Food and Drink: Treat the little ones tenderly: Steamed, microwaved or in salad, the first vegetables of spring work best with subtle additions that enhance their delicate flavours

IN THE latest version of Larousse Gastronomique, the term 'primeur' does not get a look in ('prickly pear' is followed by 'primrose' and that's that). But skip back a generation to the New Larousse Gastronomique, first published in 1970, and there is a neat definition: fruit, vegetable or any other foodstuff obtained before the normal season of its maturity. Call me old fashioned, but I would have thought this was of far greater relevance than an obscure recipe for veal with stewed primrose petals.

To me, primeurs mean, above all, vegetables: the first small, tender, sweet ones that come on to the market about this time of year. The bunches of slender carrots or tiny turnips with their abundant green foliage mark the start of the season of lighter, more sensuous foods and flavours, when eating al fresco becomes a practical proposition again.

The best primeurs should be treated simply, so that their flavour can be enjoyed to the full, but I make an exception for the classic French spring stew, Navarin Printanier. You can cook a navarin at any time of year, but the printanier can be appended only during the few limited weeks that tiny carrots, new potatoes, turnips and fresh young peas co-exist with new lamb.

Simple treatment, however, does not mean dull. You may prefer just to steam the primeurs and serve them with butter and chopped parsley, but you can vary the prescription by spicing them with a few drops of balsamic vinegar, or a drizzle of lemon oil (a blend of oils from the zest of lemons and extra virgin olive oil), if you can lay your hands on it. Though I have noticed a few new brands inching into the market, the first, inordinately wonderful lemon oil to be sold here was Granverde Colonna, available from some high-class delicatessens or by mail order (The Oil Merchant, 081-740 1335). Mint, chervil and thyme are more sprightly herbs that go well with primeurs.

Microwaving is about the best way of preserving the full flavour of spring vegetables, as long as you are cooking them in small quantities. Steaming runs a close second, although you still lose a little flavour to the water. More seeps out when they are boiled, but since cooking times are brief it is not an overwhelming loss.

To show off a fine collection of spring vegetables - say, carrots, turnips, new potatoes and maybe some asparagus - there are few better ways than serving them lightly cooked and cooled, with a bowl of mildly garlicked aoli, or a lemon mayonnaise cut liberally with chopped herbs.

Primeurs make good salads, too, tossed in vinaigrette while still warm, then left to cool. With carrots, I might fry them gently in olive oil until tender and patched with brown, then add lemon juice, mint, salt and pepper, and serve them cold as part of an hors d'oeuvre.

NAVARIN PRINTANIER

For the perfect example of this dish, you should use the smallest carrots, turnips and potatoes you can find, so that they can be cooked whole. If the turnips and potatoes are more then 1 1/4 in or so across, cut them in half. If you wish, the navarin can be enriched at the last moment with a slug of double cream or creme frache.

Serves 6

Ingredients 3lb (1.5kg) shoulder of lamb, trimmed and cubed

1oz (25g) butter

1tbs sunflower oil

2tbs flour

1 pint lamb, chicken or vegetable stock

1tbs tomato puree

bouquet garni

1 clove garlic, crushed

1lb (450g) new potatoes, scrubbed

8oz (225g) small carrots, scrubbed

8oz (225g) small white and purple turnips

12oz (350g) shelled peas

salt and pepper

Preparation Brown lamb in the butter and oil, over high heat in several batches. Transfer to heatproof casserole and pour off all except about 2tbs of fat left in the pan. Add flour and stir over a moderate heat until there is a light brown roux. Stir in stock gradually, then tomato puree. Bring to the boil, stirring, then pour over the meat. Add bouquet garni, garlic, salt and pepper. Cover and simmer gently for about 1 hour.

Add carrots, potatoes and turnips, and continue cooking for 30 minutes, before adding peas. If level falls low, add a little more water or stock: the aim is a creamy, but not too thick sauce about the consistency of single cream. Once peas are in, continue cooking until all vegetables are tender. Taste, adjust seasoning and serve.

SPRING CARROTS WITH LEMON SABAYON SAUCE

A sabayon sauce is usually sweet but it does not have to be. Here, cooking water from the carrots and lemon juice replace the usual wine, making the most delicious frothy, light sauce to spoon over carrots. The sauce must be made just before serving so keep this as a dish to serve on its own.

Serves 4

Ingredients 1lb-1 1/2 lb (450g-675g) carrots

light chicken or vegetable stock, or water

pinch of sugar

branch of dill or fennel

2 egg yolks

1 1/2 tbs lemon juice

finely grated zest of 1/2 lemon

1 level tbs caster sugar

1tbs chopped dill or fennel

salt and pepper

Preparation: Wash and trim the carrots. Simmer in stock or water (just enough to cover) with the branch of dill or fennel and the pinch of sugar, and some salt. When just tender, drain, reserving cooking water. Keep carrots warm and measure out 4tbs of their cooking water.

In a heatproof bowl, beat the egg yolks lightly with the lemon juice, zest, caster sugar, salt and pepper, then gradually beat in reserved cooking stock. Set bowl over a pan of gently simmering water, making sure the base does not touch the water. Whisk continuously until the mixture has trebled in bulk and is light and fluffy. Quickly stir in the chopped dill or fennel, taste and adjust seasoning, and pour over the carrots. Serve immediately.

ROAST TURNIPS

This is an easy and delicious way of cooking small, tender-skinned purple and white turnips. It does not work so well with green and white turnips, which have a tougher coating and need to be peeled.

Serves 4

Ingredients 16 small turnips, 1 1/2 -2in (3 1/2 - 5cm) across

5tbs olive oil

5tbs water

coarse salt

freshly ground pepper

Preparation Trim the turnips but do not peel. Sit them close together in an oven- proof dish. Spoon over the water, then the oil, and season with salt and pepper. Roast at 190C/375F/gas 5 for 30-45 mins, basting occasionally with own juices, until very tender. Serve immediately.

SAUTEED NEW POTATOES WITH LEMON, CHILLI & CORIANDER

Much as I love steamed or boiled new potatoes with mint and butter, I occasionally wonder what else I can do with them. This is one alternative: sauteed gently and finished with a mixture of hot chilli, dramatic lemon zest and fragrant coriander.

Serves 3-4

Ingredients 1lb (450g) new potatoes

3tbs sunflower or olive oil

finely grated zest 1 lemon

2 green or red chillis, deseeded and finely chopped

2tbs chopped coriander

salt and pepper

Preparation Cut the potatoes in half, or quarters if they are larger. Warm the oil in a heavy frying pan over low to medium heat. Add potatoes and fry, turning and tossing, for 15 mins until almost, but not quite, done. Add lemon zest and chilli and continue sauteing until browned and tender. Mix in coriander, season and serve.

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