Friday, 31 August 2012

Foodie Pen Pals

When I read about foodie pen pals I knew I wanted to get involved. The opportunity to buy delicious foodie treats that I wouldn't normally - or at least not without a shred of guilt - (even if I'm not eating them, a trip to the supermarket/foodie shops is always welcomed!) and the idea of having a lovely parcel of things delivered in return to get my creative cookery juices flowing definitely appealed to me!

I had the pleasure of sending a foodie parcel to Sarah Jane of the atomatosardine blog. Her entry on my parcel is here! All I'll say is that I had great fun picking treats out for someone I didn't know, and trying to get creative with what I could fit in my already full-to-the-brim luggage on my return from Barcelona.

Samantha Bell  sent me a very generous food parcel as shown below...

Where to begin? Well, maybe with the bits in it I've already eaten! I was so excited to get stuck in that the lentil & chilli curls from M&S & some giant corn snacks are already gone. My favourite were the curls - a really nice healthy snack to steer me away from crisps; these were yummy. I've also already delved into the lasagne as Samantha had kindly included some recipes to accompany some of the items - I created Samantha's own courgette lasagne recipe. This was a lovely homely dish, though I never quite get lasagne right (the top sheet of lasagne always seems to go crispy - although I realised this time that I actually quite like that!) so I think I'm going to get Jamie to have a go at it next time. It was a nice autumnal dish though (yes, it's autumn, I hear that's been decided by the continuous Mancunian showers), and I was especially pleased to receive this recipe as we had courgettes that were close to dying!

The BEAR fruit yo yo is actually a replacement one as I love these fruit rolls that I've already eaten the one I was sent. I think I was sold on them as a brand when I contacted them whilst volunteering in the fundraising department at work & although they never actually had a conversation with me, I enjoyed receiving their e-mails letting me know that "Jenny is currently out of the cave resting her paws" & their sign off - "best regrrds"! They're also super tasty too... Pineapple is very good, and I'd also recommend the peach flavour.

I thought I could smell coffee when I picked up my parcel from reception & I was so happy when I found that there was some included - I'm a total coffee fiend. I have tried this in my cafetiere but I think I need an espresso machine to do this fine ground justice. Time to invest!

Samantha said that she's a lady who doesn't usually buy ready-made items but included the Merchant Gourmet lentils because lentils are such a pain to get right, and I definitely agree. I always end up under or over cooking them, so I'm looking forward to using these - but can't decide what to have them with! I'm thinking a ballotine of chicken stuffed with chestnut puree, or a slow cooked duck leg... Let me know if anyone has any other ideas.

The kinder egg was also a very sweet treat, and I think I may just crack into it tonight...

All in all, a fantastic foodie parcel - and I can't wait to eat/use the other bits and pieces shown above! I definitely think that I'll be doing this regularly, and I know that Jamie's keen to get involved too... he was very envious when he saw my treats.

I hope I haven't been naughty in posting this before the last day of the month - I'm off to Harrogate tomorrow for a weekend (well, two nights) sans internet, so thought I better get it up now.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Degustación de Barcelona

Where to start?

A week in Barcelona is never enough time... yet there's still so much to say.

Anna & I found such an affinity with the Spanish way of life, especially that of Barcelona, that it's quite a culture shock returning to Manchester. It's a pipe-dream to imagine that the English attitude towards eating, drinking and socializing could undergo an overhaul of the kind that would bring us more in line with the Spanish mentality. It's also a pipe dream to imagine we would have any money left should we live in a country which offers tasting menus (Menú degustación) at every other restaurant.

Anyway, that's enough of my unpatriotic misgivings, I suspect.

Having gone straight back into work from holiday, we haven't had time to write up reviews of all the places we visited, so the idea here is to give a taster (or a degustación!) of things to come.

Full reviews of the restaurants to come but highlights include...

-Being the sole table on a Friday night in Paco Guzman's 'Santa', the sister restaurant to Santa Maria, and having a fairly frank discussion with the chef/owner about the state of the food scene in Barcelona

-Discovering an ale-centric bar just around the corner from our apartment in Sant Pere and talking to one of the new breed of Spanish brewers (I say talking, I mean smiling and nodding, as he spoke no English, and us little Spanish)

-Sardine with spiced butter, fennel pollen and lemon at Gresca

-Squid with a deconstructed Romesco sauce at Bar Del Pla

-Morcilla with sauteed chickpeas at Casa Delfin

-Beef tartare and beer yoghurt at Igueldo

-The eccentric and laid-back staff at Organic (somewhat reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in I Heart Huckabees)

-Watching Spanish hipsters dancing to British indie music in Sidecar

Watch this space! (It is a bank holiday, after all...)

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

SoLIta Bar and Grill

The prospect of eating at SoLIta had my mouth salivating, my stomach rumbling, and my arteries looking frantically for the nearest exit...

Artery-assault: deep fried Mac 'n' Cheese
After attending a press review lunch at SoLIta, I initially wrote a small preview for, with the view to writing a full blog post soon after. Then the shit hit the fan and every food blogger in Manchester was reviewing the place. So, I decided to wait for the storm to subside, bide my time, then give my two cents, for what it's worth.

Out of the ashes of Sole, SoLita is born.

The restaurant brings the bar and grill concept to the Northern Quarter for the first time. The idea is to serve comforting, homely food in a New York-Italian vein, or what owner Dom Sotgiu understatedly calls ‘posh kid’s food’.

The menu is a carnivore’s dream - even the ice cream, made by Cabrelli’s, comes with bacon candy. Nibbles come in the form of fried chicken skin, a lighter alternative to pork scratchings; starters include bacon jam on sourdough, deep-fried cod balls, and the amazing pulled-pork sundae, which is sure to become a firm favourite among customers.

Pulled pork sundae

For the main courses, Dom has chosen some of the cheaper, tastier cuts and made them shine with the help of the Inka charcoal oven, which produces results that rival the best outdoor barbecue. The Short-ribs, aka Jacob’s Ladder, are slow-cooked for two days before being finished in the Inka, a recipe for deliciously tasty meat. A hanger steak (the tail end of the sirloin), notoriously difficult to cook, is exquisite and a steal at just over £16.

Other standout dishes include the behemoth deep-fried mac ‘n’ cheese burger, which has to be seen to be believed, and the sumptuous beef and bone marrow burgers on a perfectly light, yet sturdy demi-brioche bun. Even the side salad and chargrilled vegetables are brimming with flavour.


Desserts come in the form of ‘deep-fried coke’ (coke-flavoured churros), cheesecake, and the astoundingly good chargrilled pineapple with coconut ice cream. Dom has also been lucky to get hold of some fine mixologists and baristas and with a fine range of cocktails there’s more to the place than just meat.

SoLIta is not somewhere I can imagine eating very often however. This is perfect comfort food (read: 'having had a few too many beers the night before' food). The salt, fat, and sugar will satisfy all your desires for excess. Not to be indulged in more than once in a while but very good when you do.

They will undoubtedly have stiff competition from Almost Famous and Home Sweet Home but I do hope that the owners can make a go of this difficult dining spot.

Deep fried 'Coke'
Solita Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 11 August 2012

A simple supper... and a simpler lunch

Being a passionate and often fastidious cook, I sometimes get bogged down in the intricacies of cooking complicated dishes and neglect simple combinations of ingredients. Reading through a recipe by Heston Blumenthal or Thomas Keller can leave one feeling overwhelmed and wishing simply to concoct an easy dish with tried and tested flavour pairings.

Here it's mackerel, beetroot, and horseradish for a light lunch which takes only a few minutes to prepare; and then a slow cooked duck leg seasoned with five spice, stir-fryed cabbage and sauteed potatoes for dinner.

Mackerel and beetroot with horseradish dressing
Smoked mackerel fillet, 1 per person
Beetroot, pre-cooked
Horseradish sauce, 1 tsp
Extra virgin olive oil, 3 tbsp
Sherry vinegar, 1 tbsp
Salt and pepper
  • Tear the mackerel into bite-size pieces
  • Slice the beetroot into thin circles
  • Combine the horseradish sauce and sherry vinegar then whisk in the olive oil  until emulsified, then season and taste
  • Dress the mackerel and beetroot

Slow-cooked duck leg with cabbage and sauteed potatoes
2 Duck legs
Sea Salt, 2 tbsp
Five-spice powder, 1 tsp
Sweetheart cabbage, finely sliced
Shaoshing rice wine, splash
Soy sauce, to taste
New potatoes, cut into bite-size pieces
Corn oil or butter
  • Sprinkle the salt over the duck legs and rub into the skin and underside, then leave covered overnight in the fridge
  • Preheat the oven to 200 degress then rinse the salt off the duck legs, pat dry, and season with five spice
  • Fry the duck skin side down until most of the fat has been rendered down
  • Place duck legs in a covered casserole dish, put in the oven and cook for roughly an hour and a half
  • To saute the potatoes, pat the cut pieces dry, then heat the oil or butter in a frying pan over a medium heat
  • It is important that the pan be hot enough to brown the potatoes but not too hot that it will burn them
  • Fry the potatoes turning occasionally to make sure all sides are browned (this will take about half an hour)
  • For the cabbage, heat a little oil in a wok then stir-fry the cabbage, seasoning with the rice wine and soy sauce
  • Do this when you are ready to plate up as the cabbage will not take long to cook
  • Sit the duck leg on top of the cabbage and serve with the sauteed potatoes

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Sirloin Steak with Chimichurri

The perfect combination
Mmmm, steak.

For the meat lovers who read this post, I bet you won't be able to resist uttering (even mentally) something similar to 'I wish I had one of those'; and with my sincere apologies to the vegetarians and vegans, I admit that I cannot behold a well-cooked steak without salivating. It speaks to my inner carnivore like nothing else.

In 2009, I travelled around South America for four months. From gorging on coxinha's in Rio to nibbling guinea pig in Cusco, from gigantic pizzas in La Paz to coconut water in Cali, there is one food memory that stands out: carving into slabs of delicious Argentine steak.

The Argentinians tend to cook their steaks on outdoor grills known as parillas, which impart a smokey, char-grilled crust to the already flavoursome cuts of beef. The British weather being slightly more inclement, I tend to cook steaks in a cast-iron griddle pan, and you can still get a delicious brown crust with this method.

Adding some chimchurri sauce I am transported back to those small restaurants in Buenos Aires, Mendoza, and Salta. In Argentina, chimichurri is the condiment of choice for steak and as with anything in the cooking domain there are various recipes for it, but they all revolve around a few central ingredients: parsley, garlic, red wine vinegar and olive oil. Some add coriander, dried oregano, chilli and lime juice.

Chimichurri sauce

For the chimichurri:

Flat-leaf parsley, small bunch (80g packet from the supermarket)
Coriander, small bunch
3-5 garlic cloves, peeled
Red wine vinegar, 1 tbsp
Extra-virgin olive oil, 3 tbsp
Oregano (preferably Mexican), 1tsp
Crushed chillies, a pinch

-Blend all ingredients in a food processor

When it comes to cooking steak, my tips are culled from Heston Blumenthal and his idol, Harold McGee:
  • Take your steak from the fridge, remove any packaging and let come to room temperature for about half an hour (optionally, air-dry in the fridge for 2 days a la Blumenthal)
  • Put a cast-iron pan over a high heat for roughly 5 minutes or until smoking hot
  • Brush one side of the steak with oil then season with table salt (two decent pinches for a normal size sirloin should do it)
  • Lay the steak seasoned side down in the pan, season the other side then turn every 20 seconds or so, until each side had a nice, brown crust and the steak is cooked to your taste
  • The best way to check how the steak is cooked is with a temperature probe (but with a little practice simply pressing the meat will give you a good enough idea)
  • Once cooked, remove from the pan and rest for at least 5 minutes
Another simple method is to brown each side of a steak then put it in an oven at around 100 degrees celsius and check its doneness with a probe. This will tend to give a very evenly cooked piece of meat.

There are other tips and tricks, but if you follow these you can be guaranteed a tasty steak. For me the most salient points are getting the pan really hot, the resting period. and making sure you season the steak enough. It'll take more salt than you think.

With Aldi now doing Aberdeen Angus 28-day-matured sirloin and rib-eye steaks for just less than £4, it's now pretty affordable to eat a decent cut of meat every now and again. While I would always advocate sourcing meat from a reputable butcher, I think it's understandable to go occasionally for the cheaper albeit not so ethical option. I prefer a rib-eye for its flavourful marbling of fat which melts deliciously when cooked.

Wash this all down with a decent Argentine Malbec and dream of eating steaks the size of your head for less than the price of a Big Mac meal. No wonder they restrict how much of it gets across the channel!

Just how I like my steak

Tuesday, 31 July 2012


Wednesday night. A stressful day at work. Who doesn't want to come home to a sated and smug looking boyfriend who's had the day to sample Solita's new menu, proudly brandishing a jar of bacon jam? Okay, I'm not complaining - well... I am - but I did appreciate eating that sticky smokey goodness from my fingers as a post-work snack.

You're probably wondering how this has anything to do with LiveBait. Don't worry, I haven't gone all A.A. Gill on you (I vow never to turn into him when it comes to reviewing!).

Jamie's post-deep fried mac'n'cheese slump, and my apathy for cooking anything complicated after frying my brain all day in front of InDesign meant that we turned to the Taste card. I'm not sure how we acquired this, but I do know it was free, and the expiry date was fast-approaching. Feeling lazy, and never one to miss out on a bargain, we knew it was calling.

LiveBait is one of the restaurants that the Taste card offers a discount for. I'd read a review of its new menu over at Manchester Confidential, and it certainly seemed that it had changed hands for the better. Having previously trusted Jonathan Schofield's review of the revised menu at 101 Brasserie and had a fantastic meal on its recommendation, the odds were soon stacking up in favour of dining there.

The many years I'd spent working in various dining and drinking establishments across Manchester seemed to finally pay off: industry knowledge taught me that Wednesday is delivery day, hence LiveBait may well have caught a fresh flock of fish that day (I know, it's not the right collective noun, but school doesn't have the same ring to it...). We were sold.

We'd called ahead (as the T&C of the Taste card requires), and arrived at the restaurant for 8pm. Prime dining time, though sadly not for this place. There were only five tables - including ourselves - seated the whole time we were there. LiveBait is a huge restaurant, probably around 200 covers, and so I imagine it really needs more than 11 people to get a real atmosphere going - and the lobster tank geared up. The tank distinctly lacking in shellfish (i.e. totally empty) in the only fish restaurant in central Manchester was an humane, but disappointing sight. I began to worry... maybe the food was only decent when Man Con reviewed it because they'd sussed out who their guests were? I soon discovered my worries were all in vain...

We ordered our wine (a bottle of Albarino - reasonably priced, around the £20 mark). It was a pleasant dry white which worked well to accompany our dishes. The wine list was varied, and didn't look like it would break the bank. They do a deal of 6 oysters & 2 glasses of Prosecco which might also be a nice way to begin.

To start, I had the octopus salad. The octopus was well cooked, very tender, and the salad well dressed. It also had some naughty little oily potatoes hiding in amongst all the healthy looking leaves, which were salty and tasty and actually worked quite nicely, adding a different texture. We took a photo but I think you can all imagine what a plate of salad leaves looks like, so I shan't patronise you by adding the photo here! Jamie's starter was more interesting to the eye...

A well cooked piece of pork belly was the perfect salty accompaniment to a plump, sweet scallop. It was a few weeks ago that we went, but if my memory serves me correctly, it came with cucumber ribbons on the side, which tasted as if they had been marinated in some sort of Chinese-inspired acidic dressing (Man Con review tells me pickled - makes sense). Whilst tasty little morsels of cucumber they were, the marinade wasn't necessary and didn't particularly work with the modern surf'n'turf. I understood the thinking behind the dish but sometimes I reckon when you're going to be as indulgent as eating pork belly and the queen of the sea together, you should just concentrate on the pure succulence of the ingredients themselves. When they're cooked this well, the chef needn't hide the stars behind a raggedy old curtain. They also added - what I could imagine in a poncey restaurant being called - a 'texture' of pig ear, i.e. deep fried. It was certainly only there to add texture, as the taste was unremarkable. Chef: please see earlier comments, leave your tasty centrepieces well alone!

For mains came two pieces of fish - which, I hate to say, I could have cooked better at home. They weren't over or underdone, but where was the crispy skin?!?! This is the best bit of the fish!! And the closest thing I can get to feeling like I'm eating something naughty when I'm actually being reasonably healthy.

I had the striped bass, as shown below....

Look at that skin..... almost glistening with its moistness. It really saddens me when a beautiful piece of fish is ruined like this. Don't get me wrong, I get sad at real stuff too, like on Undercover Boss when they reveal themselves & give Joe Bloggs, who loves cleaning toilets for a living and does the best damn job of it anyone's ever done, a 50p pay rise. Anyway, salad no.2 was reminiscent of a beautiful nicoise, though I can't help but feel that it wouldn't have needed those croutons if they'd just cooked that skin... okay I'll shut up about it for now...

I tried to escape it, but I can't. The limp skin is back. I shall say no more, but it is present. This dish was pretty under seasoned, which was a shame as the sauce/bisque could have been really tasty. What you can't see from this photo (and I'm wondering if Jamie did this strategically to wipe its existence from its memory) is the er, 'bed'(?!) of polenta. I've never been a huge fan of this Italian semolina and this did nothing to start a club. It tasted like solid scrambled eggs fused with bread and butter pudding. Yum.

I feel like I've nearly gone all Bob Granleese on one of Manchester's better restaurants looking over this review, and that's unfair. We had a really enjoyable time - service was good, wine was hangover-free, and the starters were above par. I do feel that Man Con's review was a little on the generous side, but I would revisit - at least to check our their oyster and Prosecco deal - once they've 're-branded'. Using the Taste card, it was very reasonably priced, but I don't think I would've been overjoyed if I'd paid full price for those meals. Let's put it like this: if you're not as anal about your fish skin as I am then you'll probably spend less time whingeing and more time enjoying your meal.

Livebait on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Bored of Porridge?

Over the years, I’ve been called sleight, scrawny, skinny, slim… Most of the epithets you could think of to describe of a man of my small build. Suffice it to say that I’m not going to be entering any muscle-man competitions in the near future. However, fueled by a kind of vanity and the thought of my ever-decreasing strength, I decided to eat breakfasts designed to help one 'bulk up'.

Anna: On the flip side - as a woman subject to the narcissistic pressures of twenty-first century media (and not one of those members of the opposite sex who has the luxury of complaining "but I just can't put on weight however many double Angus burgers I eat!" a la Jamie) - I knew I needed an interesting and healthy breakfast that would keep me going longer than Shreddies. I also wanted a breakfast that I would be able to transport to work and eat at my desk as I rarely wake up early enough to get anything nutritious inside me (really - we moved into the city from the suburbs mostly to allow me an extra hour in bed in the morning).

Porridge, eggs, and even red meat have long been the breakfasts of choice for athletes. Call it parsimony or plain old common sense that, despite my love of steak and eggs, I was always going to choose the most economical option - porridge. Fortunately for Anna, it turns out that oats are a fairly female-friendly option too.

Memories of badly cooked, flavourless lumps of soggy oats meant that I had avoided porridge for the better part of a decade. Also, being fairly time consuming to prepare properly, oats were replaced by quicker easier alternatives.

Nevertheless, after following the steps Felicity Cloake’s 'how to cook the perfect porridge', Anna & I produced a nutty, creamy, wonderfully textured version and, henceforth, porridge became my breakfast staple. Incidentally, my condensed guide to cooking delicious porridge goes as such: toast oats in a dry pan until aromatic (take care not to burn them); soak in required amount of water/milk (50g porridge/300ml liquid), preferably overnight for quicker morning prep; cook relatively slowly and leave to sit covered for 5 minutes once cooked. Make sure to add a pinch of salt, it really does make a difference. Honey, golden syrup, or a swirl of jam are simple and effective; but there are of course a myriad of potential toppings and flavourings.

Nonetheless, come the summer months, a steaming bowl of porridge can be the least appetising thing at 8am on a Monday morning.

Enter Bircher Muesli. 

My first encounter with this style of oat-based breakfast came when I grabbed an apple and peach MOMA pot as an on-the-go breakfast on a recent trip to London. I enjoyed it so much that, upon my return home, I googled Bircher Muesli and, using Yottam Ottolenghi’s recipe as a guide, went about recreating the MOMA version. The original Swiss recipe calls for oats to be soaked in water then mixed with cream, to which are added fruit and nuts. Nowadays, most recipes call for fruit juice instead of water, and yoghurt instead of cream.

Bircher-style muesli is, like porridge, a wonderful canvas for various flavours and textures. Apple, peach and cinnamon is a good place to start but experiment with your favourite combination of fruit, nuts, and seeds. You can soak the oats in various liquids – try pineapple juice and coconut milk, then add fresh pineapple, coconut shavings and allspice for a Caribbean twist. I favour a nice tart granny smith (grated), blueberries, walnuts and pumpkin seeds with a squeeze of lime and a little agave syrup.

Soaking times vary from recipe to recipe. I find 10 minutes is enough time to soften the oats sufficiently for a pleasant texture. Soaking overnight speeds up preparation time in the morning and is advised, but don’t worry if you forget.

This breakfast has various nutritional benefits. The oats help to keep you fuller for longer and give you a good hit of B vitamins, which aid your memory amongst other things. Yoghurt is a genuine superfood (although I dislike the term), boosting your immune system, promoting fat loss, reducing colorectal cancer risk, in addition to giving you a good supply of protein and calcium. In the right quantities (somewhere in the realm of 40g a day) nuts are a great source of healthy fats and vitamin E as well as fibre and protein. I’m sure I don’t need to extol the virtues of fruit - combine dried with fresh to get up two of your 5-a-day before 9am. 

Bircher Muesli is undoubtedly an extremely healthy way to start the day. Try my recipe and forego the porridge, at least until Septemeber:

50g porridge oats
50ml apple juice (or other juice)
Roughly 30ml milk
100ml of natural yoghurt
Half a granny smith apple, cored and grated
1 peach, pitted and diced
Handful of blueberries
Handful of walnuts 
Pinch of cinnamon
Agave syrup, to taste
Half a lime, squeezed 

I work in individual man-sized portions - Anna & I manage to compromise on some things, but I leave her to sort out her own Bircher muesli whims. On this one, Anna suggests using around 35g of oats, around 70g of apple juice - or enough to cover the oats - and replaces the milk for a tablespoon of fat free yoghurt. No lime or agave necessary - A: unlike Jamie, I don't feel the need to start the morning reminding myself of the six Tommy's margaritas I drank the night before.