Culinary author Skye McAlpine has always found that food tastes better when it’s eaten in good company, and her simple-yet-delicious approach to cooking certainly makes for ideal dinner party dishes. Best known for her unpretentious Italian recipes, she has channelled everything she has learnt about the joy of cooking for others into a new book, A Table for Friends. Filled with lovely dishes for effortless entertaining, it’s the ideal companion for summer dinner parties. Here she reveals her expert tips for your next soirée.
Keep it simple
Especially at this time of year, when the weather is warm, focus on the kind of food you don’t need to cook but can just throw together. Things like melon with slivers of prosciutto; tomato with chunks of snowy white mozzarella with a few fresh basil leaves and heaps of olive oil; or panzanella (a kind of bread salad).
Set the table
Setting the table with nice plates, cutlery and glasses makes even the simplest of meals feel special. Fill a jug of water with sprigs of mint, lay out bowls of fruit, and light candles. For a special occasion, a white tablecloth can transform the energy of the space.
Fill up with flowers
Peonies are my favourite when in season but you can never go wrong with roses. If you’re eating in a garden, cut flowers and foliage from your surroundings are a lovely addition. Mix herbs like sage and rosemary into small posies to give texture and scent.
Get as much of the cooking as you can done ahead of time: it might not buy you time per se, but it will certainly create the illusion of it and makes everything more relaxing. I love dishes that I can largely prepare ahead, and then once my guests have arrived all I need to focus on are the simple tasks, like tossing a salad or making a dressing, which I can do mindlessly and intuitively while I’m chatting away.
I never bother with starters because when everyone sits down to lunch or dinner, I want to be able to sit down with them, relax and enjoy their company; not be worried about clearing plates and bringing out the next course.
Instead of a starter, I like to lay out olives and salumi, perhaps a whole chunk of cheese on a wooden board, a plate of radishes with butter and salt, or a few crostini to enjoy with a bottle or two of prosecco before dinner. Then we can drink and chat and nibble on this or that while I potter in the kitchen.
You can ensure tastier food by shopping seasonally, as the Venetians do. Just because it is on the shelves, produce won’t be at its best if it isn’t in season. Look at where the food has come from; the less it has travelled, the more deliciously fresh it will be.
Collect your crockery
I love to use vintage crockery; whenever I see something I like, I snap it up. I’m always drawn to pink, turquoise, soft green and white but it’s more about the feeling that I get when I look at it. I have long been a fan of Anthropologie so it was an absolute dream come true to collaborate on my own homewares collection. The idea was to bring together those essential pieces you need to make even the simplest supper feel like a party feast.
Just as no two vintage finds ever look the same, I wanted each piece to feel special and carry its own story. I was inspired by floriography, the language of flowers that began in the Victorian era, so that each flower is not just there because it looks pretty but also because it carries a special meaning, which is then explained in a handwritten note on each piece.
Serve my favourite drink
The only cocktail you’ll ever need: mix a bottle of lemonade and a bottle of sherry over ice, and throw in a few fresh mint leaves.
Take it outside
Picnics are a really fun way to host friends: there’s something so relaxed about eating al fresco crosslegged on the grass, and you can fit more people round a picnic rug than you can round most dining tables! Keep the food simple, low effort and handheld (so it’s easy both to transport and eat). Sandwiches (I love egg and mango chutney; and cheese and pickle); boiled quail eggs with celery salt for dipping; cruditées (slivers of fennel, carrot, pepper and so forth) with some aioli for dipping. For pudding; fresh fruit, clotted cream and if you feel like going the extra mile, a good, solid cake that you can eat by the slice.
Skye McAlpine’s ‘A Table for Friends: The Art of Cooking for Two or Twenty’ was published by Bloomsbury on 9 July and Skye’s tableware collaboration with Anthropologie is available in stores now.