Don't just keep your bread for sandwiches and the side-plate, says Skye Gyngell. From simple salads to sumptuous desserts, it can be an integral part of your cooking

As I have become more confident as a cook, I have become less technique-driven and more personal in my style. I've come to realise that one of the most important aspects of eating to me is, quite simply, the idea of conviviality. Forget time-saving fast food, eating should be something we savour and share together. And there is nothing more synonymous with the shared experience than bread.

At Petersham Nurseries we make very simple, often yeast-free breads: flat and spiced, crunchy and salty, and perfect to mop up the endless spicy, hot-and-sour vegetable combinations that we love to create. But for real bread, truly beautiful bread, I turn to the many artisan bakers whose products are so pure that they warrant being enjoyed as a meal in themselves.

Good bread needs to be sought out. Supermarkets are unlikely places to find it, but there are many specialist producers who are committed to the loaf, and who have inspired me to use their breads as an integral part of my cooking. Choose one that is good enough to eat by itself but do not let it overpower a meal of which it is just one part.

In recipes, I use a type of bread known as pagnotta - a firm, open-textured, chewy, slow-rising bread (a slow rise is important because it encourages great flavour and strong texture). Look for peasant-style breads such as this, for they have the right character to cook with. Doughy bread will become sodden and cotton-woolly, and that's not what you're looking for. If pagnotta is hard to find, look for pain de campagne, pane Toscano, Pugliese or even a really good ciabatta. And I love sourdough for toast and earthy toasted breadcrumbs - there's no better bread for eating with sweet, unsalted butter. s

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, off Petersham Road, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627

Pain perdu with crème Anglaise, poached rhubarb and stem ginger

Serves 4

For the rhubarb

4 sticks of rhubarb
100g/31/2oz caster sugar
50ml/2fl oz water (or orange juice)
2 pieces of stem ginger, chopped, plus 1tbsp of its syrup

For the crème Anglaise

425ml/15fl oz whole organic milk
150ml/5fl oz double cream
6 organic egg yolks
180g/6oz caster sugar
1 vanilla pod, split in half lengthwise

For the pain perdu

6 slices of white bread, crusts removed
2 organic eggs
2tbsp double cream
40g/11/2oz unsalted butter

Wash and slice the rhubarb. Place in a pan with the sugar and water; simmer for 10 minutes, and cool. Add the ginger and its syrup to the cool rhubarb. Set aside.

Place the milk, cream and vanilla in a pan over a gentle heat. Simmer and set aside; whisk the eggs in a bowl for 3 minutes. Add the milk, whisking as you do. Pour back into the pan and whisk over a low heat, until it thickens (up to 10 minutes). Remove from the heat, pour into a bowl to cool; leave the vanilla in until serving.

Slice the bread into fingers, and beat the eggs with the cream. Soak the bread in this mixture for 3 minutes. Melt the butter over a medium heat. Cook the bread until golden brown. Divide between your 4 plates and spoon on the rhubarb and custard. Dust with icing sugar and serve.

Salad of toasted bread, capers, sour cherries, roast onions and Parma ham

Serves 4

6oz/175g slightly stale peasant-style bread
8 slices of Parma ham
6tbsp mild olive oil
11/2tbsp of red wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Handful of rocket
1tbsp grated Parmesan
1tbsp cherries (softened for 10 minutes in warm water)
1tbsp capers (ideally packed in salt), rinsed

For the roasted onions

2 medium red onions
1tbsp caster sugar
2tbsp olive oil
2tbsp red wine vinegar

Heat the oven to 200C/425F/Gas7. Peel and slice the onions and place on a baking tray; sprinkle on the sugar, vinegar and olive oil, and season. Roast for 30 minutes. Brush the bread with oil and tear into chunks. Grill briefly. Combine the oil and vinegar, and season; toss most of this vinaigrette on to the torn bread. Squeeze out the softened cherries and toss through, along with the capers, roasted onion, Parmesan and rocket. Pour on the rest of the vinaigrette. Serve with slices of Parmesan piled on top.

Bruschetta with tomatoes, red onions and ricotta, with anchovy dressing

Serves 4

4 slices of bread (pagnotta or any peasant-style bread)
1 clove of garlic, peeled
4 ripe tomatoes
2 red onions, peeled and sliced into generous pinwheels
50ml/2fl oz mild olive oil
2 sprigs lemon thyme
2 fresh bay leaves
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced
A few drops balsamic vinegar

For the dressing

3 cloves of garlic
3 good-quality anchovies (Spanish, packed in olive oil)
1 small bunch flatleaf parsley
Zest of a lemon, and juice of half a lemon
A little black pepper
50ml/2fl oz mild olive oil
4tbsp buffalo ricotta

Heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Slice the tomatoes and place in a baking tray. Scatter on the onions, thyme, bay and garlic. Season and drizzle with the oil and vinegar. Roast in the oven for 30 minutes, or until soft.

Put all the dressing ingredients in a mortar (except the oil and ricotta), and grind to a purée. Add the oil, set aside.

Grill the bread until golden brown on both sides; rub with the garlic, and spoon on the warm tomato and onion mixture. Place a dollop of ricotta on top and add just a little lemon dressing. Serve as a starter or as a simple lunch dish with a rocket salad, dressed with lemon and olive oil.

Panade of Swiss chard and Gruyère

Serves 4

4 medium yellow onions, peeled and finely sliced
70ml/3fl oz mild olive oil
8 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
10 slices of stale bread, crusts off and cut into cubes
650ml/1pint 2fl oz chicken stock (or water)
200g/7oz grated Gruyère
600g/1lb 4oz chard, washed
2 fresh bay leaves

Heat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas7. Place the onions in a pan with a quarter of the olive oil and the bay. Place on a medium heat and season; add the garlic and sweat. Stir until they are almost caramelised, for about 20 minutes. Sweat the chard until wilted. Season and set aside.

Drizzle the remaining oil on the bread, moisten with a little water and season. Assemble the panade in a 1-litre (13/4pt) gratin dish. Start with a layer of onions followed by a scattering of bread, a little chard and a sprinkle of cheese; keep layering until all ingredients are finished.

Warm the stock in a pan and pour over, stopping an inch or so from the brim. This will keep it moist but not soupy. Cover with foil and bake for an hour and a half; 20 minutes before serving, remove the foil and turn up the heat to brown. This is a beautiful accompaniment to roast chicken.

For more information on suppliers of beautiful bread visit www.danlepard.com

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