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The first signs of summer

Bright mornings, mild afternoons and sunny evenings are casting their spell over our guests, lulling them into a false frame of mind about what to eat.

I get deceived too, and I should know better than to fall for a few rays of sunshine. On really mild days, I even get overtaken by an urge to brighten salads with a summery red shot of tomatoes or to lift desserts with the elegance of berries, such is the seductiveness of gentler weather. But if these ingredients are around, it is only because they are flown in from overseas hot-houses.

This is when I turn to the humble avocado. Yes, it is also imported, which might seem like a double standard, but it is radiant with the freshness of summer, making it perfect for bridging the tantalising gap between our aspirations for a taste of warmer weather and the reality of what is available. They travel surprisingly well too, down to the unusual fact that they do not ripen on the tree - their leaves prevent the release of ethylene, the ripening enzyme, and it is only once they are picked that they edge their way to ripeness. A daily squeeze of the nose will reveal the perfect yielding moment of softness, signalling readiness.

Their texture is what lures me: the flesh possesses a buttery richness which lends it a creamy depth, not to mention versatility. Light shellfish, smoky bacon or salty blue cheese can all cosy up to the avocado, as can sweet mango, sharp lime or pungent coriander.

Smoked salmon with avocado and wasabi puree

For the avocado and wasabi puree

1 large ripe avocado

Salt

Juice of a lime

A dab of wasabi paste, about the size of a large hazelnut, either from a ready-made tube or powdered and reconstituted according to manufacturer's instructions

3 rounded dessert spoons of thick crème fraiche

For the salmon and salad

1 ripe avocado for slicing

2-3 slices of smoked salmon per person according to portion size desired

Mixed salad leaves of your choice, such as frisee, lambs lettuce and mizuna

Fronds of chervil and tarragon, optional, to mix through the salad leaves

Lemon juice

Olive oil

Fresh ground black pepper

Method

1 Make the avocado wasabi puree first. This can be done a couple of hours in advance and placed, covered, in the fridge - it will not go brown if stored so the air cannot get to it. Cut one avocado in half and remove the stone. Scoop out the flesh of the avocado into the jug of a small blender. Add a pinch of salt, the wasabi and the lime juice. Process to a puree, scraping the sides down once or twice with a rubber spatula if necessary, then add the crème fraiche. Slowly pulse this in - or fold it in by hand if you prefer - until it is well mixed. Be careful, as over-vigorous mixing can cause it to split. The best way to store the puree is in a disposable piping bag, tied shut so air cannot get to it. Alternatively you can place it in a small tub and cover the surface of the puree with cling film to act as a skin to exclude air. Refrigerate until needed, for up to two hours (sometimes it will hold longer successfully without discolouration).

2 Pick through the salad leaves to remove any brown discoloured leaves, then place in a bowl and add the herbs if using. Set aide.

3 Cut the second avocado in half and remove the stone carefully, then peel away the skin. Slice lengthways neatly to allow two slices per person.

4 Arrange the smoked salmon attractively to one side of the plate and season lightly with fresh ground black pepper. Lay the two avocado slices per person on top.

5 Drizzle a little olive oil over the leaves and toss once or twice to coat, then add a little squeeze of lemon juice and toss once more. Arrange the leaves neatly towards the rear right-hand side of the plate. Cut off the tip of the disposable piping bag and pipe a generous mound of the avocado-wasabi puree at the front of the plate. If working from a tub, scoop a big spoon fun instead. Serve at once.

Avocado, blue cheese, bacon and baby spinach salad with hazelnut dressing

6 rashers of pancetta or streaky bacon

4 dessertspoons of hazelnuts

200g baby spinach leaves

1 large ripe avocado

120g of your preferred blue cheese, diced or crumbled

For the dressing

1 level dessertspoon of Dijon mustard

75ml of sherry vinegar (or more to taste)

80ml olive oil

120ml hazelnut oil

Pinch of salt and fresh ground black pepper

1 Chop the bacon or pancetta into fine fingers and place in a wide, cold frying pan. Set over a moderate heat. As the pan heats up, the fat will slowly render out of the meat, so it will cook in its own fat. Continue frying gently until crisp and golden brown. Drain the bacon in a colander set over a bowl to catch the fat. Reserve both separately.

2 Place the nuts on a baking tray and cook in a pre-heated oven at 180C/gas mark 4 until the nuts are golden brown - this will only require a few minutes.

3 For the dressing: place all the ingredients except for the oils in a mixing bowl and whisk together. Whisk the oils in steadily, making sure they emulsify. Store in a jar with a lid for now, shake well before using.

4 Pick the stems off the spinach and wash the leaves carefully so they do not bruise, then spin dry in a salad spinner. Place the leaves in a salad serving bowl.

5 Cut the avocado in half and remove the stone, then peel away the skin. Cut into dice or slivers and add to the leaves.

6 Add the bacon, the blue cheese and the nuts. Add a spoonful or two of the reserved bacon fat to the dressing, if you wish, then shake or whisk well. Drizzle enough over the salad to coat lightly, then toss gently. Serve at once. If you wish to omit bacon for a vegetarian alternative, add some toasted croutons in its place for a textural contrast.

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