Fried Broccoli with Black Olives from A Table For Friends
The title of this newly published cookbook nearly brought me to tears. A Table For Friends, the art of cooking for two or twenty (Bloomsbury), made me realise how much I miss doing just that. Calling up friends and having them sit around my dining table, eating and drinking, gossiping and discussing issues of the day. Twenty people for lunch? It feels like the saddest nostalgia. Clearly this book was commissioned pre-Covid and its publication now makes me both glad and sad.
Glad because this is a lovely book, full of love for food and friends. Skye McAlpine is not a trained chef and has honed her recipes through long experience in a domestic kitchen. The recipes reflect this and make the book accessible and useful to readers. Not all the recipes are hers, but she gracefully includes several dishes which she loves to cook and fully credits where she has found the originals.
The recipes are largely Italian in style, McAlpine having moved from England to Venice at the age of 6. It is also about the Italian way of celebrating life through food and family. Unusually for a cookbook, McAlpine writes extensively on menu planning, seasonal eating, how to lay a table, what pots to invest in and more. She holds your hand. Experienced cooks and hosts might not need such instruction, but I enjoyed reading her advice and it would be most helpful for the less experienced.
This substantial cookbook is divided into chapters on stars, sides, sweets and extras. Stars are the dishes that constitute ‘the heart of the meal’ but are not necessarily the traditional roast, although McAlpine provides this too. Stars in A Table for Friends include soups (I fancy the chilled almond soup), a variety of Panzanella, couscous salad, pasta dishes, pot-roast beef, roast chicken – there is hardly a dish I don’t want to try. I’m sharing one of my favourites, for fried broccoli with olives and I hope you’ll try it yourself – then buy the book! I’ve already decided this is one of the cookbooks I am taking along on my summer holiday this year, a book full of ideas and ease.
I really got going on the sides as this is often where the best vegetable dishes are to be found. McAlpine encourages readers to fill the table with food and make two to three sides alongside a star dish. Being the sort of cook who is never knowingly under catered, I concur entirely. A Table for Friends makes it easy – recipes for a really good green salad, tomato salad, new potatoes with samphire (yes, please!), creamy baked leeks with mustard and Parmesan, courgette flower galette – these are dishes that get me into the kitchen.
I eat broccoli a few times a week so am always keen to try new ways to prepare this most superb of vegetables. McAlpine’s method is simple yet packs a punch. The soft, emerald green florets – even lovelier with tender stem I think – are cooked in garlic, chilli flakes (I used Aleppo) and anchovies and then, to add extra salty loveliness, a handful of black olives. I tried it with both Tenderstem and regular heads of broccoli and I think the silkiness of the Tenderstem really looks lovelier than the ordinary florets.
A healthy vegetable dish with intense flavours, upgrade your broccoli
- 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 garlic clove finely chopped
- 3 anchovies I chopped these roughly
- 1/3 teaspoon chilli flakes optional, but gives a lovely heat
- 400 grams Tenderstem broccoli or two large heads of regular broccoli, chopped into florets
- 50 ml water
- 1 handful black olives halved and pitted
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan over a medium heat
Add garlic, anchovies and chilli flakes. Keep an eye that the garlic doesn't burn, move around the pan until the garlic colours gently and the anchovies start to melt.
Add the broccoli and the water. Cover the pan and cook for 10 - 15 minutes until the water has disappeared and the broccoli is just tender.
Add the olives.
Add the final tablespoon of olive oil and fry at a high heat for 3 - 5 minutes to crisp up the broccoli
Eat warm preferably but can be eaten at room temperature.
Roast new potatoes with bay leaves were easy to prepare and cook and the dish reminded me of a Hasselback potato, sliced and interleaved with bay. The little potatoes were aromatic with bay and led to much dipping into the serving dish to swirl the potatoes in the flavoursome oil.
The surprise dish was what McAlpine calls ‘not a recipe’. You have to have plenty of confidence to put a dish of grapes in the oven to roast and then include it in a cookbook. This book is brimming with quiet confidence and experience of what tastes good. McAlpine writes that she roasts grapes when she happens to have a little space left in the oven. I really appreciate that kind of good common sense and I share her desire to eke out every bit of use of the electricity it takes to keep the oven on for the time it takes to roast a meal. I always keep red grapes in the fridge so I had the single ingredient to hand. McAlpine suggests serving these roasted fruits with roast chicken or poussin but as we had no such star dish on the table, I kept it for dessert. I found a tub of sheep yoghurt in the fridge and dished it up with the warm grapes. What a spontaneously simple and delicious dessert. The grapes tasted not dissimilar to roasted plums so I can see that they would go well with chicken too. Next time I’m roasting a bird I will see if I can squeeze a pan of grapes alongside.
My working through this rewarding cookbook happened to coincide with a particularly good vegetable delivery. You can find out more about that and check my own recipe for griddled lettuce in a previous feature. One of the items in the box was a packet of ready-cooked beetroot. I never buy these as I prefer to cook my own partly because it is easy to do and also due to the tastelessness or over vinegary nature of the pre-prepared variety. I wondered what I was going to do with this beetroot collection when I happened upon McApline’s recipe. She acknowledges that one could cook one’s own, but reveals that she usually reaches for the ready cooked variety. I like that sort of honesty in a cookbook. A simple dressing of caster sugar, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice and olive oil plus a small bunch of mint transformed my tasteless beets into a delicious salad. I left it overnight in the fridge and took it along to a picnic lunch the next day. It got several compliments.
There are loads of gorgeous desserts and tarts, ice creams and cakes in the sweets section which look perfect for entertaining and impressing without too much trouble.
The extras chapter got me baking simply because the look of the roasted fennel focaccia was gorgeousness in a photo. I had that picnic to cater for and ended up hauling out my stand mixer and letting the dough hook do all the work. Easy-peasy. I prepped the caramelised fennel and the dough the day before and the next morning, simply baked the focaccia. I took it to the picnic in its baking tray, still hot from the oven, and it disappeared in a trice. I was rather pleased with myself and, as McAlpine writes, once you have made your own bread you need not worry too much about what else there is on the table. A simple dish of eggs will do. Cooking from this book, everything will be delicious. As it is, I whizzed up a tub of salsa verde as instructed by McAlpine, along with an assortment of baby carrots, celery, cucumber and radish. Everyone was delighted.
A Table for Friends is a cookbook I trust. I have tried several recipes which all worked well and I’ll be making many, like the fried broccoli with olives, again. There are some more complex dishes and many easy ones. McAlpine guides the reader through in an accessible manner, offering handy tips. She takes great pleasure in cooking for her friends and wants her readers to enjoy entertaining too. At the back of the book, she divides dishes into how far in advance they can be made – many days in advance is the one I look for eagerly – as well as which dishes to cook for the size of gathering you have, plus seasonal dishes. Turn to these pages and your decision making will be quick and simple. All that is left to do is to enjoy the wonderful art of putting food on your table, which, with McAlpine’s tips for table settings, will make your home cooking look even better.