Besides being fun and easygoing, one of the pleasures of working with FriendsEAT co-founders Blanca Valbuena and Antonio Evans is being exposed, not only to their love and appreciation of all things food, but to their combined knowledge of food and various distinguished food personalities.
One such relatively obscure food dignitary that stands out for me is Dr. Ken Albala, the Director of Food Studies at the University of the Pacific in San Francisco from the University of the Pacific who was awarded the Gourmand World Cookbook Prize.
Albala has authored or edited 16 books on food including:
Eating Right in the Renaissance
Food in Early Modern Europe
Cooking in Europe 1250-1650
The Banquet: Dining in the Great Courts of Late Renaissance Europe
Beans: A History (winner of the 2008 IACP Jane Grigson Award)
Albala was also editor of the “Food Cultures Around the World” series with 30 volumes in print, the 4-volume “Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia,” and is series editor of “AltaMira Studies in Food and Gastronomy” for which he has written a textbook entitled “Three World Cuisines: Italian, Chinese, Mexican” (winner of the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards best foreign cuisine book in the world for 2012).
Albala was co-editor of the journal “Food Culture and Society” from 2008-2013, and is editing a 3 volume encyclopedia on Food Issues for Sage. He has also co-authored two cookbooks: “The Lost Art of Real Cooking” and “The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home.”
Albala is passionate about food and even more passionate about cooking and experimenting with food, which he shares on his blog Ken Albala’s Food Rant. Albala’s blog discussions include everything from making brandy and aged eggnog to old recipes from the Renaissance.
In this TEDX talk, Albala explains why it’s so important for us to cook more at home, but he does this from a philosophical point of view; Albala also provides his unique perspective on modern cookbooks, among other things.
Because of Albala’s extensive historical knowledge of food, much of which centers around the Middle Ages, Albala provides rare insight into the history of many European dishes and recipes.
Albala’s attitude on cooking at home is probably best summed up by “Ken Albala’s 5 Essentials for Home Cooks” which appeared in The Kitchn, a daily web magazine devoted to home cooking and kitchen design.
Ken’s 5 Essentials for the Home Cook
1. Loosen up. Just get in there! Don’t be afraid to fail! You will find out what you know and what you don’t know only by doing it, and you will learn this best by doing it over and over. Be careful about cooking too much from recipes, which Ken likens to always using a GPS when driving.
You’ll never learn how to cook for yourself if you don’t improvise every now and then. Make it a routine to cook every day and remember that cooking and eating is pleasurable, that food is a source of pleasure.
2. Don’t depend too much on electrical gadgets. Ken is not a fan of most modern cooking devices like food processors, juicers and the like. They’re expensive, he says, they take up too much space and they mangle the food. (Like Yotam Ottolenghi, he recommends keeping food as close to its whole state as possible.)
Get a good knife, keep it sharp, and use it, he says. It’s much more enjoyable to slice up a carrot by hand rather than shove it into a food processor, which you also have to wash and dry afterwards. Ken teaches a lot of sausage-making classes where he teaches people how to chop meat with a knife. You have so much more control the texture that way, he says.
The three utensils that Ken uses the most are a good sharp knife, a set of tongs, and a metal off-set spatula. It’s amazing how much cooking you can do with just those three things, he says.
3. Don’t be afraid of bacteria. Of course some bacteria are dangerous, but many are really good for you and are even necessary. It’s bacteria that turn milk to cheese, grapes to wine, and bread rise. Purchase fresh food, keep your chopping board clean, and cook your food sensibly (but not to death!). Industrial food has really failed us, says Ken.
You will more likely to be poisoned by industrially-produced food than what goes on in your kitchen. To understand bacteria better you can certainly read the books of Sandor Katz or check out Ken’s latest textbook, Three World Cuisines: Italian, Mexican, Chinese, which just won a prestigious award.
4. Keep your pantry really, really well stocked. Having a lot of staples around means you can walk into your kitchen with confidence and a sense of playfulness, says Ken. Play in your kitchen and remember that the process is as enjoyable as the end result! A well-stocked kitchen means you can try something different and that cooking dinner can become an interesting exploration.
Ken was very excited about a recent discovery he made when he decided to use ground chicken instead of ground beef for burgers. He cooked them slowly instead of searing them like beef and they turned out really well! You will fail on occasion, he acknowledges, but that’s good. This is how you will learn. You have to be OK with saying ‘so what’ and trying again.
5. Don’t be afraid of guts and whole animals. Guts are lovely! says Ken. And it’s good to know your animal parts beyond the fillet. Ken admits that it’s hard to find whole animals like fish with their heads on and whole chickens. It’s a real shame, he says, that everything is prepackaged these days. (Try Asian markets, he suggests.) Learning how to cut up a whole chicken or clean a whole fish is an enormously useful skill and pretty easy once you learn how.
Bonus recommendation: Ken always has olive oil on hand, as well as a few kinds of salt (more for texture than for flavor) and a few kinds of pepper in different grinders. He also keeps a dish of odds and ends next to his stove for spontaneous additions. Right now he has some cardamon, 1/2 a nutmeg, a stick of cinnamon and a few cloves of garlic.