My home kitchen is tight. There's barely enough room for me, let another another cook. Still, I love cooking with others in my tight kitchen. At my best, I groove around others, slinking my way to the sink and back to the stove in a swift, graceful dance. On the actual dance floor, I'm a disaster. In the kitchen, I'm an evil Baryshnikov.
This is how Anthony Bourdain describes the kitchen dance: "If you're a saute man, your grill man is your dance partner, and chances are, you're spending the majority of your time working in a hot, uncomfortable confined, submarine-like space with him. You're both working around open-flame, boiling liquids, and plenty of blunt objects at close hand--and you both carry knives, lots of knives. So you had better get along."
I've pretty much loved every bastard I've worked with in the kitchen. I'd better, because I'm no fighter. I don't stab. A lot of guys I've worked with in professional kitchens were stabbers. I'm talking about the kind of guys who actually like to stab things and people. I remember John, a saute man, who stabbed his own pinkie clean off in the middle of a busy, Friday afternoon lunch shift. He bled profusely. He was pale, clearly freaked. I scooped up the bit of pinkie and rushed him to the hospital. On the way into the hospital, he stopped.
Do you think I have time to bust a smoke? he said.
So we stood there as John, losing blood, smoked.
I love that guy. I love the sense of chaos and criminality he brought to the kitchen. He was back at work that night, his pinkie bandaged, working the line.
The home kitchen, of course, is more calm. That's why I do everything I can to increase the sense of chaos. Perhaps this is why I don't get along with my wife in the kitchen. She's a measured cook, precise and willing. She creates beautiful, loving dishes, full of tenderness. When I'm not involved at all, she creates transcendent risotto, immaculate roast chicken, the best beef burgundy. I, however, mess with her mojo. If I'm around, things fall apart. I'm her terror.
I'm the type of cook who likes to fuck with people and food. Sure, I put love into my cooking; it's just that my love expresses itself in risk. I like smoke. I love fire. Blood turns me on. I love cranking the music up really high, darting back and forth, sweating, cursing, spitting, and getting naked, if it's hot enough. Mostly, I love when I take a piece of food, compare it to a body part, and then do offensive things with it.
And still, it all ends up tasty.
This past Friday, my kitchen buddy Mikey came over.
Mikey also revels in chaos. Mikey brought over Rodrigo y Gabriela: we pumped it up and danced. We were cooking for my wife and my buddy, JJ. It was a festive night. The celebration was simple: we celebrated food and each other. Mikey made quinoa chowder, slow-cooked baked beans, and Cajun cat-fish. I made an epic sweeta potato mash and BBQ chicken on the grill (with homemade BBQ sauce.)
The entire night I was evilly waiting to cook the catfish. I knew the catfish would destroy us. And it did. Mikey threw it in a cast-iron pan and the kitchen, the apartment, hell, the entire town, filled with noxious smoke. We coughed and sneezed and complained. Mikey just stood right over the pan, as if his own dying demanded his full attention.
Within minutes, he was utterly destroyed.
The meal was outstanding. Everyone loved everything, except the chicken. I willfully undercooked it. The others refused to eat the chicken, but I ate it, with absolute braggadocio, as if I were tempting the gods to obliterate me.
I ate two chicken legs--the center of both, a bit pale, teasing opulent rawness. To me, chicken legs tastes best just at 160 degrees--the center might be a bit undercooked, but the rest is a sort of divine specialty. It's the best chicken will ever taste. Also, it does strange things to you. I ate it and felt virile, alive, vampiric.
Epic Sweeta Potato Mash with Coconut Milk
Mikey uses the word "epic" a lot. If something defies expectation it is epic. He also uses the word "ridick" (as in ridiculous.) These sweet potatoes could also be considered ridick.
And oh, by the way, "Sweeta" is how my acupuncturist refers to sweet potatoes. She's a brilliant, caring lady from China. She tells me, "No more sweeta potato!" I'm not sure why.
4 medium sweeta potatoes, washed
1/4 cup coconut milk (full fat is best)
1 teaspoon sea salt
Fresh ground black pepper
Adjust an oven rack to the center position. Preheat oven to 4oo degrees. Arrange sweet potatoes on a foil-lined baking sheet.
Bake until a knife tip slides easily into the flesh, 60-70 minutes. (Sometimes, sweet potatoes can take up to 90 minutes or more to cook, depending on the size.)
Meanwhile, warm the coconut milk in a medium saucepan over low heat. Season the coconut milk with sea salt and black pepper to taste.
When sweet potatoes are cool, slip the skins off and place into saucepan with coconut milk. Mash the sweet potatoes in the saucepan. Season with extra salt and pepper.
Alternately, for an exquisitely creamy texture, pass the sweet potatoes through the holes of a food mill directly into the coconut milk and mash.