Ben Jackson is feeling conflicted.

“I’ve really moved on from what I was doing at Drifters Wife,” he said. “I had to. The constant changing and being forced to be creative and come up with new ideas was tough. Not just every service, but all the time! You’ve got a quart left of purée for a fish dish but it’s not enough, and you’re asking yourself over and over again ‘Do I feel like making this again or doing something different?’ I don’t know, it was just unsustainable for the long haul.”

Unable to translate Drifters Wife’s dynamic perspective on freshness and availability into a pandemic-friendly takeout business, Jackson, along with co-owners Peter and Orenda Hale, decided to pull the plug on their celebrated Portland restaurant four months ago – even as a coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northeast remained in the balance.

But nobody honestly expected him to stay away for long. Jackson is the same person who told me this May, when things looked most dire, “I’m going to be cooking for the rest of my life, probably on the line.”

Over the summer, he began co-hosting a series of small-scale, private four-course dinners on Sunday nights at Yarmouth’s More & Co. Then, several weeks later, a sold-out pop-up gig at Judy Gibson in South Portland alongside chef/owner Chris Wilcox.

Back in the day, chef Ben Jackson works on dishes in the kitchen at Drifters Wife. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said with a laugh. “Doing the More & Co. dinners where it’s all about making something from what you have lying around was great. I mean, I’d walk out of those and bring whatever was left home, and we’d live off of it. That, and hanging out with Chris getting ready for the Judy Gibson event…they make me realize how much I miss cooking in restaurants.”

Talking with Jackson, it becomes clear that he’s also jonesing a bit for the intoxicating cocktail of ingenuity and improvisation that first brought him national attention in 2017, when the kitchen at Drifters Wife amounted to no more than a toaster oven and a few induction burners.

“I remember getting baby heads of cabbage from Beth Schiller (of Dandelion Spring Farm), and we didn’t know what to do. But they were so sugary-sweet and perfect for charring and oven-roasting, and we had this real beautiful, velvety smooth hakurei turnip purée kicking around,” he said. “A lot of the inspiration behind dishes at Drifters was getting people to eat stuff that maybe they don’t like, or don’t think they like. Like roasted cabbage. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.”

Wintertime staples at both incarnations of Drifters Wife, Jackson’s charred cabbage dishes occasionally appeared just in time for sea urchin season in Maine. The roe from sea urchins is buttery and bracingly mineral. It features in Italian cooking but is much more commonly found as a briny component in Japanese dishes, where it is referred to as “uni.” Because of Jackson’s talent at exploiting seasonal overlaps, he found a way to wed Maine uni and cabbage, paying more attention to freshness than to any particular culinary tradition.

Which is why he was surprised by a comment from a Japanese friend who visited Maine and dined at Drifters Wife. “She came over to me after she ate it, and she was like, ‘You’re not Japanese. How did you know to put uni with cabbage?’ I just thought it was a natural pairing,” he said. “But her mind was blown, and she told me, ‘You know they feed sea urchin cabbage in Japan, right? On the urchin farms. And the urchins just love them.’ Honestly, I had no idea.”

“But also, before that, Alexis (Ostrowski, Jackson’s wife) and I went to Japan for our honeymoon. And that’s one of the things that drew me to Maine. It was the similarities of what grows here and what you get from the coast. You can draw a parallel across the globe all the way. I think it goes through Hokkaido. Maine seemed to be calling me.”

I have a theory that it’s not just the ingredients that drew Jackson in. I think it’s the continuous cycle of change propelled by four starkly defined seasons. Every evening represents a new point of transition, a unique chance to bridge flavors that might not coexist tomorrow.

To someone craving stability, reliable stockpiles of ingredients that last a few weeks or a month might sound appealing, but I suspect Jackson would grow bored quickly. What makes me say that? His e-mailed reply to my request for a photo of the cabbage dish from his Drifters Wife days. In the first line, it emerged that Jackson was readying some recent snapshots of the cabbage, ones taken at a guest stint in the kitchen at Oxbow Brewing this very month.

Indeed, at the precise moment when Maine uni season coincides with the sweetest, crunchiest crucifers of the year, take a wild guess what Jackson couldn’t resist adding to his menu.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at: [email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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Roasted Cabbage with Uni and Hakurei Turnip Purée
Recipe courtesy of Ben Jackson, formerly of Drifters Wife. You can find uni at Browne Trading Co. in Portland. 

Serves 3-4

Olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
4 shallots, thinly sliced
1 bunch hakurei turnips (6 to 8 small to medium turnips)
1 cheesecloth sachet with several sprigs of thyme, 1 or 2 fresh bay leaves, and chile de arbol to taste
½ cup dry white wine
1 lemon, seeded and cut into wedges, for seasoning
1 medium to large cabbage with tight outer leaves
1 (4-ounce) tray of Maine uni
10 leaves Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
1 teaspoon finely chopped chives
Fresh horseradish root

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil into a small (2 or 3 quarts) saucepot and lightly toast the garlic over medium heat. Once the garlic starts to turn golden brown, add the shallots, turnips and the seasoning sachet. Continue to cook over medium heat until the turnips are “fall apart” tender with no browning, and most of the moisture has evaporated. Add the white wine and cook until the wine has evaporated.

Remove the sachet, then with a hand blender (or food processor or blender), purée the turnip mixture until it is silky smooth, adding only enough water to bring it together. Adjust the seasoning with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Set this mixture aside.

Cut the cabbage into halves or quarters and season it with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, making sure to work the seasoning between the layers of cabbage leaves without separating them from the core. On a sheet pan, roast the cabbage until it is tender internally (the core will become translucent and soft) and crispy and caramelized on the outer leaves, around 10 minutes.

In a large bowl or on a sheet tray, squeeze a wedge or 2 of lemon over the cabbage and gently toss it with the chives and parsley leaves. Adjust the seasoning to your taste with more salt and pepper.

On each plate, portion at least ¼ cup of the warm turnip mixture and nestle 1 or 2 cabbage quarters into the purée. Top with a few lobes of the Maine uni and finish the plate with freshly grated horseradish.

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