Is it spring yet? While February might fit into the calendar definition of a new season, it certainly doesn’t feel like it. Despite looking at the weather and feeling as if we should wrap up warmly, stay close to the fire and eat soup and stew comfort foods – not that there’s anything wrong with that – there does come a stage when we need a change in every way. Getting outside and going for a walk makes everything feel brighter, no matter how cold or wet (honestly!), and a shuffle of what’s on your plate can have a corresponding effect on your appetite. When the days start to get longer I start looking at brighter flavours, (slightly) lighter meal options and lots and lots of salads.
Now, when I say salad, I don’t mean tasteless tomato and watery iceberg lettuce-style salad. This is not diet food to suffer through. Oh no. Instead, I want platters and large bowls full of bright colours, arresting flavours and interesting textures. This is food to nourish, but not in a hairshirt-kind of way. These are meals that don’t have to be expensive, using seasonal Irish vegetables that can be cooked – or not cooked – in different ways. Bord Bia has a Best in Season calendar on their website which is useful for identifying Irish fruit and veg of the moment. Beetroot, Brussels sprouts, carrots, celeriac, cabbage, cauliflower and parsnip are all good jumping off points for simple salads, especially if you bring some citrus to the mix. Lemons, limes, clementines and those glorious grab-em-while-you-can blood oranges have all the zesty flavour and vitamin C that we crave at this time of the year.
Despite never being convinced by the kale salad trend a few years ago, now with access to a variety of different kales from a local start-up grower – Open Hearth Farm near Glanworth, North Cork – I can see why people started massaging their leaves. It’s one of those few vegetables that thrives in the Irish winter but that willingness to survive through frosts gives it a toughness that’s quickly brought to heel with a pinch of salt, some lemon juice and a quick rub of the leaves between your fingers. If you’re not up for a bit of pre-dinner massage, kale’s sturdiness can pay dividends when you add the shredded leaves to a roast vegetable or grain salad: think about combining some of that kale with bite-sized pieces of spicy honey-roast parsnips and red onion, chewy giant couscous and cubes of feta. Unlike some more delicate leaves, it won’t get lost in the mix.
Pull all the seasonal bounty together with storecupboard ingredients: check out Café Izz for Middle Eastern spice and seed blends like dukkah and zaatar or Green Saffron for Indian spice mixes (the Bombay potatoes mix is ace) that can be sprinkled over anything roasted that you’re going to incorporate into salads. Add some good olive oil – for roasting and dressings – cider vinegar (one vinegar to rule them all), your favourite mustard, pomegranate molasses, miso and tahini to the shelf and you have all the building blocks that you need. Seeds and nuts are also great additions, as are tins of pulses like chickpeas, butter beans, black beans and cannellini beans, all of which are great roasted, as well as used straight from the tin. Just give them a quick rinse and drain before tossing them with other ingredients.
Salads aren’t necessarily dishes that you need recipes for, just ideas. They’re very forgiving – just season well, keep tasting, remember that it’s all about balance and, when in doubt, add a squeeze of citrus juice. Here are a few tips for building a better cold weather salad.
Think seasonal veg, but keep it raw:
Shredded cabbage of all colours, shredded Brussels sprouts, chopped broccoli, grated carrot or beetroot, celeriac sliced into matchsticks. Bring on some bulk: roasted root vegetables, lentils, beans, quinoa, wholemeal couscous.
Make it crunch:
Toasted nuts or seeds, roasted chickpeas, pomegranate seeds, chopped apple, quick pickled red onion.
Make it a meal:
If this is the main event, add more protein in the form of leftover roast chicken, however-you-like-them eggs, cubes of tofu – West Cork’s Otofu do some great marinaded versions – chopped crispy bacon or cheese. And, of course, cheese: cubes of feta with roasted beetroot; diced, fried halloumi – The Proper Dairy Company make a delicious and widely available Irish version – on top of orzo; Cashel Blue chunks tossed with pear and walnuts; shavings of a mature hard cheese like Coolea or Cáis na Tíre on a chopped salad with a lemony tahini dressing.
Shop bought dressing is invariably too sweet and gloopy so this is a case where homemade is always better. The proportions of a simple French vinaigrette are 3:1 eg 3 parts of olive oil to 1 part vinegar – measure that into a jar (it’s a good way of using up the remnants of a mustard jar) with some salt and pepper, put the lid on the jar and shake. Taste and see what you think. Mustard, any kind, is good. Any vinegar can be used – I particularly like the bite of cider vinegar – or citrus juice. Add a bit of honey or maple syrup or pomegranate molasses if it needs to be sweeter. Put in a dollop of tahini or yogurt if you want a creamy dressing. Don’t drown your salad – any excess dressing will keep well in that jar in the fridge. It really is as simple as that. Show it off: we eat first with our eyes so, after all the assembly, bring out your large platters or wide shallow bowls to showcase all the lovely colours and textures.
More salad inspo:
Food For Today (Impress Printing Works) by Karen Austin of lettercollum.ie has lots of thoughtful salads that make the most of garden gluts: think kale slaw with white miso dressing, roasted carrot, chickpea and dukkah.
To make you look at salad in an entirely new light, check out the always-entertaining Department of Salad newsletter from American food writer Emily Nunn.