Not just a bit on the side: Turn over a new lead and dig into one of Skye Gyngell's sumptuous salads

Inventive, fresh salads deserve to be more than an accompaniment and it's never too early in the season to make them the main attraction

It is the first month of spring and – theoretically – the cold weather should now be subsiding. A larger choice of produce is becoming available and food no longer needs to be quite so heavy to sustain us through the day. Salad is often thought of as dull, one-dimensional and inconsequential, but this needn't be the case. Put together with thought, salads comprising several ingredients and combining seasonal produce are a course in themselves. Think balance: sweet, salty, sharp and always with a crunch. There are no rules, just use your imagination...

Salads should not be served cold from the fridge; room temperature is a perfect way to experience purer, subtler tastes. And it is essential that salad should be dressed just before serving, so that both its flavour and texture are experienced at their very best.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627, petershamnurseries.com

Celeriac rémoulade with Parma ham

Celeriac is nutty and sweet, and the depth and richness of this dressing beautifully balances the smokiness of the ham. A scattering of walnuts strewn over at the last minute completes the dish. Serve as a starter, or as a light lunch accompanied by some crusty, peasant-style bread.

Serves 6

For the dressing

1 tbsp Dijon mustard
4 tbsp crème fraîche
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 celeriac
24 very fine slices of prosciutto
A handful of walnuts, roughly chopped
A few sprigs of parsley

Put the mustard in a bowl and stir in the crème fraîche. Add a small pinch of salt and a couple of grindings of black pepper. Set aside while you prepare the rest of the salad.

Using a sharp knife, cut away the outer layer of the celeriac, cut the remainder into eighth-inch rounds and then into fine batons. Spoon over the dressing and toss together lightly but thoroughly – your fingers are the best tools. Place a little dressed celeriac on to each plate, followed by a slice of prosciutto, and continue to layer. Scatter over the walnuts, a little very finely chopped parsley and serve.

Salad of roasted squash, chilli, ricotta and agretti

A salad that comprises several components makes a delicious meal on its own. This salad is full of interesting flavours that taste of late winter/early spring. Agretti, also know as monk's beard, is a variety of marsh grass that is succulent and gently salty. It is good warm or cold; we pickle it at this time of year and serve it alongside cured meats – you can use pickled agretti wherever capers are called for.

Serves 6

1 butternut squash
Salt and pepper
3 sprigs of oregano or marjoram
1 tbsp olive oil
1 bunch of agretti (small-leafed spinach is a good alternative if you can't find it)
Small bunch of salad leaves
The juice and zest of one lemon
60ml/21/2fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
40g/11/2oz grated Parmesan
200g/7oz ricotta
1 red chilli, seeds removed

Heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Slice the skin from the squash, cut in half and scoop out the seeds. Cut into one-inch cubes. Place on a baking tray, season with salt and pepper, tuck the marjoram in between the pieces and drizzle with olive oil. Roast in the oven until soft – about 40 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.

Boil a pot of water over a high heat. Do not salt, as the agretti already has a slightly salty taste. Pick over the agretti and remove the fronds from their stems. Once the water has boiled, plunge the agretti in and remove almost at once. Drain with a colander and set aside until cool. Wash and pat dry the salad leaves.

Put the leaves in a bowl along with the cooked squash and agretti. Squeeze over the lemon juice, season with salt, and add the zest, grated Parmesan and oil. Toss together. Divide among six plates, spoon the ricotta over the top and scatter over the chilli. Serve at once.

Blood orange and puntarelle salad

Blood oranges came very late this year; normally their first appearance is in late December and they are not at their best until the middle of their three-month season. This year we first saw them in early February – perhaps it was due to the dismal weather all of Europe has suffered from this year. As a result, they are still around now but not for very much longer. Beautiful ruby-red jewels, their taste is sharp with a hint of raspberries – and somehow they are lovely as part of a simple salad.

Puntarelle is part of a family of lettuces known as cicoria – if this is difficult to find, fennel makes a lovely alternative.

Serves 6

7 blood oranges
2 tbsp mild-tasting olive oil, such as Sicilian or Ligurian
1 bulb of cicoria or fennel
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Slice one of the blood oranges in half and squeeze the juice into a bowl, then add a little salt, pepper and the two tablespoons of olive oil. Whisk together well, then set aside.

If using puntarelle, pull off its outer leaves until all you are left with is the pale white bulb. Slice very finely and place in the bowl along with the olive oil and juice mix. If using fennel, remove its fibrous outer layer and slice into fine ribbons.

Using a small, sharp knife, remove the peel and pith from the remaining oranges and slice into pinwheels. Add to the bowl and toss lightly together; arrange attractively on a serving plate. Perfect alongside delicate white fish.

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