Now that winter frosts have lifted, it’s time to harvest those fresh spring roots and shoots, says Mark Hix

Seasonal salads are among those foods I look forward to the most, once the frost has gone and young tender leaves can be grown and harvested in the back garden, either directly in the soil or in pots or tubs. I have my favourites that I grow every year, and I also experiment with new seeds when I come across different examples. You can start them off inside and just transfer them outside when you’re confident that those unexpected late frosts have finally disappeared.

Seeds come in all sorts of packet sizes and I’ve found that Franchi seeds of Italy always sell an interesting selection of Italian salads, herbs, fruits and vegetables to inspire your salad bowl ( www.seedsofitaly.com). If you’re impatient and just can’t wait, then Jekka McVicar’s herb farm in Bristol will deliver you ready-grown organic herbs to plant (e-mail farm@jekkasherbfarm.com or contact www.jekkasherbfarm.com).

Imagine being able to create your own inspirational bespoke salads without the fuss of shopping for the same bag of salad that everyone else in the street is going to end up buying. Even planting a load of peas and beans can give you a few good harvests of shoots that you can just keep cutting in rotation for fresh tasty salad additions.

Asparagus and watercress salad with deep-fried duck egg
Serves 4

I spotted my first bunch of British asparagus a few weeks ago in Bridport Market over the Easter weekend – a bit early, I thought, but as our weather is warming up all the time, you can never be quite sure. I managed to trace the asparagus farm via my Cornish food spy, Rick Stein, who reckoned it was St Enodoc asparagus from Great Keiro farm near Rock (01208 863781).

I’m always keen on waiting for the first English asparagus to appear instead of cheating by using Spanish or Peruvian examples, so if farmers can encourage early spears to appear by Easter, then all the better. And if you’re a fan of watercress, then why not celebrate National Watercress Week; the 2007 Watercress Festival begins on Sunday 13 May in Alresford, Hampshire ( www.watercress.co.uk)

A couple of handfuls of young watercress, or small salad leaves with any thick stalks removed
16 medium asparagus spears, trimmed and cooked
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 duck eggs
Flour, seasoned, for dusting
1 egg, beaten
50g fresh white breadcrumbs

For the dressing

1tbsp white wine vinegar
1tsp English mustard
1tsp grain mustard
3-4tbsp extra virgin rapeseed oil, or olive oil

Boil the duck eggs for 4 minutes, then refresh under cold water for a few minutes. Carefully peel them and dry them on some kitchen paper. Pass the eggs through the seasoned flour, shaking off any excess, then the beaten egg and finally the breadcrumbs, ensuring the eggs are well coated.

Pre-heat about 8cm of oil to 160-180C in a large thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep-fat fryer.

Make the dressing by whisking all of the ingredients together. Deep fry the eggs for 2-3 minutes or until golden, then remove with a slotted spoon on to kitchen paper. Arrange the watercress and asparagus on plates, season and spoon over the dressing. Serve the duck egg whole or halved on top.

Dublin Bay prawn salad with peas and bacon
Serves 4

The sweetness and simplicity of a pea is lifted to a new height with the luxurious taste of shellfish. Towards the end of this month, or even sooner, you will find English peas in shops, but if you can’t wait then opt for imported ones (or you could even get away with frozen).

If you can’t get your hands on Dublin Bay prawns or langoustines, then prawns or lobster, or a mixture, make a good alternative.

A couple of handfuls of pea shoots, washed and dried
60-80g shelled weight of peas
A good knob of butter
2tsp sugar
24 langoustines
4 rashers of thick-cut streaky bacon or pancetta, cut into rough 1/2 cm dice

For the dressing

1 tbsp good quality white wine vinegar, such as chardonnay
A few sprigs of tarragon
1/ 2tsp Dijon mustard
The juice of half a lemon
2tbsp olive oil
2tbsp groundnut or vegetable oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Mix all the ingredients together, preferably the night before, for the dressing and season. Bring a pan of well-salted water to the boil and cook the Dublin Bay prawns for 2 minutes, remove with a slotted spoon and leave to cool.

Bring another pan of water to the boil with just enough water for the peas, add salt and pepper, a good knob of butter and a couple of teaspoons of sugar and cook the peas for 3-5 minutes until just tender. Then drain and leave to cool.

Peel the langoustines, saving the shells in the freezer for a bisque. Cook the bacon on medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 3-4 minutes until crisp. To serve, toss the peas and pea shoots in the dressing, season, arrange on plates with the langoustines and bacon scattered over.

Atul’s spring lamb salad
Serves 4

This marinade was inspired by a dish that Atul Kochhar of Benares cooked for the new Great British Menu competition. Serve as a starter or a main course with either best end of lamb or chops, or the small fillets under the saddle.

8 lamb cutlets, trimmed of any excess fat, but leaving about 1/3 cm layer on them

For the marinade

1tbsp very finely chopped papaya (from the salad)
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tsp finely chopped green chilli
1tsp ground fennel seeds
1tsp black pepper
1tsp sweet paprika
3tbsp mustard oil
100ml single cream
3tbsp double cream
2tbsp Pernod or Ricard

For the salad

1 large shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
A handful of mint leaves
A handful of coriander leaves
A fennel bulb
1 firm papaya, skinned and seeds scooped out

For the mint chutney

A couple of large handfuls of mint leaves
1 small red onion, peeled and finely chopped
The juice of half a lemon
1 green chilli
2tbsp vegetable oil
4tbsp thick yoghurt

First make the marinade. Mix all of the ingredients together and marinate the lamb overnight in a non-reactive container covered with clingfilm. To make the mint chutney, drop the mint leaves into boiling water for a couple of seconds, then remove with a slotted spoon into iced water. Squeeze out any excess water then finely chop the mint in a food processor or by hand and mix with the rest of the ingredients.

For the salad, trim and thinly slice the fennel on a mandolin or with a sharp knife and do the same with the papaya, then mix with the rest of the salad ingredients.

Heat a barbecue or ribbed griddle with a little vegetable oil, pat any excess marinade from the lamb and cook on a medium high heat for about 3-4 minutes on each side, keeping them pink. To serve, arrange the salad on plates with the lamb and a spoonful or more of the chutney.

Braised oxtail and spring vegetable salad
Serves 4-6

I first made this dish 17 years ago in my days at Mr Pontac’s in the City and had completely forgotten about it until the judges for the Great British Menu recommended that I change my starter and it popped into my head again.

For the oxtail

1kg oxtail, cut into 3-4cm thick pieces and trimmed of any excess fat
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
A few sprigs of thyme
60g butter
50g flour, plus a little extra for dusting
2tsp tomato purée
100ml red wine
2 litres beef stock or a couple of good quality stock cubes, dissolved in 2 litres of hot water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the salad

A handful of pea shoots
A handful of small salad and herb leaves such as silver sorrel, bittercress, amaranth etc
60g peas, shelled weight, cooked
80-100g broad beans, shelled weight, cooked

For the dressing

1tbsp cider vinegar
1tsp English mustard
3tbsp extra virgin rapeseed oil

First braise the oxtail. Pre-heat the oven to 220/gas mark 7. Season the pieces of oxtail and lightly dust them with flour. Roast in the oven for 30 minutes, turning them halfway through to make sure they’re nicely coloured on both sides.

Meanwhile, heat the 60g butter in a saucepan and gently cook the onion, garlic and thyme for 3-4 minutes until soft, stirring every so often. Add the flour and tomato purée and stir well. Gradually add in the red wine and stock, stirring well to avoid lumps forming, and bring to the boil. Add the pieces of oxtail then simmer gently on a low heat for about 2 hours.

Check the pieces of oxtail. The meat should be tender and easily removed from the bone; if not, replace the lid and cook for another 15 minutes or so. Drain the oxtail in a colander over a bowl to reserve the sauce.

When the oxtail is cool enough to handle remove the pieces of meat from the bone and place in a saucepan with a little of the sauce.

Make the dressing by whisking all of the ingredients together and seasoning. Toss the salad leaves, peas and broad beans with the dressing and arrange in the centre of the serving plates.

Reheat the oxtail a little and spoon piles around the salad with a small amount of sauce just coating the meat then spoon a little more dressing over the oxtail. Mark Hix goes head to head against Michael Caines on ‘Great British Menu’ from Monday to Friday 11 May, at 6.30pm on BBC2

What to eat in May

Look out for Jersey royals in the shops; they should have that lovely earthy taste.

The asparagus harvest in all parts of the country is in full swing. It makes a great starter for a dinner party.

You can create a great compote with outdoor rhubarb, which goes very well with a creamy pudding such as a panna cotta.

Get munching on British peas and beans, which should be coming through now.

If you’re a wild garlic fan, there is still some knocking around; and even the flowers are great in a salad or deep-fried.

In the luxury market, you may want to tuck into a gull’s egg (if you can get hold of them) with some home-made celery salt and mayonnaise.

As far as mushrooms go, the rare morel might make an appearance – and there might even be a few St George’s mushrooms still to be had.

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