Sunday, 26 February 2012

El Rincon de Rafa - Manchester

Manchester's dining scene is often characterised by one of three things:
1. Big and flashy
2. Chi chi, overpriced, faux vintage tea room
3. Cheap and nasty;
and there's not much room for anything else. Unless, that is, you know where to look...

There's a critic's favourite if you can find it, a moody tapas place located down a maze of backstreets off Manchester's Deansgate - at the weekend a booking is essential and you need a map or a local guide to find it. Having not been here for a very long time (and being a little worse for wear the last time), I thought it best to pay them a visit.

Located underground, El Rincon looks authentically rustic - dark woods, white walls and there's legs of ham hanging up at the long bar. Seated at our table we were overlooking an authentic old style refrigeration counter reminiscent of an 80s sandwich shop; but at least it gave us a good view of tapas being taken out and freshly cooked.

Moody and rustic - El Rincon's interior (refrigeration unit out of shot)

The menu's long, with an added list of 'specials' and then hand-written daily specials at the bottom of that. Scanning down it's obvious that El Rincon is rooted firmly in traditional style British tapas - there's the typical Serrano ham, battered prawns and tortilla with the odd unusual (for the UK) dishes thrown in. Unlike Evuna, which is only a stone's throw away up the road; there's no premium hams, no twists on traditional dishes and no regional specials.

Thinly sliced Serrano ham

Prawns with a garlicky sauce were large, soft and juicy, the batter was feather light if ever so greasy and the accompanying sauce had a good old punch of garlic. Battered hake was also exceptionally well cooked, again the batter was a little greasy and you could taste the oil this time, but there was no garlic sauce to save it - just bought in mayonnaise.

Greasy prawns and hake

Fillet steak in red wine had a tinny, livery taste and a fabada of haricots with morcilla and pancetta was thin and watery, plus it lacked the advertised porcine delights (indeed only one piece of each was evident). The patatas bravas were slightly soft and again there was that light slick of oil to them, but the sauce  was deep and screamed sun drenched plum tomatoes, plus had a good old kick to it. Pinchos stole the show - soft and sweet with a fresh, lively salsa on top that sang out from the more mediocre offerings on the table.

Patatas bravas - bringing some sunshine to Manchester

El Rincon's pared back interior and pared back cooking means you're not going to be wowed with culinary creativity or Michelin type magic, but the food's reasonably priced and you get a big portion for what you pay. The service was excellent; friendly staff were happy to get us what we wanted even if the boy was constantly ordering new dishes left, right and centre. The food arrived quickly, even though El Rincon was full to bursting, coming out in traditional 'when the dish is ready' style rather than all at once.

Pinchos with a  lovely fresh salsa on the top

I'm not sure, as a 'critic,' I'd call it a favourite or that I was that happy with the food; however for a night out with friends who don't want something extra special or usual Manchester high prices, then it's just the ticket. At least there's no pretence here and you don't get stung for the average quality food as you would in most of Manchester's other eateries.

Price for seven tapas, basket of bread, two beers and a large glass of house red - £54.60

Food - 5/10
Atmosphere - 7/10
Service - 7/10
Value for money - 7/10

Total - 26/40

Go again? Maybe with a group of friends who just wanted a lot of reasonably priced food, but I'll go elsewhere to get my culinary kicks.

El Rincon de Rafa, off St John's Street, 244 Deansgate, Manchester M3 4BQ - 0161 839 8819

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Sunday, 12 February 2012

Essential Cuisine Stocks

Without a good stock we’d be nowhere in the kitchen; a proper stock adds body, depth and flavouring, it is the cornerstone to many a recipe. Where would we be without a stock? No gravies, no risottos, no consommes...

In the past, nothing was wasted in the kitchen – huge pots bubbled up on the stove with all the trimmings  popped in to create the basis of dishes we know and love; lob scouse, Lancashire hot pot, soup. However those days are gone and with them the need to save every last penny. With long hours worked and less meals cooked from scratch, many home cooks find there’s no time to prepare this liquid gold.

Apart from a monthly chicken stock (family tradition) I don't have the time for stock making (ie I'm lazy) or we never eat enough meat to stockpile the bones for something like beef stock. My freezer’s already full to burst, so meticulously adding in bone after bone to a stock bag and then remembering to use them just doesn’t happen in our household. So it’s to the trusty prepared stocks, mainly cubes and powders, that I turn.

Usually it’s a Kallo cube – it’s all organic so I know what I’m getting and can eat easy, but it's a pain in proverbial to dissolve, or there’s the low salt Swiss bouillon for when I’m on a health kick. But a few weeks back an interesting parcel dropped on to my mat; a selection of stocks made by Essential Cuisine.

Essential Cuisine have been making stocks for the past 17 years, since Nigel Crane couldn't find anything on the market to suit his needs. The company has been selling mainly to professional kitchens and catering outlets, but are now opening up to the home market - their little pots make about six litres if you follow the instructions.

The first difference with this stock is the texture – it’s a very fine, loose powder with no lumps in or freeze dried vegetable bits. This means it dissolves in a flash with no loose bits floating on the top (annoying for a risotto or clear soup), plus if your seasoning’s not right you can put a bit more in with no fear of lumps forming or having to mash it in. Over the past weeks I’ve substituted the Essential Cuisine stocks and monitored the results, which I’ve been very happy with.

The veg stock is lighter than my usual two and has a less salty flavour. Essential Cuisine use celeriac in their stock and this flavour shines through rather than being drowned out by other flavours - there's also tomato and garlic; not traditional but they add a deeper, almost smokey flavour and a big hit of umami. There's also a pleasing ratio of oil - my other stocks have oils quite near to the top f the ingredients lists (meaning there's more in the recipe), but it's the last thing in the Essential cuisine stock. On an environmental note they use vegetable oil rather than palm oil as all my other stocks do (my issue with palm oil is enough to fill a blog, even supposedly environmentally sustainable palm oil). I’d say it was a little sweeter than my usual stock, but this wasn’t a bad thing; adding a rounded flavour to everything I made. Towards the end of the week I became a little lazy and started using the stock as a general seasoning to every dish I made. Tut tut.

I’ve never used a fish stock before as I’d usually use a veg stock, or maybe even chicken for a robust dish. Whilst t’boy was out I took the chance to cook up a squid risotto, not something he’d touch with a barge pole.

The fish stock is a bit of an odd colour, a dull dun pink; but this goes when added to water – the preparation you end up with looks a little like miso soup. I had worried this would be overly fishy, but the flavour was delicate and light with a hint of sweetness to balance everything out.

Making the risotto I was astonished at the flavour; sweetly salty, deeply savoury and a little fishy in a good way. Suddenly I was making restaurant tasting risotto in my little kitchen - a revelation! Towards the end of cooking the rice I switched to using the veg stock, so not to overpower the squid. This worked extraordinarily well, adding a little extra favour to the risotto.

Essential Cuisine’s stocks are brilliant; they’re very well put together, balanced and bring a touch of restaurant cooking to your own kitchen. The stocks are gluten free, low in salt, have no MSG and there's even a Halal range, so everyone can get in on the benefits!

Essential Cuisine - Website - Twitter - Facebook - Shop

Please note I was sent these stock samples for free, but it was under no expectation of writing nice things – I was just very impressed with what I received.

Ps check out the website for lots of interesting recipes.

Squid and Tomato Risotto – Serves 1 – Prep 5 mins – Cooking 20 mins

100g Risotto rice – I used carnaroli
200ml Essential Cuisine Fish Stock and 100ml Veg stock (or can just use all fish stock if you like)
One small glass of white wine (optional, I didn’t use as I didn’t have any in)
Half a small onion, diced small
One garlic clove, chopped small
15g Parmesan cheese (I actually used Gouda as I like the more farm-yardy taste, rich)
150g of squid (I used small squid tubes, but you can use more)
Left over tomato sauce from pasta (had tomatoes, roast pepper and smoked paprika in) or 6 cherry tomatoes
EV olive oil for finishing
Basil leaves

  1. Make up the stock in a small pan on the stove – you need to keep the stock warm so keep it on a low heat whilst you cook your risotto.
  2. Pop some olive oil (or butter) in a heavy based frying pan and put it on a low-middle heat, sweat the onions for about five minutes till soft. Do not brown them.
  3. Add the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes – do not catch or brown.
  4. Add the rice to the pan and cook for a few minutes until the grains are coated with the oil and a bit translucent. Keep on a medium heat.
  5. Add the wine (if using) and stir in to absorb – I just used an extra ladle of stock as I’d forgotten to get some wine in.
  6. Keep adding stock a ladle at a time and stirring in until all the stock is absorbed.
  7. Keep tasting the risotto and stop when there’s a little bite in the rice (al dente) and there’s a creamy texture to the whole thing.
  8. Take the risotto off the heat and grate in some cheese, stir, then pop a lid on and put to one side.
  9. Heat up your tomato sauce and while this is going on fry up your squid in a frying pan, don’t add too much to the pan or you won’t fry it, it’ll steam!
  10. Add your tentacles first as they take a little more time to cook, then add the squid and cook for about 1-2 mins each side. Make sure you keep cooking time short, but with the tentacles, get them to brown slightly as it adds a really good flavour.
  11. Taste the risotto and season as necessary (the cheese and the stock should be salty enough, but you might like to check). Add salt if needed.
  12. Assemble your risotto on a plate, tomato sauce on top and around, squid on top, then topped off with basil leaves and some extra virgin oil.
Please note, if you are using the cherry tomatoes; pre-heat the oven to 180c, put the tomatoes in a baking try with some balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper and olive oil. Roast for 25 mins and then top your risotto with them.

Chorizo and Butter Bean Homemade Pot Noodle (inspired by Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall)
Serves 2 – Prep 10 mins – Cooking 5 min

Two nests of noodles – I like to use medium egg
Half a red onion or four spring onions – sliced really fine
Eight cherry tomatoes
Two mushrooms
One pak choi – sliced
Two small green chillies – sliced
Half a tin of butter beans (please don’t put dry ones in, must already have been cooked)
Half a pepper – sliced – or can used roasted peppers from a jar
Some chorizo, diced – I buy a whole ring and slice bits off rather than the awful supermarket sliced stuff
Some fresh parsley
2 tsp smoked paprika (1 tsp each)
3 tsp Essential cuisine veg stock powder (1 ½ tsp each)
½ lemon cut in quarters
Salt and pepper

  1. Get a container you can put all the ingredients in AND pour hot water in – we save the plastic soup cartons and use those.
  2. In each container add the stock and paprika, add the smallest dash of salt and a good grind of pepper.
  3. Add the noodles and break them up fine as you’ll need them to get soft with out stirring them up.
  4. Layer up the veg in each pot – I tend to put the denser things nearer the noodles (pepper, pak choi stems) and the more delicate stuff at the top ie parsley leaves and the tops of the pak choi.
  5. Add your butter beans, chorizo and lemon and pop the lid on.
  6. When you want it, add hot water to the top, put the lid on, leave for five mins, stir, squeeze in the lemon and then eat.
  7. Be careful of the chilli when you’re chomping down and take out if needed!
This can be amended to suit any tastes or any veg you have in the fridge. We often cook extra salmon and have a salmon ramen the next day, or go French and put in left over roast chicken and roasted garlic. Have fun!

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Dilli Restaurant Cookery Course - Altrincham

Cookery courses - something I've always wanted to do, yet something I've never attempted. Paying £90 plus for (sometimes as little as) a half day with ten other people always seems a little over priced, just to learn a skill I already have or will never use - why learn to temper chocolate when I'll go to a chocolatier if I want something exquisite; I have no want to go into the chocolate business myself, I'd be dead by the time I'm 35.

However when an invite to learn how to make a selection of Indian foods at award-winning Altrincham restaurant Dilli, for free, popped in to my inbox I found myself strangely excited and leapt at the chance. Maybe it's because I cook a lot of Indian food, but stick to the usual basics from my stained and well-thumbed Madhur Jaffrey book. Or maybe I just like free things.

The day was run by Living Social, a newish voucher company aimed at the growing army of bargain loving Brits; their aim was to give a selection of bloggers an insight into what one of these days looks like and I think we can all agree they did just that.

Dilli’s an upmarket Indian based in the middle of busy Altrincham, after a bit of a parking issue I arrived flustered and was whisked upstairs to meet my fellow foodies and our teachers for the day. Chefs Ravi and Nayeem ran through their credentials (impressive), a brief history of Indian cookery (comprehensive) and what we would be learning (extensive).

Introduction from Chef Ravi

First things first; a mango lassi demonstration from Chef Nayeem and some wise advice about never mixing beer with lassi from Chef Ravi. Out came the glasses and we all sipped on the velvety, icy delight; bit cold for a January afternoon, but it was so thick and luscious that I’d knocked it back in no time.

Nayeem making the lassi

Whilst we were drinking Chef Nayeem demonstrated onion bhajias and his wonderful knife skills (cue much green eyes from us guys watching); whilst Chef Ravi described the difference between Southern and Northern cookery. Time to taste again and the bhajias were a revelation; crisp, flavoursome and nothing like the soggy, burnt offerings you get in most places. In the fifeteen minutes it took to make them I’d learnt so many tips and tricks relating to Indian and everyday cookery that I wondered why I hadn’t done this before.

Bhajias and two wonderful sauces

Time for us to get cracking – we were shown to our individual stations; a camping stove, a board, a knife and a spoon. There’s no official teaching kitchen at Dilli, but their improvised set up was practical, giving everyone an uninteruppted view of what was going on and underlined the fact that Indian cookery is very accessible and doesn’t require running home and shelling out on oodles of fancy gadgets that get used for the first month and then collect dust at the backs of cupboards; the skills you learn here are instantly replicable at home.

Dilli cookery class set up

For the next two hours we studiously crafted a chicken Murgh Kali Mirch (veg option was available), Dal Tarka and a Aloo Palak; Chef Nayeem was on hand at every point to make sure our sauces were thick enough and that our onions were small enough (no way near as good as his I have to say – he can even chop them without looking!). All the while, Chef Ravi wove interesting tales about the ingredients around the heady, intoxicating smells emanating from our pans; explaining the history, uses and folklore of each. Did you know that turmeric is a preservative and that if you buy lots of fresh herbs you should chop them small and freeze them in ice cubes?

Aloo palak - yum yum yum

The day was exciting, interesting and I learnt a great deal. The most amazing thing was the Chefs’ obvious care and love for the food they were helping us to create. Their added facts and tales made the day totally engaging and I felt as though I was not only learning new dishes, but also what’s behind the dishes; something you can’t always get from cookery books or recipes you pick up a long the way.

Mix of spices - if you get a cheap curry, there's no way there's this many ingredients in it
There was only one down point to the day and was that we didn’t mix the spices ourselves, the chefs popped them in our pans for us. I would have liked to get a little more hands on than chopping and stirring – I’m a practical learner so for me to remember I have to do something (we have been given recipes though so I know how much of each goes where!).

The day at Dilli was definitely well worth it and has made me reconsider the merits of cookery courses. I may not be tempering chocolate, but maybe an Italian or a Japanese course could be my next adventure?

Eating the spoils - t'boy was very pleased and said it was the best curry I've ever made

Please note I was offered this day free of charge by Living Social, however the day would have been offered at about 50% off, which makes it very affordable and very worth it.

Dilli, 60 Stamford New Road, Altrincham WA14 1EE - 0161 929 7484 - - Twitter - Facebook

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Thursday, 2 February 2012

63 Degrees - Manchester

The first cuisine I feel in love with was French. At the age of 11 I stayed away from home for the first time, alone in Kent, at the house of my great aunt Peggy (very bohemian; she’s now 90 and has a 60 year old boyfriend) who took me to London and to a little back street restaurant with a menu written in nothing but French and a stereo that played nothing but Piaf.

The next year we took the chunnel for lunch high above Calais in a restaurant all alone on a hill, the white table clothes blowing in the breeze coming through the open veranda, nothing in our gaze but the tops of trees glinting like emeralds. We ate fois gras on toast and drank the local white, then stopped off to fill up with claret before having dinner in Kent that evening.

Manchester’s dining scene has been lacking a dedicated, affordable French eatery since Brasserie Blanc closed down. In a city awash with Italians, the opening of 63 Degrees is a breath of Gallic fresh air (an oxymoron? Mai oui!)

63 Degrees - with thanks to themselves

Run by the Moreau family, Dad’s in the kitchen and Mum and son are out front. There’s a history of good food and cooking here – Dad has worked for a two-Michelin starred place in ol’ Paris and in various catering companies across the channel; his gastronomic background shines through the  menu – there’s snails, egg cocotte, black risotto and the restaurant’s trademark poultry cooked at  (yep you guessed it) 63 degrees. According to the blurb, this is the optimum temperature to serve it, keeping it soft and moist and unlocking 'unforgettable flavours.'

First a canape of boudin noir and caramelised onions on toast – porcine, salty and sweet; a well thought out, simple pairing that let the produce do that talking.

Don't use your flash on black pudding, it doesn't work!

The snails that followed were de-shelled; a way I’ve never had them before. These were soft, sweet and NOT covered with butter, garlic and parsley; a great idea - you could actually taste what a snail tastes like. The accompanying ratte potatoes were salty, hot slivers of crispy starch; simple idea, wonderfully done.

Snails eating their greens

It would be rude to dine somewhere that was named after a way of cooking and not try out a dish cooked that way. The 63 degree duckling with chicory was another simple concoction that packed a tasty punch. A soft, pink fillet arrived in a puddle of ruby red sauce contrasting elegantly with the simple white plate and linen of the table. Bitter, caramelised chicory cut through the sweet, silky duck and the char on both the duck and vegetable added a savoury note that tied the dish together nicely.

Flashes don't work on puddles of fruity sauce either

The butcher's steak was cooked spot on, displaying that Eric’s cooking skills aren’t limited to temperature controlled poultry. The meat was accompanied by a steaming pot of unctuous dauphinous and the best homemade bĂ©arnaise ever. Definitely not from a jar or eeked out with artificial thickeners; creamy, dreamy, divine.

With sated appetites and full tummies we relaxed into the soft leather booth to contemplate pudding. Out came our cafĂ© gourmand – coffee and macaroons. Eric macaroon’s will become a Manchester must have in the coming months; soft little discs of understated flavour and creamy filling that aren’t overly sweet. What’s more impressive is that they’re not bought in, Eric creates these himself (indeed he even makes a really big one for macaroon fiends). I dream about these little globes of almondy delight and would fore go the usual once a year treat of a Laduree box in favour of Eric’s any day (well, may be not the rose ones).

To finish Eric came over and suggested Armangac, very good choice and the perfect end to a very good meal.

63 Degrees is the cuisine I fell in love with – simple yet well thought out French cuisine with careful, attentive front of house and unobtrusive French music on the speakers. Manchester needs more chic, more glamour and more French – viva la revolution!

Price for two starters, two mains, one pudding, two glasses of wine, two Armangacs and a coffee – 78.95

Food – 8/10
Service – 8/10
Atmosphere – 7/10 (point knocked off for being a little quiet)
Value for money – 7/10

Total – 30/40

Go again? Yes definitely – understatedly elegant and chic without the usual bling and big attitude that you get in Manchester’s restaurants. This place has style AND substance.

63 Degrees, 20 Church Street, Norther Quarter, Manchester M4 1PN - 0161 832 5438 - - Twitter - Facebook

Please note the restaurant did not know I was there and didn’t know who I was, though they did know my dining companion as he is their butcher.

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