Anna Stockwell’s Tips for a Joyous Feast
Though it's safe to say all of us missed dinner parties during the pandemic, few people would have felt that pain quite so keenly as food writer, stylist and former Epicurious editor Anna Stockwell, whose debut cookbook For the Table offers an edible, helpful paean to the infinite pleasures of such occasions. More than half of the book's dishes and tips were conceived and finalized when Stockwell and her boyfriend were locked down together in 2020, in their quiet home in New York State's Hudson Valley.
Stockwell's dinner party recipes are designed to feed a crowd, by candlelight and to the sound of a classic playlist. Like her culinary creations, she is upbeat, generous and alive to the bright side of life: "I love cooking for people. I love hosting," she says. Longing for that under the stay-at-home order only sharpened her appetite (and her nib). "It gave me a much greater appreciation of why it's special." If you’re looking for dinner party menu ideas, For the Table may hold the answer—it’s a tribute to the feeling of having people gather together, talking, drinking and eating lovingly-made food in a shared space.
How did you write a book about dinner parties when you couldn't have any?
The book is a collection of the things I have come to love, and serve to the friends and family who have come to my house, over the past 18 years of my life: here [in the Hudson Valley], but mostly in Brooklyn, where I moved immediately after leaving college. So, when I came to decide which recipes to put in the book, everything naturally fell into place. Of course, these recipes are all designed for big groups of people, so for the ones that needed finalizing, I developed them, but saved the testing until we were able to go and create a bubble with my parents and siblings.
What role do you think recipes play today, when—thanks to books like Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat—there's a move toward more intuitive, free-form styles of cooking?
I think there are still two kinds of cooks out there: those who love to follow a recipe exactly and for it to turn out just like the photo, and those who are more intuitive, who cook by taste, touch and feel. But, to get to the point of being an intuitive cook, you must understand the basics first. There are many ways to get to that point, one of which is to follow recipes for a long time until the fundamentals are ingrained, and you feel confident enough to start riffing; another is to learn the fundamental techniques and apply them to a broader range of dishes. I am a big fan of the latter; of trying to give people the tools to make sure the recipe works, while leaving room for their creativity by weaving in suggestions for how they can adapt it to their tastes.
Where does For the Table come into that?
It's a traditional cookbook in that there are recipes, you follow them and your dish turns out like the pictures. However, I try to give people the confidence to make substitutions—they are allowed! Everything was photographed in my kitchen in the Hudson Valley, so it really reflects me and my personal style and approach to cooking. Most of the recipes come from my time in Brooklyn, where I had grown used to hosting dinner parties in a tiny kitchen with no dishwasher. That meant I had to be good at prepping in advance and streamlining so as to create as little mess as possible; these are all sharing recipes that you can make for loads of people in any kitchen.
Any other tips for cooking for a crowd in a tiny kitchen without a dishwasher?
It's important to let your friends help you clean up and do the dishes. It's more fun for everyone, because you can bop around to music and clean together, and it's easier for you the next day. The only thing you should leave to wash the next day is wine glasses. I don't let myself wash those at night, let alone anyone else!
You moved from inner city Brooklyn to the leafy Hudson Valley just over two years ago. How has that shaped your cooking and recipes?
I never used to be interested in gardening, even though I grew up with a mother who owned a landscape design business; but now that I have my own garden to tend, I have really thrown myself in. The part of it I am most excited about is vegetables, which I have been working really hard to keep alive. It's been trial and error for the most part, but I have had so much fun growing everything from seeds. I call my mom all the time now with gardening questions, and she loves it.
It's changed what I'm cooking and when I cook it. There are weeks when I'm constantly cooking eggplants or tomatoes, which has been a fun challenge; I love a cooking puzzle, and having to get creative, and I have always cooked based on what's in the fridge. Now I cook based on what's in the fridge and what's in the garden—it's so exciting: to eat your own tomatoes off the vine; to walk outside and gather some lettuce; to snip fresh herbs for every meal.
The beautiful imagery in the book is all shot and styled in your own home. How would you describe your own approach to table design?
I like to set a colorful table, and I don't believe that everything must match. I like mismatched plates, different colored napkins, and I love to have a mix of vintage—from old flea markets and antique shops—and new. I have a big drawer full of candles, tablecloths and more platters than is probably necessary, and I always set the table with lots of beeswax candles in vintage-style candlesticks.
For the Table by Anna Stockwell is available to buy now, $35, Abrams Books