Skye McAlpine is not a trained chef. The British food writer and photographer says she learnt to cook "through some trial, a fair amount of error, a greedy desire to eat well and many hours spent happily leafing through cookbooks".
McAlpine says sharing food with friends is why she cooks. When entertaining, she doesn't do starters or the kind of fiddly dishes you might find in a restaurant, she writes in her second cookbook, A Table for Friends. "I keep it simple: the kind of food you can plonk down in the centre of the table for everyone to tuck into, towering platefuls of it, higgledy-piggledy, unpretentious, colourful and overflowing."
Spinach, mint and melted cheese Syrian frittata
This is the most blissfully cheesy concoction, rather like the very middle (the creamiest bit) of a good quiche. And while it might look unassuming, much like any other frittata, it is the absolute embodiment of comfort food, served still in its frying pan. The recipe comes from Poopa Dweck's wonderful book on Syrian food, Aromas of Aleppo, barely adapted other than to add even more cheese and a mix of different kinds. I like to add a couple of side dishes for a light lunch or quick midweek supper.
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 red onion, roughly chopped
- 500g frozen spinach
- 5 eggs
- 125g mozzarella cheese, roughly chopped
- 100g feta cheese, roughly chopped
- 350g provolone cheese (or mild cheddar cheese), grated
- 150g cottage cheese
- leaves from a small bunch of mint, roughly chopped
- fine sea salt
- Heat the oven to 170C fan-forced (190C conventional). Pour the oil into a large, deep frying pan and set over a medium heat. Throw in the onion and cook for about 5 minutes, until it softens and becomes translucent. Add the spinach and cook for a further 5-10 minutes, until completely defrosted. Meanwhile, crack the eggs into a large mixing bowl and beat lightly with a fork. Add all 4 cheeses and stir with a wooden spoon until well-combined.
- Take the spinach and onion mixture off the heat and allow to cool for a few minutes (or completely), then mix it in with the eggs and cheese and add the mint. Finally, add a pinch of salt; take care not to overdo it, as the feta is already quite salty. Spoon the mixture back into the frying pan (if it's ovenproof), or into an ovenproof baking dish, ready to go in the oven. It will keep in the fridge like this, covered, for 1-2 days.
- When you're ready to cook the frittata, bake it in the middle of the oven for 40 minutes, until lightly golden on top. Serve warm. It really does taste best straight out of the oven, when it is still gooey and cheesy in the middle, although I would not turn my nose up at leftovers heated up again the next day, perhaps with a crunchy green salad or some fresh tomatoes.
This pasta is a rich balm to soothe body and soul in the bitter cold. Photo: Skye McAlpine
Tagliatelle with gorgonzola, pear and walnut
Innately wintry, this is an indulgently rich balm to soothe body and soul in the bitter cold. The pear and walnut are by no means essential. In fact, a plate of tagliatelle drenched in just the creamy, peppery cheese sauce is pure joy. However, the chunks of fruit add a delicate sweetness that cuts through the intense richness of the sauce and it's little extra effort to throw them in. This dish breaks all my rules of stress-free cooking for friends, as it can in no way be prepared in advance. But it's so simple to make that I feel comfortable and happy serving it to company, though I would baulk at cooking it for more than six, because the delicate timings of the pasta become too unwieldy for my peace of mind.
- 350g tagliatelle
- 80ml single cream
- 450g gorgonzola cheese, chopped
- 1 large or 2 small pears
- a handful of whole walnuts
- fine sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper (optional)
- Fill a large saucepan with water, add a generous pinch of salt and bring to the boil. When the water is galloping, add the pasta and cook until al dente according to the packet instructions.
- Meanwhile, pour the cream into a small saucepan and add the cheese, then set over a medium-low heat and stir occasionally until the cheese has almost completely melted. Core the pear(s) and slice finely, then roughly chop the nuts.
- Drain the pasta in a colander, reserving a little of the cooking water (roughly ¼ cup), toss in the cheese sauce and reserved cooking water, then, just before serving, toss through the pear and walnut pieces. Add a little black pepper, if you like, and serve immediately.
The charm of this dish lies in its simplicity. Photo: Skye McAlpine
Aphrodite's roast chicken
This recipe comes from my mother's friend, Aphrodite, and is to my mind (smallest of puns intended) truly food of the gods. Its charm lies in its simplicity: the bird roasts on a bed of very finely sliced potatoes, which crisp to golden around the edges of the tin, while those directly under the chicken are soft and deliciously imbued with the rich cooking juices. The trick is to make sure that you get a little bit of both kinds of potato on your plate. You can happily prepare this a few hours before you're ready to roast the chicken, cover and store in the fridge. Just don't slice the potatoes more than four hours or so ahead, as they may brown or curl.
- 4 potatoes
- 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 small chicken, about 1.4kg, preferably organic
- 1 lemon
- a large bunch of rosemary
- 2 garlic cloves
- sea salt flakes
- freshly ground black pepper
- Heat the oven to 180C fan-forced (200C conventional). Finely slice the potatoes into rounds 3-5mm thick, using a mandolin if you have one. Arrange in a single layer over the bottom of a large roasting dish, overlapping them. I do this in a round 32cm tarte Tatin dish, but whatever you have to hand will do. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and season generously.
- Set the chicken in the dish, nestled over the potatoes. Prick the lemon all over with a fork and stuff it into the cavity along with half the rosemary. Drizzle the remaining oil over the chicken, then rub it into the skin with a very generous dash of salt. Lightly crush the garlic cloves (unpeeled) and scatter them over the potatoes, along with what is left of the rosemary.
- Now set the roasting dish in the oven and cook for 60-70 minutes, until the skin is crisp and the juices run clear when you stick a knife into the thickest part of the bird (between the leg and the body). Allow to rest for 10 minutes before carving, then eat with the potatoes.
This light, nutty recipe works equally well as a centrepiece or a side dish. Photo: Skye McAlpine
Wild rice and lentil salad
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 and is an absolute dream for picnics. 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.
- 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 ½ 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 tablespoons 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.