ingredients you enjoy, it’s personal.  I love a green salad with crunchy celery, cucumber and lardons and a drizzle of dressing.   The lardons give it that salty punch that makes it taste like a day at the beach; real summer.  The main thing to know is that you can put anything, particularly cold and raw into your salad.  Think balance, soft and crunchy, salty and sweet, moist and dry and don’t forget to get some colour going. After all we eat with our eyes as well.

Salads are really great sides in the summer. You can prepare them ahead of time and really get imaginative with the ingredients; hard boiled eggs, croutons, dried fruits, nuts and seeds; the only limit is your imagination.   In the summer particularly I love a good steak with a salad. It’s the best fast food around.Basket of Fresh Vegetables from the Cloughjordan Community Farm

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

We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of  James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Handweavers Rathcoole and Kilmacanogue, Dunnes Stores Cornelscourt, Rathmines and Swords in Dublin. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers

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