Over the last few years, the British food writer and chef Skye McAlpine has built a loyal following with her unfussy dishes, inspired by her upbringing in both England and Italy, which she serves in big, mismatched platters at lively gatherings of friends. Or, as she puts it in her new book, “A Table for Friends,” “The kind of food you can plonk down in the center of the table for everyone to tuck into, towering platefuls of it.”
But then the pandemic hit and McAlpine found herself in quarantine in London with far fewer people to cook for. While she wasn’t entertaining, though, making and presenting food remained a reliable source of solace. “Feeding people is such a great way of showing love and care and putting happy energy out in the world,” says McAlpine, who still had her husband and two young sons for company. “And it’s obviously great to be able to do that for 20, but it’s equally great to do that for supper for two. And, particularly in this period of lockdown, it’s even more important to show love and care for yourself.”
With more time to prepare meals, she tried to give each one a sense of occasion, setting out “proper napkins” (as she describes any made from cloth) and pulling out the eccentric china that she has collected over the years from vintage stores, flea markets and eBay.
Among the dishes she’s cooked most often is pasta chi vruocculi arriminati, which a Sicilian friend had claimed for years was the “best pasta dish” — but which she had never tried herself until she and her husband made it last year. “We haven’t turned back,” she says with a laugh. “The trick is to use the same pan to cook both your cauliflower and your pasta,” McAlpine says, “that imbues the pasta with extra flavour and also saves on time washing up.”
And while you can make it with romanesco instead of cauliflower or use a different pasta in place of linguine, Skye’s one insistence is that “you not skip the bread crumbs at the end — deliciously crisp, salty and golden, they’re just what the almost-sweet sauce needs.” Below is McAlpine’s version of the recipe, as well as her tips for styling and presenting your food — even if you’re sharing it with friends on Instagram, rather than in real life.
Skye McAlpine’s Pasta chi Vruocculi Arriminati
1 whole cauliflower (roughly chopped into florets)
1/2 cup pine nuts
3/4 cup stale bread
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra to serve
1 onion, chopped
8 anchovy fillets
1/2 cup raisins
1 teaspoon saffron strands
1. Bring a large saucepan of generously salted water to boil. Add the cauliflower florets to the water and turn the heat down to a gentle simmer. Cook for 15-20 minutes, until the cauliflower can easily be cut through with a butter knife.
2. While the cauliflower is cooking, toast the pine nuts in a medium-size frying pan for 2-3 minutes over medium heat, giving the pan an occasional shake, until they are golden brown. Set aside.
3. Tear the bread into chunks and blend in a food processor to make coarse crumbs. Using the same pan you cooked the pine nuts in, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat and add the bread crumbs. Fry gently, shaking the pan occasionally, for 4-5 minutes until they turn crisp and golden, then take off the heat and set aside.
4. In a second, large frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat, add the onion and a generous pinch of salt. Cook for 3-5 minutes, until the onion becomes soft and translucent. Add the anchovies to the pan, and fry gently until they melt into the onions. Then add the raisins and the toasted pine nuts. Stir and turn the heat to a simmer.
5. Use a pestle and mortar to grind the saffron and a pinch of salt into a fine red powder. Scoop out a splash (roughly 1-2 tablespoons) of the cooking water into a small cup; add the powdered saffron and set to one side to infuse for a few minutes.
6. When the cauliflower is cooked, use a slotted spoon to scoop the florets out of the water and toss them into the pan with the onion mix. Save the cooking water. Pour the saffron-infused liquid over the cauliflower, and stir, breaking up any large pieces of cauliflower with a wooden spoon. Season with salt to taste.
7. Cook the pasta in the same water as the cauliflower (top it up with fresh water if needed) until al dente, as per the instructions on the packet.
8. When the pasta is cooked, scoop out half a cup of the cooking water and set aside. Drain the pasta and toss it into the pan with the sauce and the reserved cooking water, and stir together so the pasta is coated in sauce.
9. Spoon the pasta chi vruocculi arriminati onto a large serving dish, add a generous drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle the bread crumbs on top. Eat immediately.
The pandemic has inspired even the most reluctant among us to become home cooks — and document our efforts on Instagram. McAlpine, who photographed all the images in her new book, offers tips to make your food look camera-ready.
Don’t Be Afraid of Portrait Mode
To take a strong food photograph, McAlpine suggests either a colorful tablecloth (like the checked linen canvas style shown above) or a clean wooden or stone surface as a backdrop. “I love to use portrait mode on my iPhone (and ignore it when it says I’m too far or too close to the subject),” she says, which creates a sharper, more professional look. She also advises that you take the photo with your phone held parallel or at a 45-degree angle to the table. And she’s not afraid to stand on a chair to capture a bird’s-eye view.
Go Wild With Plates
“A pretty plate goes a long way toward making even the plainest food look beautiful,” McAlpine says. “Painted, colored, plain, vintage … what works best on the table is really only a matter of taste.” (As if to prove the point, she recently released a collection of tableware with Anthropologie that looks like the kind of well-loved stuff you grandmother might have passed down to you.) Try using platters and serving bowls in mismatched colors and patterns and, if you have one, a cake stand can be surprisingly versatile (use it for sweets but also quiches and tarts). The key, she says, is to “mix heights, shapes and textures wherever you can to create a bustling and abundant table — and have fun with it.”
Think of Your Plate as a Canvas
When considering what to serve or photograph, McAlpine always takes the palette of her food into account. “Colour and texture, along with taste, create flavor,” she writes in “A Table for Friends.” “However comforting and brown a meal might be — and brown food tends to be the most comforting of all — it will always taste (and look) best when paired with a pop of something fresh.” She recommends offsetting the warm yellows of pasta chi vruocculi arriminati, for example, with a crisp green salad in the summer or a side of striking purple radicchio in the fall. And she tries to avoid serving similarly coloured dishes together. Roast pork with a red tomato salad, she warns, “feels a bit clashy.”
Find a Window
“Take photos in natural light,” McAlpine advises. “Food just looks better that way. Otherwise it can take on a slightly yellow tinge.” Once you’re near a window or other natural light source, the most important thing is not to overthink it. “Keep things relaxed, simple and genuine,” says McAlpine. “If it’s a beautiful moment in real life, that will shine through on camera, too.”