Share and share alike: Mark Hix creates delicious summery starters to impress your guests

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The weather's let us down recently – but that hasn't deterred our chef from cooking summery first courses that are perfect for sharing with guests.

I've created summery hors d'oeuvres for you this week in the probably vain hope that sunshine finally arrives; so far it's been a real shocker. I've recently got into the habit of creating a selection of sharing starters for my dinner parties, as it feels a lot more informal. Also, as more people seem to have odd eating habits it allows me to accommodate all palates and keep my guests happy.

Smoked mackerel, cucumber and caper salad

Serves 4-6

Slightly cooked cucumber takes on a completely different flavour than when it is eaten raw. When it's prepared like this, it brings out the cucumber's sweetness and is delicious with smoked fish.

1 cucumber, cut in half lengthways with the seeds scooped out
3tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
The juice of 1 lemon
2tbsp capers, drained
The fillets from 2 medium smoked mackerel, boned and skinned
1tbsp chopped parsley

Cut the cucumbers into half-cm slices on the angle, heat a couple of tablespoons of the olive oil in a frying pan and cook the cucumbers for 3-4 minutes on a medium heat, without colouring, and seasoning as they are cooking until they begin to soften a little. Transfer to a bowl and leave to cool. Mix in the capers and lemon juice to taste and arrange on a serving dish. Break the mackerel into pieces on top, spoon over a little more oil and scatter over the parsley.

Bloody Black Cow tomatoes

Serves 4-6

My friends Archie and Jason Barber are local dairy farmers who have just launched Black Cow Vodka (blackcowvodka.wordpress.com), which is made from the excess whey in Childhay Manor, Broadwindsor in Dorset and which is the world's only pure milk vodka. It's damn good stuff and I've made a kind of Bloody Mary dressing here and served it spooned over these oxheart tomatoes which have a lovely ribbed exterior. If you can't get your hands on oxheart tomatoes, then large beef tomatoes will do.

2 large beef or oxheart tomatoes, cut into 1½-2cm thick slices
3-4tbsp rapeseed oil
A few leaves of celery, shredded
1-2tbsp freshly grated horseradish
For the dressing
3-4tbsp vodka, more if you wish
1tbsp Worcestershire sauce
Tabasco to taste
2tbsp tomato juice
Celery salt to taste
2tbsp rapeseed oil

Heat the rapeseed oil in preferably a non-stick frying pan and fry the tomato slices for about 2-3 minutes on each side on a high heat, until they are lightly coloured, and then transfer them to a serving dish with a fish slice or spatula, reserving any pan juices.

To make the dressing, whisk all of the ingredients together along with the pan juices and season with celery salt.

Spoon the dressing over the tomatoes and then scatter over the shredded celery leaves and grated horseradish.

Green bean and bacon salad

Serves 4-6

This is a delightfully simple salad to have a bowl of as a starter or a main course in the middle of the table to share. I've used runner beans here which I have just briefly blanched, but you could also use a mixture of beans and peas if you wish.

A couple of large handfuls of small tasty salad leaves and herbs
10-12 runner beans, finely shredded on the angle
2tbsp vegetable or corn oil
100-150g bacon, cut into ½cm dice or use ready-cut pancetta or bacon pieces
3 x 1cm thick slices of bread, cut into rough 1cm square croutons
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the dressing

1tbsp cider or white wine vinegar
½tbsp Dijon mustard
2tbsp vegetable or corn oil
2tbsp olive oil
½tbsp chopped tarragon

Cook the beans in boiling salted water for about a minute then drain in a colander. Whisk all of the ingredients together for the dressing and season to taste. Heat the vegetable oil in a frying pan and cook the bacon pieces for 2-4 minutes, turning them as they are cooking until they are crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on some kitchen paper, leaving the oil in the pan.

Fry the cubed bread in the oil, turning them as they are cooking, until they are golden; then remove and drain on the paper with the bacon.

To serve, toss the salad leaves with the dressing, beans and bacon, season and transfer to a serving bowl and scatter the croutons over.

Caponata with mozzarella

Serves 4-6

Caponata is delicious served as a sharing dish or you could try matching it up with mozzarella or creamy burrata.

For the caponata

2 medium aubergines, cut into rough 1cm cubes
Vegetable oil for frying
4-5 sticks of celery, any stringy stalks peeled, cut into rough 1cm pieces
4-5tbsp olive oil
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 x 225g can of chopped tomatoes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1tbsp caster sugar
75ml white wine vinegar
1tbsp grated dark chocolate, minimum 70 per cent cocoa solids
40g salted capers, rinsed in cold water
12 large green olives, stoned and quartered

To serve

200-250g burrata or mozzarella
A handful of Greek or normal basil, torn
A little extra virgin olive oil

First make the caponata: heat some vegetable oil in a frying pan until very hot and cook the aubergines in a couple of batches, stirring every so often, until they are golden; then remove with a slotted spoon and dry on kitchen paper. Fry the celery pieces in the oil left in the pan, or a little more if necessary, and dry on kitchen paper. Gently cook the onion in the olive oil in a thick-bottomed saucepan for 2-3 minutes, until soft. Add the tomatoes, season and simmer for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the sugar and vinegar in a saucepan, add the chocolate, capers and olives and heat the mixture, stirring until the chocolate has melted. Add to the tomato mixture and simmer for another 5 minutes.

Add the aubergines and celery to the sauce; continue to simmer for 20 minutes. Leave to cool to room temperature then transfer to a serving dish. Break the burrata on to the caponata or leave it whole, scatter the basil over and drizzle with a little olive oil.

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Life and Style
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