Planning a socially distanced dinner party? These summery recipes from Skye McAlpine’s new cookbook will convince guests you’ve made much more effort than you really have.
If you love food and having friends over for dinner, then you’re probably of a fan of Skye McAlpine’s. The author, cook and columnist for The Sunday Times, who lives between Venice and London, has a passion for cooking and living la dolce vita. As such, her Instagram feed is the perfect place to turn to if you’re looking for culinary inspiration and some seriously beautiful table settings.
McAlpine’s latest cookbook, A Table for Friends: The Art of Cooking for Two or Twenty, celebrates the joy of eating with friends and family – and as restrictions on gathering with loved ones are gradually lifted, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Filled with simple, seasonal dishes, it’s the perfect resource if you’re in the mood for a summer feast, whether you’re expecting company, dining alone or cooking for those you live with.
Some of McAlpine’s most uplifting and impressive recipe are salads: not the kind based around limp supermarket staples, but vibrant, Italian-inspired dishes. And to give Stylist readers a taste, she’s shared three recipes from A Table For Friends below.
For a quick, convenient dish that can be ready in half an hour, try McAlpine’s Sicilian couscous salad with caper berries, tuna and fennel. Her panzanella with garden peas and artichokes, meanwhile, is a fresh green salad that can be easily customised with asparagus, broad beans and fennel shavings.
Finally, McAlpine’s wild rice and lentil salad works equally well as a side dish or a centrepiece – and can be made ahead of time, leaving you free to spend time with your guests without flitting to and from the kitchen. Salad days will never be the same…
Skye McAlpine’s Sicilian couscous salad recipe
Skye says: “If you were being pedantic, you would cook couscous in a couscoussière, a Moroccan clay pot in which you slowly steam the grains over a bubbling stew. The way I do it is rather less romantic and utterly inauthentic, but it is quick and convenient without compromising either on the flavour or the delightful fluffy texture of the cooked grains.
“You could of course serve couscous plain, dressed with a little oil and lemon juice, even a smattering of aromatic spice – cinnamon, nutmeg and so forth – to go with pretty much anything. But, inspired by the way they cook it in Sicily, I throw in salty caper berries, a good tin of oily, almost meaty tuna and sweet aniseedy fennel. This makes for a vibrant centrepiece more than substantial enough to serve on its own.”
Hands on time: 15 minutes
Hands off time: 15 minutes, for the couscous to swell
- 300g couscous
- 1 vegetable stock cube 400ml boiling water
- 70ml extra virgin olive oil
- 20g flaked almonds 10–12 caper berries, halved
- 1 small fennel bulb, finely sliced
- 400g tinned tuna, drained
- a handful of rocket juice of 1 lemon
- sea salt flakes
- freshly ground black pepper
Pour the couscous into a large heatproof bowl. Dissolve the stock cube in the measured boiling water, then pour the boiling stock over the grains, cover and set aside for 10–15 minutes to swell up.
When all the liquid has been absorbed, use a fork to fluff up the grains, then douse generously with one-third of the oil. Now add the almonds, caper berries and fennel and toss everything together well.
Add the tuna, breaking it up with a fork and mixing it through the salad. This will happily keep for a day in the fridge.
Lastly throw in the rocket (if it sits in the dressing, it will wilt). Squeeze in the juice of the lemon and dress with what is left of the oil. Toss again and add salt and pepper to taste.
This is perfect picnic food alongside some good hard cheese, cold ham or salami and a loaf of bread; I favour damper bread, wrapped neatly in a clean tea towel and served with lots of salty butter. I don’t think you’d want for much more.
And for pudding…
Strawberries with a pot of clotted cream and a good solid picnic cake such as pistachio butter cake with marzipan icing, but on this occasion leave it uniced; instead, just dust it with icing sugar.
Skye McAlpine’s panzanella with garden peas and baby artichokes recipe
Skye says: “Panzanella, in most of its incarnations, is a riot of colour, but this variation is an ode to the verdant plenty of spring: a sumptuous green salad, only amplified. I use those tender baby artichokes that are so small and sweet you can eat the choke, or else the chargrilled kind you find packed in glossy olive oil in jars. Feel free to add to the mix as you please: a few stems of slender asparagus either raw or lightly chargrilled, shavings of fennel, or just-blanched, podded broad beans. You could also slip in a few oily, salty anchovies.
“Whereas most panzanella will keep – indeed improve in flavour – with time, lettuce tends to wilt if left sitting around for more than 30 minutes. If you want to prepare this in advance, leave out the leaves and soft herbs, then throw them in just before serving.”
Hands on time: 10 minutes
- 200g stale crusty bread, such as baguette or ciabatta
- 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- juice of 1 lemon
- 150g shelled sweet garden peas
- 6–8 baby artichokes, or chargrilled artichokes in a jar, finely sliced
- 2 spring onions, finely chopped
- 2 baby gem lettuces
- a handful of mint leaves
- a handful of basil leaves
- sea salt flakes
Roughly tear the bread into pieces and throw it into a large bowl. In a second bowl, combine the olive oil, lemon juice and a generous pinch of salt, whisk vigorously with a fork, then drizzle over the bread. Now add the peas, artichokes and spring onions, then toss together well to dress all the ingredients.
When you’re ready to go to the table, roughly tear the lettuce leaves, mint and basil, throw them in the bowl, then toss one last time before serving.
Piled high on a pretty serving plate, this is such a pleasing burst of colour and works well as a centrepiece for a light vegetarian lunch.
To go with it, maybe something just-warm, like a dish of roast stuffed tomatoes with their buttery gratinated breadcrumbs, and a courgette blossom and taleggio galette with heaps of oozing, melted cheese. If you’re in the mood for a more substantial meal, serve this with a tray of honey-roast poussins.
And for pudding…
After a lighter meal, something quick and easy to throw together, like a large dish of frozen berries with saffron white chocolate sauce would make a lovely fresh choice. And to follow a heartier spread, try something delicate, such as a lavender honey or salted caramel pannacotta.
Skye McAlpine’s wild rice and lentil salad recipe
Skye says: “Loosely adapted from Charlotte Wood’s brilliant book Love and Hunger, this light, nutty recipe works equally well as a centrepiece or a side dish. I like it best with wild rice, which you often find sold as part of a mix with basmati or brown rice and that works too, just adjust the cooking times accordingly.
“You can cook the components – rice, lentils and crisp fried onion – ahead of time in stages, if that makes life easier, then simply assemble everything on the day you want to eat it. Once assembled, it will sit happily in the fridge for a day or two. Better still, you can buy the lentils (and rice, if you like) in sachets ready-cooked, so all you need do is toss it all together and dress.”
Hands on time: 15 minutes
Hands off time: 25-30 minutes (15 of which you’re busy doing other things)
- 200g wild long-grain rice, rinsed and drained
- 1 litre water
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for seasoning
- 120g puy lentils, rinsed and drained
- 500ml vegetable stock
- 1 onion, finely sliced
- 120g pomegranate seeds
- a small bunch of mint, leaves picked
- sea salt flakes
Toss the wild rice into a saucepan. Cover with the measured water and add 1⁄2 tsp salt. Bring to the boil over a high heat. When the water begins to gallop, reduce to a simmer, cover and cook over a gentle heat for 25–30 minutes. The rice should be chewy and some grains may burst open like exotic flowers in bloom. Drain off any liquid, then tip into a large bowl, seasoning generously with olive oil and a little salt while the rice is warm.
While the rice cooks, toss the lentils into a separate saucepan. Cover with the stock and bring to the boil over a high heat. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer gently for 25–30 minutes until just cooked: you want them to hold their shape nicely and have a little bite to them. Drain away any liquid and add to the bowl with the rice. Fluff together with a fork and season with a little more olive oil.
Lastly, cook the onion: heat the 2 tbsp of olive oil in a saucepan over a medium heat, add the onion and fry until very crisp and dark. Combine the onion and pomegranate in a serving dish with the grains and pulses.
Before serving, tear in the mint leaves, toss, check for seasoning and serve.
This is an absolute dream for picnics, with a tub of hard-boiled quail’s eggs in their little speckled shells, and celery salt for dipping. And a good selection of crudités with a jar of deliciously rich home-made truffle mayonnaise, charcuterie and a nice loaf of bread.
And for pudding…
Punnets of strawberries and a tin of rose-scented meringues
A Table for Friends: The Art of Cooking for Two or Twenty by Skye McAlpine (£26, Bloomsbury) is out now
Photography: Skye McAlpine
Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.