Taste matters: Mark Hix makes the most of the new season's green herbs

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Spring is the season to get really generous with those newly planted or reappearing vibrant green herbs. Historically they were grown and used for their medicinal properties but these days many people misuse herbs, scattering them over food, just for a bit of visual colour. I too have been guilty in my younger days of garnishing dishes with sprigs of mint and chervil and discovered that they blew off the plate when they went through the vortex of the kitchen swing door. Now, of course, I appreciate the way they enhance certain dishes. I've recently planted out a new herb and salad plot at our home in Charmouth, Dorset, and have really stuck to the stuff I'm going to use, although I don't know how they are going to fair up in those salty sea winds.

Lamb's sweetbreads with herb sauce

Serves 4 as a starter

Lamb's sweetbreads are one of my favourite foods. I know that quite a lot of you are probably turning your noses up as you are reading this but do give them a try: they are good value and have such a neutral flavour compared to other offal, though you may need to order them from your butcher in advance.

You could also serve this as a main course with some buttery mash, just by doubling the quantity of ingredients.

400g lamb's sweetbreads
A couple of good knobs of butter
A handful of wild garlic leaves (optional)

For the sauce

A good knob of butter
2 medium shallots, peeled, halved and finely chopped 1tsp flour
2tbsp medium white wine
250ml chicken stock
250ml double cream
2tbsp chopped herb leaves (parsley, chervil, tarragon)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Soak the sweetbreads in a bowl of cold water for about 1 hour then drain, place in a pan of cold salted water, bring to the boil and simmer for a couple of minutes then drain and leave to cool. Trim any sinew from the sweetbreads and cut in half, if large. Meanwhile, gently cook the shallots in the butter for a minute without colouring, then stir in the flour and mix well. Next, gradually stir in the wine and stock, a little at a time to avoid lumps forming. Bring to the boil and simmer very gently for 10 minutes then add the cream and continue simmering until it has reduced by about half and thickened.

While the sauce is cooking, season the sweetbreads, heat the butter in the pan until foaming and cook the sweetbreads for 3-4 minutes, turning them every so often until lightly coloured then remove and drain on some kitchen paper. Add the sweetbreads and wild garlic leaves and simmer for another 2-3 minutes and re-season if necessary.

Grilled black sea bream with herb sauce

Serves 4

Black sea bream is one of my favourite fish to cook simply on the bone. There were a good few landed in the south-west last year – which is a great sign – and I would say that they are also among the most successful fish to come out of fish farms. You will probably have some of the sauce left but don't panic: it will keep for several weeks in the fridge in a sealed jar and is great with grilled meats or vegetables.

4 whole black sea bream, about 250-300g each, scaled, gutted and fins trimmed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2-3tbsp olive or rapeseed oil For the green sauce 20-30g mint leaves
20-30g parsley leaves and soft stalks
20-30g basil leaves and soft stalks
1 small clove of garlic, peeled and crushed or preferably a few wild garlic leaves
1tsp Dijon mustard
60-70g olive oil
2tbsp capers, washed

Pre-heat a ribbed griddle pan or heavy frying pan. Season and lightly oil the fish and cook for about 5 minutes on each side until just cooked. Meanwhile, blend the herb leaves and garlic in a liquidiser with the mustard and olive oil to a coarse purée then add the capers and give it another brief blend keeping the capers a roughly chopped consistency. Season to taste and add a little more mustard or more capers to taste.

Serve the sea bream with the sauce separately, to be poured over at the table.

Herb salt

This is a great condiment to have on hand in the store cupboard as a seasoning or to serve with gull's eggs (or other types of eggs) or even just for adding to a salad, rather like the celery salt recipe I gave you some time ago. I've used Cornish sea salt here, the relatively new British salt produced down on the Lizard Peninsula, but other varieties will suffice too. You can also vary the herbs you use according to what you have available in the garden or your preference in taste. Some herbs, like mint and basil, won't really work as the leaves will discolour and the flavour will be too overpowering. You could use soft green herbs as here or come up with a favourite combination of your own.

30g parsley leaves
30g tarragon leaves
30g fennel or dill
30g chervil
150g or so of Cornish sea salt

Pre-heat the oven to 140°C/gas mark 1 or the lowest setting it will go. Lay a sheet of greaseproof paper on a baking tray and scatter the herbs on top. Place in the oven for about an hour or two, or leave overnight with the door slightly open. Remove the herbs when they are dry and crisp but be careful that they don't discolour. Place the herbs and salt in a food processor and blend as coarsely or smoothly as you wish. Store in an airtight jar.

Grilled squid with sweet and sour alexanders

Serves 4

You may have driven past alexanders on the roadside and thought they were just weeds. They are prolific down near the coast in Kent and I'd guess that there are very few locals who actually cook with them. I suppose they have the look of angelica and can be cooked like celery, though they have a perfumed aroma and taste all of their own – especially the leaves, which on their own tend to be too strong, so I usually just mix a few in with the stems to taste.

500-600g cleaned squid
Vegetable or corn oil for brushing

For the alexanders

250-300g alexanders
3 medium shallots, peeled, halved and finely chopped
3tbsp white wine vinegar
2tsp English mustard
1tbsp tomato ketchup
4tbsp extra-virgin rapeseed oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cut the stems of the alexanders into 3-4cm lengths then either quarter them lengthways if they are thick or leave the thinner ones whole or just halved lengthways. Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and cook the alexanders for 3-5 minutes or until tender, then drain. Meanwhile, simmer the shallots in the vinegar and 3 tablespoons of water until the liquid has reduced by half. Remove from the heat and whisk in the mustard, ketchup and rapeseed oil then season to taste and add more mustard, ketchup or vinegar to taste if required. Mix the warm alexanders with the dressing and leave to sit for about an hour.

To serve, heat a ribbed griddle pan or heavy frying pan. Cut the squid into 4-5cm pieces, season and brush with a little oil. When the griddle pan is almost smoking, cook the squid for about 30-40 seconds on each side. You may need to put another pan on top of the squid as it sometimes curls up during cooking. Toss the squid with the alexanders and serve hot or just warm like a salad.

Vegetable and herb casserole

Serves 4

Like meat-eaters, vegetarians like to be a bit spoilt sometimes too – but it's often the case that restaurants don't make much of an effort, preferring to treat them like they have some sort of social disorder or disease instead. In our defence, I'd say that British chefs are getting much better at serving veggies than we used to be, and in some restaurants these days you even get a separate vegetarian or vegan menu. By contrast, in some nameless countries not too far across the water, the old ways of treating vegetarian guests sadly still prevail.

1 large onion, peeled, halved and roughly chopped
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
A couple of good knobs of butter
2tsp flour
1ltr vegetable stock
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into cm slices on the angle
4 medium young turnips, scrubbed
4-6 sticks of celery, peeled if necessary and cut into 1cm-thick slices on the angle
1 young leek, cut into rounds
4-5 leaves of green cabbage, cut into rough squares
2-3tbsp chopped green herbs like tarragon, parsley, chervil, chives, fennel
2-3tbsp double cream

Gently cook the onion and garlic in the butter for 2-3 minutes without colouring, add the flour then gradually stir in the vegetable stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the carrots, turnips and celery and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the leak and cabbage and simmer for another 6-7 minutes, then add the herbs and double cream. Check seasoning and re-season if necessary.

Serve with rice or mashed potato or whatever else you fancy.

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