Ken Albala is the co-author of two of my favorite cookbooks, The Lost Art of Real Cooking and The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home. What I found in these books, and also with talking with him in person, is an overflowing enthusiasm and delight for the world of cookery. "This is what happens when you really love every food on earth," he confessed recently on his blog. Along with that enthusiasm comes a kind of bravery that I find very inspiring. Ken dives completely into his kitchen projects with a wild curiosity that is also grounded in his deep and thorough knowledge of the kitchen arts. Read on for a little more about Ken and his 5 suggestions for the home cook.
A professor of History at the University of the Pacific, Ken has an impressive resume:
Ken Albala is the author or editor of 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); and Pancake. He has also co-edited The Business of Food; Human Cuisine; Food and Faith and edited A Cultural History of Food: The Renaissance and The Routledge International Handbook to Food Studies. 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 now 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 for the US). Albala is also co-editor of the journal Food Culture and Society 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.
Phew! Ken may be very learned in the kitchen arts and all his madcap enthusiasm aside, what you will find in his suggestions below is an honest practicality that is refreshing, useful, and above all, very encouraging.
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.
Thank you, Ken!
Reviews of Ken's books in The Kitchn: The Lost Art of Real Cooking The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home
More from Ken on the web: Ken Albala's Food Rant Ken's TEDx talk
Previous Expert Essentials
(Images: University of the Pacific)