A Table for Friends, Skye McAlpine, Bloomsbury Publishing
Review by Pili Rodríguez Deus. Disclaimer: this is not a paid review.
You’ve not been able to host many parties of late and you’re dying to host some soon; I have what you need.
I came across Skye McAlpine’s new cookbook not via her food column on the Sunday Times, but via a publisher I follow. When I went to investigate further, it was actually her first book A Table in Venice that I wanted –the cover looks stunning and it sounds like a great book to learn about Italy’s culinary traditions as I have studied Italian, been to Northern Italy and fallen in love with it. But there was the added excitement of having the next thing, so I pre-ordered A Table for Friends.
It was also the fact that the latter is all about hosting. I’m one of those people who love food and sitting at the table with friends, when friends cook; I hardly ever host. Why? I find it stressful; the perfectionist and the worrier in me join forces with the fact that my husband is not exactly a social butterfly. So, I thought it would make for useful reading. However, McAlpine’s photography had me from the word go. You can see stunning photos of Skye’s style on Katie Armour Taylor’s blog. If, like me, beauty and style make you tick, you won’t be disappointed. But enough of me and over to the book.
I’ve had it a week or so and I’ve so far made the honey and lavender panna cotta –sublime, very creamy with that perfect wobbly texture–, the ambrosial apricots with pistachios –zesty mouthfuls of joy–, and the lemon and samphire potatoes, which I served with hake –deliciously lemony and naughtily salty.
The book includes the following introductory sections:
- Why the author cooks and how she learnt to do it.
- How to use the book –a really useful section.
- Why Italian food.
- Planning a menu by season and by numbers (introduction).
- Tidying and washing up – well, if you bought this book, chances are you don’t employ someone to do the job, so it comes in handy.
- Setting the table and serving plates –the sections you’re dying to read if you’re anything like me.
The body of the book, or recipe section, is made of:
- and extras
Additionally, all dishes are signposted as either:
- “thrown together”, like panzanella
- “on the hob”, like Tuscan spring veg soup, or
- “in the oven”, like torta pasqualina
The extras, in case you're wondering, include three breads, including a very appealing focaccia; vinaigrettes; sauces and, hello, cocktails.
The last section of the book contains menu ideas:
- How to cook by season – with corresponding menus
- How to cook by numbers –subdivided into cooking for 4-6 / 8-10 / 12 / 20+
- How to cook by timings – dishes thrown together at the last minute; dishes you can prepare up to six hours ahead / 12 hours ahead / the day before / days before
Each section is divided into stars, sides and sweets. And, the cherry on the cake, there are menu ideas at the bottom of each recipe too! She’s a sweetheart, and so organised.
Dishes I look forward to enjoying (besides all of them):
- Torta pasqualina – I grew up listening to my mum talk of this dish which she learnt to make in Uruguay, though I think the Uruguayan version is more like a thick veg pie whilst McAlpine’s looks like a dainty thin tart.
- Wintry saffron couscous -which looks bewitching jewelled with pomegranate.
- All the Panzanella varieties –I love tomatoes.
- Sausages with grapes – sounds and looks like a great combination
- Aphrodite’s roast chicken –not telling you the secret to love and lust.
- Roast pork with persimmons –I love roast fruit with roast meat and there’s no lack of roast fruit recipes or ideas in this book.
- Blood orange, red onion, black olive and basil salad –for the colours and vitamins; I eat with my eyes.
- Coffee and mascarpone biscuit cake –there are many beautiful cakes in the book, but it is the texture of this that I dream of; and the coffee, because I can’t drink coffee normally.
- Pistachio panettone –I’m a panettone and a pistachio fan, so it’s a winner for me.
- Christmas cake with glacé fruits –I promise you you’ve never seen a more sumptuous British Christmas cake. It deserves a poem or a painting.
- Summer berry cloud cake –I love summer berries and, with that name, I'm dreaming of pillowy marshmallowy clouds.
- I would love to make the semifreddos, of which there are a few, but I bought a fridge without a freezer lately... I need a separate mini-freezer just to be able to make this!
The recipes aren’t all Italian. For example, she borrows a couple of Spanish recipes from a friend, and there are some English ones like the Christmas cake (though hers looks above the mark) and an Australian bread (her husband is Australian). They don’t need any strange ingredients, which will be a plus to most people. I use unusual ingredients myself as I love discovering new tastes, shapes and colours, but most people prefer an easy shop, according to my experience of cookbook reviews.
- Would suit someone who often hosts people and prefers no fuss cooking that still looks and tastes amazing.
- Young professionals who enjoy hosting but lack the cooking experience. It has ideas for pasta, roasts, salads, veg sides, easy breads, cocktails, roast fruit sides and fruit puddings and... tonnes of cakes. She definitely has a sweet tooth!
- Young couples perhaps.
- If you are an experienced, say 60+ year old, familiar with Italian cuisine and a foodie who's seen it all, you may find many dishes too simple for you. Though I’d flick through it in a bookshop before saying NO. You may like the hosting ideas or the ready-made menus, or fall in love with the photography.
Talking of photography
It is the author’s and very Italian-looking and sophisticated, full of fresh veg and sumptuous fruit, flowers and crusty bread as decoration; like a classical painting. Think dainty mauves and pinks.
The author has a markedly friendly and idiomatic style which I'd love to translate. So, my final words, go and explore it; I think you’ll like it.