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Sunday
May292005

Edinburgh Gems: Jackson's Restaurant

jacksonsoutside2.jpgThe first time I walked into Jackson's, I was instantly reminded of Disney World.  That's not the usual way someone starts off a favorable restaurant review, I know, but bear with me, because it will make sense in a moment.

In the middle of Edinburgh's tourist heartland, halfway down the infamous Royal Mile, buried deep among the uber-kitsch souvenir shops and bagpipe-wielding street musicians, there is a little underground restaurant that by all appearances, seems to be there solely to cash in on the tourist trade as well. You descend some claustrophobic steps into a basement room where the gaudiness of it all threatens to overwhelm you: heavy throne-like wooden chairs, lamps in the shape of torches on the walls, bunches of dried thistles and tapestries depicting scenes of medieval Scottish life decorate your dining nook. The waistcoated waitstaff seem to have been given an extra lesson is graciousness before you arrive, humbly thanking you for everything you let them do ('May I refill your wineglasses? Thank you very much indeed, Ma'am, Sir'). There's no Braveheart soundtrack playing on the stereo, thankfully, but there is Dean Martin on endless repeat. If Walt Disney had included Scotland in his World Showcase at Epcot Center - you know, the place with the little pavilions from different countries that try to cram as many clichés as possible into the space of a basketball court - this would be Scotland's restaurant.

If you have been to Epcot Center, or better yet if you've actually eaten at any of the restaurants in the World Showcase, you'll know that just because it's awash in Disney syrup doesn't mean it doesn't serve good food. For example, in France (that's Disney France, I mean), the Chefs de France and Bistro de Paris restaurants are co-owned by Paul Bocuse, Gaston Lenôtre and Roger Vergé, the godfathers of haute cuisine. I had the best Chiles en Nogada and Mole Poblano of my life in the Mexican pyramid pavilion, which boasts a fantastic restaurant calledJackson's Interior
Jackson's Interior
the San Angel Inn. I can imagine that Scotland's restaurant would be no different, if it existed - along with all the bagpipes, thistles and overdone accents, you would be served some pretty decent food. And such is the case at Jackson's, only you don't have to travel to Florida to experience it.

We found ourselves in Jackson's for lunch last week, lured in by their seemingly amazing lunchtime offer of three courses for a mere £13. I had eaten at Jackson's once before, treated by a colleague of my mother's, and we had a delicious albeit pricy dinner. The food had been sumptuous and exciting - I had a duck and pink peppercorn terrine with blood orange sauce as my first course, and possibly the best filet mignon of my life which was served with a roquefort-port wine sauce so good I ended up eating it with a spoon. I believe the bill came to over £100, though I politely didn't ask for specifics. This time we went there for the acid test, however - there are a lot of restaurants that offer good food for dinner and good deals on lunch, but not many that please you equally no matter what time you go or how much you spend. Luckily, we needn't have worried.

The low-price lunch menu offers three to four choices per course, which represent a nice variety of ingredients and preparations. ISmoked Trout Mousse
Smoked Trout Mousse
chose a smoked trout mousse for my first course, and Manuel had smoked venison fillet atop a bed of beetroot salad. The mousse was exceptional, much better than I anticipated - the fish flavor was savory and smoky but Smoked Venison Salad
Smoked Venison Salad
not overpowering; the mousse itself was light and creamy and had a complex harmony of fresh herbs and pungent garlic, and it was nestled atop oven-dried tomato halves, whose sweetness perfectly complimented the savory mousse. Manuel's venison was also delicious and tender, though I could have had some slightly clearer flavors in the accompanying salad.

As a main course, I chose a roasted chicken supreme (breast plus wing) atop a haggis cake, served with a grainy mustard sauce. Manuel chose a pasta with beef filet and peppercorn sauce. Every component of my chicken was absolutely superb - the chicken was perfectly cooked and succulent, theChicken and Haggis Cake
Chicken and Haggis Cake
skin was crispy and well-seasoned, the sauce was piquant and creamy, and the haggis...oh the haggis! I've never had haggis like that - large chunks of vegetables and meat (what kind of meat? I prefer not to go there...) nestled in savory oat mash, and everything just so, well, tasty. Manuel also made grunts of Beef & Peppercorn Pasta
Beef & Peppercorn Pasta
happiness over his pasta, which at first seemed a little out of character for the rest of the menu, but fit the standards well in terms of sheer flavor.

The food being so delicious excused the fact that the portions were a bit on the small side, and as a result I certainly had room for dessert. I was in a fruity mood and ordered a passionfruit pavolva with vanilla-pod ice cream and passionfruit sauce; however they had just run out and I had to settle for a Drambuie creme brulee. It was good, but not the highlight - the costs being equal, I would definitely go for one of their fancier concoctions next time. Manuel, stuffed on pasta, was happy with a whisky, and he was spoiled for choice. We lingered over our bottle of house wine (an above-standard ChileanDrambuie Creme Brulee
Drambuie Creme Brulee
Cabernet Sauvignon) before leaving - the atmosphere, though jarring at first, had a way of seducing us into sleepy contentment and wisely no one rushed us out the door back into the tourist madness above. In fact, our waiter seemed so sad to see us go that he asked us when we'd be back. 'Soon', I promised, 'very soon'.

The Bill: For two lunch menus, a bottle of house wine, a whisky, coffees and tip: £46.
Reservations: A good idea for weekend dinners, or anytime during the Festival in August.

Jackson's Restaurant
209 High Street
The Royal Mile
Edinburgh
Tel:
0131 225 1793
www.jacksons-restaurant.co.uk

Wednesday
May252005

A Mango by Any Other Name

mangoes.jpg


It all started with frozen yogurt.

On warm summer evenings my parents would gather everyone together and treat us to an after-dinner frozen yogurt at a little place down the street. Back in those days the big chains hadn't moved in - we didn't have a TCBY, we just had Yumi-Gurt, a tiny shop which was run by a friendly young couple who offered an impressive selection of unusual flavors. I was a picky eater and a typical child in that I turned my nose up at anything remotely healthy. As far as I can recall that frozen yogurt was the only vaguely natural thing my parents could coax into me, and even that was usually full of chocolate. Even fruit didn't excite me, or so I thought. I probably would have gone on believing I didn't like healthy things indefinitely, if one evening a chance experiment with a new flavor of frozen yogurt hadn't shaken me out of my complacency. The new flavor was mango, and that day we fell hopelessly in love.

After tasting it in frozen yogurt for the first time, my love affair with mango developed slowly, even modestly. We flirted in bottled fruity drinks, and we exchanged fleeting kisses in occasional tropical desserts. It was a flavor I soon grew to prefer over most others, but for a long time it remained just an abstraction for me, a flavor and a color that could show up in many guises but had no physical referent in the fruit world. I didn't even know what it really looked like until the day I found one at the market, brought it home and hesitantly cut apart its soft flesh, a much more complicated procedure than any other fruit I had come across. Yet upon tasting it unadulterated for the first time I realized how deep my passion for this fruit ran. Much more intense and luscious than any abstraction of its character, mango in its natural state was simply the most perfect thing I had ever put into my mouth.

The problem, as I soon discovered, was that many of the mangoes I found in the supermarket were hard, stringy and astringent, and it became an expensive and frustrating gamble to buy and buy and buy in the hopes that occasionally I'd get lucky. I learned that big supermarket mangoes usually come from large-scale suppliers, who buy certain varieties that have been bred to be hardy in large under-ripe quantities because they must remain shelf-stable until they reach the farthest corners of the supply chain. I was almost at the point of giving up on mangoes completely, having been disappointed one too many times with the dry, bitter specimens I was able to find on the exotic fruit shelves.

Then one day, while shopping for spices, I hit upon the solution to my mango conundrum. Small suppliers buy just the quantities they will be able to sell, and consequently they can buy varieties of produce that are grown for flavor, not for durability. Combine this with the expertise of a produce seller who has grown up in an area that grows the produce in question, and therefore has local connections and knows exactly what type to buy, and you've probably struck gold. It was mango gold, in my case, as I realized the perfect places to buy them were not supermarkets, but the ubiquitous Indian and Pakistani markets in the UK, which apart from bags of spices and ginger and chilies, sell ridiculously cheap, ripe and absolutely delicious mangoes.

For example, last week Edinburgh turned uncharacteristically hot, and with this unseasonable weather for me came an insatiable craving for mangoes. I passed by my usual Pakistani grocery on my way home, and to my delight I saw a large stack of boxes that contained my absolutely favorite variety of mangoes, a long, slender, honey-yellow variety called Sindhri. I love these because they are as tender as custard on the inside with absolutely no fibers, which means you can eat the flesh from each half with a spoon (as they do in India, apparently). They normally start showing up in late May and early June, so seeing them now I just assumed the season had begun a little early this year.

I greedily snatched a box and carried it over to the counter. The proprietor, a grumpy middle-aged Pakistani, looked up from his newspaper, eyed my box of mangoes, but then shook his head and waved me back in the direction of the mangoes: 'get a different box'. 'Okay,' I said, hesitantly returning my box for another of the same variety from lower in the stack. 'No, no, no', he said as if he were speaking to a stupid child, 'look at this.' He came over and yanked the top off the box to reveal six slightly shriveled brown-flecked Sindhri mangoes. 'Not good, not good, you buy these,' and removed a box from behind them, across which was written 'Highest Quality Alphonso Mangoes from Pakistan'. He removed the top from this box to let me fully appreciate the difference: the Alphonsos were smooth, tinged with pink and green, and felt soft and slightly fuzzy, like the top of a baby's head. 'You want Sindhri, you come back in two weeks; you want good mangoes buy these now'. I didn't need to be told twice - the man knows his mangoes.

And how delicious they were - Alphonso or Sindhri, the difference is academic, because really what matters is the perfect stage of ripeness. The flesh was a glistening carrot-orange, the texture was like butter, and the flavor tasted like a cross between honey, peaches and freshly-cut flowers. Standing over the sink, mango juice dripping from my fingers and chin, I ate half of the box that evening in a kind of trance, aware of nothing but the intensity of the taste and perfume I encountered in each single fruit I devoured. At that moment there seemed no better metaphor for the fundamental exuberance and abundance of the oncoming summer than those perfect mangoes.

But I also did something else with those mangoes the next day, when the summery sun had gone and the rain had returned. It was something that took me straight back to those warm summer evenings of my childhood and that wonderful day at Yumi-Gurt when mango and I met for the first time.

I made frozen yogurt, and when I ate it, even the bleary drizzle outside my window seemed to lessen ever so slightly.

mangofrozyog.jpg

Mango Frozen Yogurt

This recipe is simplicity itself, and really only should be made when you have perfectly ripe, gloriously tasty fruit. The recipe is simple, but you need a food processor, and you should be prepared to eat the results as soon as they are made. This same technique works with other fruit as well, particularly with stone fruits like peaches, nectarines, apricots and cherries. You can vary the dairy ingredient to whatever strikes your fancy: nonfat yogurt works, as does rich and creamy Greek yogurt; you can even create something more akin to gelato by using creme fraiche.

If you've never cut apart mangoes, here's the best way to do it: slice off the halves parallel and as close as you can get to the pit, which runs lengthwise down the center of the mango. To get the flesh from each half, score the flesh in a crosshatch or diamond pattern, cutting all the way down to the peel but not cutting through it. Turn the mango half inside-out, and cut off all the protruding cubes. There will also still be some flesh attached to the pit; cut off the thin ring of peel and cut off as much flesh as you can, avoiding any parts that seem overly stringy. Finally, squeeze the pit between your fingers to get the last bit of mango juice from the fibers, and toss this with the cubes.

The quantities of mango you will want to freeze are completely up to you, though I like to do quite a few at a time so I have several days of frozen yogurt to look forward to. Just peel however many mangoes you have, cut them into approximately 1/2 inch (1 cm) cubes (make sure to squeeze in any last juice from the pit), and spread the cubes out on a waxed-paper lined baking sheet. Freeze until solid, at which point you can transfer to a freezer-safe container if you're not ready to use them. When you are ready, multiply the following proportions for the number of people you're planning to feed.

Per Person:
1 cup diced frozen mango (from about 1 large mango)
1/3 cup yogurt
1 or 2 tablespoons superfine sugar, or to taste
1 tablespoon lemon or lime juice (optional)

Stir together the sugar and yogurt until the sugar has mostly dissolved. Process the yogurt and the mango together in a food processor, scraping down the sides once or twice, until everything is smooth and has the texture of soft ice cream. Taste it and add the lemon juice if you want it a bit more sour, and a little more sugar if it's not sweet enough. Give it a final whirr and quickly scrape it into a bowl and eat.


Sunday
May222005

IMBB#15: All Jelled Up and Nowhere to Go

coffeegelees1.jpg
Quartet of espresso gelées: clockwise from top left are curry, lavender, star anise and fennel.


It seemed like such a unique idea. After all, who would think to JELL coffee? Well, I'll tell you who: other adventurous food-bloggers (as I write, THREE jelled coffees have already been posted by Santos, Joone and Barbara, and I thought that being in Europe I was ahead of the game!).

The Recipe:

I chose this recipe after realizing that I had senselessly squandered my all-time gelatin favorite for last month's IMBB. I was tempted into trying jellied coffee by epicurious, who among all their gelatin-laden delights offered me this chance to combine COFFEE with CURRY, a pairing I never would have dared dream about, much less invent myself. Suitably intrigued by this unorthodox duo, I decided to branch out and not limit myself to one unexpected flavor combination, but FOUR. I mean if you're going to do something, go ahead and do it right. Even if most of it ends up down the drain, at least your horizons will have been stretched that tiny little bit more.

The Verdict:

Coffee with CURRY: This was the original, and every single person who reviewed this recipe online said it was unexpectedly good (of course there were plenty others who unabashedly bypassed the curry). I must say I agree. The flavor of the curry is amazing subtle, and I would even go so far as to say it's unrecognizable as curry. It just tastes like very intriguingly-spiced coffee. Used with restraint, this was my favorite of the lot.

Coffee with LAVENDER: This turned out to be the most disappointing. I think lavender's grassy, herbal flavor is better suited to pairings with fruity or creamy, rather than bitter.

Coffee with STAR ANISE: I kept thinking of Thai coffee as I ate this, the kind that comes iced and tooth-achingly sweet. The combination of star anise and coffee was good; not quite as complex as the curry, but very fragrant and hauntingly exotic. A definite success.

Coffee with FENNEL: This surprised me by how much I liked it. I thought fennel would echo lavender and clash with the bitterness of the coffee, but the opposite was true. Thinking about it, I realized that coffee and aniseed are old buddies (think coffee with sambuca, for example), and fennel and aniseed are very similar. Two thumbs up, and a nice complement to the other three flavors.

Will I make it again? No doubt. It is unbelievably easy, the flavors are sophisticated and intriguing, and the recipe offers almost endless possibilities for experimentation. I wish everything I cooked was like this!

And by the way, thanks to Elise for hosting this month's event. Can't wait to see the roundup!

Quartet of Espresso Gelées with Curry, Lavender, Star Anise and Fennel
Serves: 6

For the Coffee Gelée:
1 cup freshly-brewed espresso
1 cup boiling water
1/4 cup cold water
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brandy or other liquor (optional)
2 teaspoons powdered gelatin

For the Spiced Cream:
2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar or mild honey
1/8 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon dried lavender
1 star anise
1 teaspoon fennel seeds

Soften the gelatin in 1/4 cup cold water for 1 minute. Combine with the espresso, boiling water and sugar in a large bowl and stir until the sugar and gelatin have both dissolved. If things have cooled too much by this point for this to happen, heat it gently in a saucepan until there are no granules left. Add the brandy (if using), and do one of two things: either spoon the mixture into individual cups or bowls, or else keep it all in one bowl, and then put it in the fridge to chill for several hours.

In the meantime, using a clean coffee grinder grind the lavender, star anise and fennel separately. Reserve.

When the gelées have set, whip the cream with the sugar or honey. Separate the cream into four bowls; into each portion fold in one of the reserved spices. If you've chilled the gelée in one bowl, spoon it out now into individual cups or bowls. Top each portion of gelee with one spoonful of each of the differently-spiced creams. Or you could serve four communal bowls contianing the gelee and different creams, and let people help themselves to the flavors they like.

Note: I was really impressed with the flavor possibilities of this simple dessert. I can think of many other traditional and nontraditional flavors I would like to try here: lemongrass, cardamom, chili, grapefruit, rosemary, ginger, saffron - basically anything with enough punch to stand up next to the dark, malty espresso.