Guest blogger: Kristopher, from Blue, Black and White Alert, reviews Mingus, the self-appointed restaurant reviewer, during a recent weekend visit.
"How about steak on Friday and couscous on Saturday?" Mingus asked me over Skype chat. "And I'm making an American apple pie."
I really wish more chefs would do that—coordinate menus in advance and ask if there are any dietary issues.
At the same time, there was also a hint of decorum and declaration. It reminded me of the time in 2007 when Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and his old lady outed each other to the magazine Oma Maitseand sent the editors a calligraphed menu/invitation to lunch at Ärma Manor.
There was no objection from me. The menu Mingus proposed/announced was his trinity of food as I understand it—1) he loves beef; 2) he bakes, bucking gender roles, at least in this country; and 3) couscous, well, that is a legendary Mingus meal. It all started in the communal kitchen in the dorm in France that housed Mingus in his university days. Mingus had been assigned to the African and American section and the place was full of heady intellectual ferment and l'esprit de banlieue.
Maybe because of his associations with Algerians and moonlighting as a sax player for a funk band on the Rhône, there's nothing snooty about Mingus, but otherwise he is a very European American. Today his otherwise conservative appearance is subverted by a few mild vices and practical jokes (none of which are food-related pranks, luckily).
Estonia was in the icy grip of a high-pressure system and our trip coincided with the two coldest days of the year. It was dark when our train pulled in to the city's northern terminal. Mingus was there to meet us. After a quick patdown by his handlers, we piled into his solid European vehicle and entered a warren of one-way streets in a wooden part of town. We passed by a villa with intricate trim, and I may have spied a manor, then we got to Mingus's 1930s building.
Mingus's kids were eating honey. I noticed this a number of times—they are always eating Estonian honey. But they eat it in a dainty manner, walking around the house with little spoons full of crystallized nectar, making it last and never getting it on any furniture. Remember this real good, I told my son, who gobbles sweets down like he's about to be cut off by his old man, which he probably is.
Mingus was making a Béarnaise sauce to go with the steak. As an exchange high school student in Sweden, I kept on running into the stuff, except in bastardized versions. As a result of these traumas, I associated Béarnaise with pork schnitzel in a pool of ghastly yellow tarragon-flavored melted shortening.
I had never messed with classic French sauces myself, beyond a basic roux or Béchamel. With good reason. The Béarnaise was a lengthy scientific process, involving a double boiler and a number of steps, some of which were pungent and others, irreversible. Why were the Swedes so fond of it? Come to think of it, what was Mingus, who by his own admission didn't care for Western European food that much, doing? Then I remembered how highly he prizes beef, and what is Béarnaise if not the classic pairing for steak?
"This is going to smell up the house," Mingus said. He was over the stove, reducing vinegar with tarragon and white pepper. I wafted cautiously. Sure enough, it was a little overpowering, but I wouldn't say bad.
I excused myself to the jaan, which was spacious, spotless, unisex, and also featured the thickest toilet paper I had ever seen. Double-ply would not describe it. Talk about luxurious. It was so luxurious that—I don't want this to seem weird—but I hoped that I could time things so I would get to use it before leaving.
When I got back, the Béarnaise was still in process, but there was a problem. It was close to -10 degrees F outside (-23 C) with near record-high atmospheric pressure. His pantry, uninsulated, hovered near freezing. Maybe because of this, or maybe not, food was behaving in mysterious ways. It had never done so before. It was not clear whether the eggs had curdled or the butter had not melted completely. Maybe both.
It didn't matter. There was a cardboard hogshead of wine (Chenet). And there was guacamole and pico de gallo de casa Mingus, which had been conjured into existence by Mrs. Mingus.
Now, that's not a pretentious way of saying that she "made" or "prepared" it, but that she probably magicked it to life. This is something you will notice about Mrs. Mingus, who is self-deprecating about her culinary talents. You never actually see her working in the kitchen but the kitchen stays in tip-top shape and good salads and side dishes materialize on a regular basis. Take the croutons for the salad, browned and covered in herbs. The pico de gallo was a Mr. Mingus recipe that involved radish, cucumber and piri-piri. I could have eaten a bowl of it like gazpacho.
As for the steak, it was good Estonian external fillet, in the narrow area of overlap where lean meets tender. It wasn't antrekoot with its sinews, that Mingus scornfully dismisses. Mingus had been to two stores to find external fillet. There was no question it would be a slam-dunk. In the end the Béarnaise was substituted for by Worcestershire. The steak was accompanied by frites. Some of the people at the table occasionally chewed with their mouths open but the food was hot and good. The Béarnaise had never mattered, not to me at least.
I am not an apple pie man, but I love me some good flaky or short-crust pastry. I've found it usually works out that way. There are some people who love the filling and others like the crust. Täpsustaksin: filling is just an excuse to eat crust, it's good if some filling gets on the crust, but otherwise it's not important.
I was surprised to learn that phyllo was not one of Mingus's favorites; but he has a foolproof recipe for a classic pastry crust that is probably healthier, too. After all, the key is to increase fat content and reduce water—that means none of those 70% butter spreads but only European 80%+ butters will suffice. Mingus has a cheat—he adds oil. As a result, the pastry also looked easy to work. He sliced the ball in half to make bottom and top crust and the texture of the cross-section was like food porn. By the time it went into the oven, the thing had an almost Norman Rockwell regularity about it.
Fifty-nine spice bottles line the shelves in Mingus's kitchen. The couscous involved several of them, chiefly fennel seed and cumin.
The bottles were made of slightly greenish glass as if they had been hand-blown. Mingus said that he had not been able to get any more than 59. And it wasn't enough. Spice number sixty-something—a recent acquisition—was a sealed plastic bag containing a kilogram of smoked paprika from an Israeli connection.
I remarked that similar glassware might be available at the Olde Hansa gift shop in Tallinn, but Mingus looked at me with about as much interest as if I had just said the A&O in Mõisaküla was having a sale on Tupperware. Of course he might have also been busy—if Mrs. Mingus uses magic, Mingus is a master methodician.
Mingus braised the chicken carefully for over an hour, letting it absorb the essential oils, then shredded it. Without having the authentic Moroccan preserved lemons on hand, somehow, by using some of the rind, and the right mix of spices, he was able to approximate the flavor. I would say that technically the couscous was a stew that was served over couscous. At least the time I ordered it at a restaurant in Morocco it all arrived in one dish. So in that sense, Mingus's dish reminded me more of the tajine cooked for us by our housekeeper in Essaouira, which was better than most restaurants in a country where much still revolves around the home.
Of course I'm partial to the whole continuum of North African and Middle Eastern flavors. And cumin for me is the king of spices, partly because it's so distinctive and powerful. An absolute ruler. It's impossible to argue with. As a result, I am not sure my review of anything with cumin can really be objective.
And then it was gone, like one of Baudelaire’s visions of seraphim, and I was too contented to think about much except maybe some more apple pie.