It's time to sniff out the season's tenderest, freshest garlic, says Mark Hix

Using garlic in cooking can put the fear of God into many people; or rather, actually, the fear of the devil. My father had this really old-fashioned dislike of the stuff, and yet he probably ate it on a weekly basis without even realising it. The problem with cooking with garlic is that when it's old and has been hanging around for a while, it can be quite unpleasant, especially when under-cooked or raw.

Most people think you can keep garlic for ages, but like most fresh herbs and spices, it's best when it's really fresh. Now is the time of year when all the different types of garlic appear. In damp woods, you'll find wild garlic leaves, and if you've never come across them you will most certainly have smelled the stuff without knowing it. If you know what you're looking for, you may also be able to find three-cornered or hedgerow garlic, and if you can find them in the garden, garlic shoots are tasty in a salad or stir-fry, as are garlic chives.

We British don't, however, have a history of being great garlic lovers - unlike the French - and most of our traditional dishes don't call for the use of the stuff. Of course, when Italian food became popular in the late Sixties, garlic became a regular feature in our supermarkets and our fridges.

Duck's egg and wild garlic omelette

Serves 2

I recently did the "Omelette Challenge" on Saturday Kitchen on BBC2 - and a challenge it certainly was. My mate Stuart Gillies holds the record so far at 30 seconds and I didn't manage to get mine out of the pan and on the plate in time. A good omelette is a bit of an art. Anyone can throw eggs into a pan and wait for them to set, brown the mixture under the grill and slide it on to a plate. That's not what it's all about, though. In hotels we used to dread an omelette coming on order because all you had to rely on was the old trusty cast-iron omelette pan - and it always stuck like mud to a blanket. Non-stick pans were rarely used in professional kitchens then, for some unknown reason, and they would have made the job a damned sight easier.

From college days, we were taught that the omelette had to be baveuse (just cooked) and rolled out of the pan into a cigar shape, with not a bit of colour on it. This involves a hot pan and constant stirring until the eggs just begin to set, then a tap and a roll on to a plate.

Good eggs are crucial and my preferred eggs are Clarence Court (www.clarencecourt.co.uk) because you know exactly where they come from. Fillings are a matter of taste and I really do like fresh herbs, and in this case chopped wild garlic leaves. If you can't find wild garlic, then garlic chives, which are available from Chinese supermarkets, work just as well.

A couple of good knobs of butter
A handful of wild garlic leaves, shredded
6 medium free range ducks eggs, beaten
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Season the beaten eggs. Heat a knob of butter over a low heat in a 20-25cm non-stick frying pan or a favourite frying pan that doesn't stick. Add half the wild garlic and cook for 20-30 seconds on a high heat until it wilts. Pour half of the egg mix into the pan and stir over a medium heat, with a wooden spoon or plastic spatula, until the mixture begins to set but the eggs are still soft. Stop stirring and turn it upside down on to a warmed plate; this is best done by just placing the plate upside down on to the pan and inverting the pan to turn out the omelette. Repeat with the rest of the mix to make the other omelette.

Rabbit with garlic

Serves 4

Why is it that we don't eat more rabbit in this country? The meat is really cheap and tasty - and what's more, rabbits are wild vermin that needs to be culled to prevent crop damage. I went wild rabbiting recently for the first time since I was a kid, and it reminded me, like most game pursuits, of what good sport it is.

I tend to reserve the tender little saddle fillets and keep them in the freezer to use in a salad. In fact, once you've removed the legs, just wrap and freeze the saddle on the bone. Baking garlic cloves whole like this gives them a nice, almost caramel-like flavour, which complements the mild gamey flavour of the rabbit.

40g flour, plus more for dusting
12 rabbit legs (front and back)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil, for frying
2 heads of garlic with the cloves separated and peeled
4 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
50g butter
100ml white wine
1 1/2 litres hot chicken stock, or a good-quality chicken stock cube dissolved in that amount of hot water
3tbsp double cream
2tbsp chopped parsley

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 5. Halve the back legs of the rabbit at the joint, then lightly season and flour all of the rabbit legs with a tablespoon of the flour. Heat some vegetable oil in a frying pan and lightly fry them for 2 minutes on each side without colouring them too much.

In a heavy-based saucepan, gently cook the shallots in the butter for 2-3 minutes until soft. Add the rest of the flour and stir well. Gradually add the white wine, stirring to avoid any lumps, and then gradually add the chicken stock. Bring to the boil, add the rabbit legs and lightly season. Simmer gently, covered with a lid, for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until the rabbit is tender. Meanwhile, put the cloves of garlic in a pan and cover with milk, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes, then drain. Heat a little olive oil and a knob of butter in a frying pan and cook the garlic cloves on a medium heat, stirring them every so often, until they are nicely browned. When the rabbit is cooked, add the garlic cloves and simmer for a further 10 minutes. Then add the cream and parsley; re-season if necessary. The sauce should be quite thick - if not, remove the rabbit legs and simmer until it has thickened. Serve with mash and curly kale or spring greens.

Roast garlic soup with Gruyère

Serves 4

You may well think that two bulbs of garlic is extravagant for a soup, but those fresh new season's bulbs, when roasted, take on a sweet, almost caramel-like taste. If you have access to wild or hedgerow garlic, then you could chop some and also add at the end as a garnish.

2 bulbs of new season's garlic
60g butter
2 onions, peeled and roughly chopped
1 1/2 tbsp plain flour
1 1/2 litres hot vegetable stock, or a couple of good quality stock cubes dissolved in that amount of water
100g Gruyère cheese, grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 5. Halve the bulbs of garlic and place them on to a baking tray and cook for 40 minutes in the oven. If they are starting to brown too much cover with foil.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium-sized saucepan and gently cook the onions for about 5 minutes, stirring every so often until they are softened. Then add the flour and stir well, and then gradually add the hot stock, stirring well to avoid any lumps forming.

Season and simmer for about 20 minutes, and then add the roasted garlic and continue simmering for another 30 minutes. Blend until smooth in a liquidiser and then strain the soup through a conical strainer. Re-season if necessary and serve with the Gruyère cheese scattered on top.

Grilled gurnard with aioli

Serves 4

Gurnard is such an underrated fish, in my opinion, and I think it should be offered by both fishmongers and restaurateurs on a much more regular basis. It's also a good one to choose because it's fished from sustainable sources. It's up to us chefs and the fishmongers to get you lot used to eating fish that isn't quite so familiar - otherwise the more familiar varieties will become over-fished and driven to extinction.

Ask your fishmonger to remove the head and butterfly the fish like a kipper.

4 red gurnard weighing about 400g each, butterflied as above
Flour for dusting
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil for frying
A handful of flat parsley leaves
1 stick of celery, thinly sliced
1tbsp capers
1tbsp olive oil

For the aioli

6-8 cloves of garlic depending on your taste, peeled and crushed in a little salt
Salt
2 egg yolks at room temperature
300ml olive oil
Ground white pepper
Juice of half a lemon

First, make the aioli. In a bowl, mix the garlic, egg yolks and a good pinch of salt. With a balloon or electric whisk, gradually trickle in the olive oil, stopping if it gets too thick and adding a teaspoon of water to prevent it from curdling. When you have added nearly all of the oil, season it with pepper and add some lemon juice to taste, and add the rest of the oil. The consistency can be adjusted with more water, depending on how thick or thin you prefer it.

Season and lightly flour the fish. Heat some olive oil in a frying pan and cook the fish, skin side down first, for about 3-4 minutes on each side on a medium heat until crisp. Meanwhile mix the parsley, celery, capers and olive oil together and arrange in small piles on serving plates. Transfer the fish to the plate and serve the aioli on the side.

What to eat in March

* It's the beetroot season and if you have a good greengrocer or farmers' market, you're sure to find a good selection of beets, including candy white and yellow, etc.

* This country doesn't produce many colourful vegetables but there are interesting imports from Europe starting to appear, such as monk's beard, white asparagus, and peas and beans.

* Try cardoons (artichoke thistle) in a cheesy sauce or as an addition to a salad.

* Fruit is still rather restricted to citrus and imported plums and a few raspberries and strawberries from the warmer parts of Europe.

* The salmon and sea trout season gets underway, and I look forward to getting my hooks in some this year.

* Spring lamb is probably the best meat option for the next couple of months. Also, don't miss out on the offal either, including sweetbreads, kidneys and hearts. We really should start using the lesser cuts of the animal, too - it's a waste not to.

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