For as long as I can remember, whether it was in school or out of school, science has been one of my great loves. When I say science, I mean all of science. I am as interested in learning about String Theory as I am reading about what strands of DNA tell us. From the space program’s search for water on Mars to non-governmental organizations endeavoring to clean the waters of our planet, the sciences touch our lives and stoke our imaginations.
Among the reasons I love to cook are the many correlations between science and cooking. Some may find it odd that, in a restaurant that uses organic and other natural ingredients as often as they are available, we rely on chemistry to create many of our most popular dishes. Note that I didn’t say ‘chemicals’, I said ‘chemistry’. There is the chemistry we think of when we think of when two, seemingly very different, people fall in love. In the kitchen, the magic of chemistry is when two apparently very different ingredients are paired to create something amazing. We tried our hand at playing matchmaker with citric acid and sodium bicarbonate in an attempt to stabilize our cheeze sauce.
I love to experiment with different ingredients and methods to discover something new, or to make something familiar even better.
And that brings me to a key ingredient our owner, Matt Clayton, has been sure to emphasize to all of us. His intent from the beginning has been to use J.Selby’s to contribute to creating a community, within the community of the Selby neighborhood. Whether it is the annual free Thanksgiving dinner or the Community Bowl helping to feed local people in need, J.Selby’s is doing that. Matt also encourages us, as employees, to be involved in our community, whether it is immediately in this area or wherever we live. Recently, I had the opportunity to combine my love of science and cooking with my interest in encouraging young people to explore cooking as a potential career.
For the past month or so, I have been working with a middle schooler, named Damani Stewart, on a career exploration project. He chose working in a professional kitchen and asked if he could spend some time in our kitchen at J.Selby’s. Not only was it an opportunity to introduce him to cooking as a career, it was also a great way to demonstrate why as a future cook he should make sure to pay close attention in science class.
In addition to teaching him various cutting techniques (dicing, julienning, rough chopping), demonstrating why it matters to mix certain ingredients before incorporating others so that they blend better, emphasizing the importance of maintaining a clean work space, I shared with him how chemistry plays such a key role in cooking.
A moment ago, I mentioned our cheeze sauce experiments. While success is always the ultimate goal, every failure pays dividends as well. Two quotes credited to Thomas Edison drive me forward when struggling to perfect a recipe in the kitchen. The first is: “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” The other is: “Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Well, take either quote and apply it to our sodium citrate efforts because in that one we found yet another way that did not work; however, we continue onward undeterred.
One of Matt’s other goals is that J.Selby’s be a place where veterans of plant-based eating can go to eat delicious, 100-percent plant-based food, while at the same time providing plant-based takes on food that is familiar to just about anyone. Our Dirty Secret is a perfect example of that: a completely plant-based take on the classic American hamburger eaten by millions under golden arches. Many of our menu items have roots in familiar meat-based dishes. Some of them came together fairly easily, while others have required hours and hours of trial and error to get it right. Our Bacun is the perfect example of the latter. We spent a great deal of time and effort in our quest to come up with a convincing plant-based bacon. If you’ve had our Bacun Burger, or added Bacun to your Caesar Salad, you know our efforts paid off a few months ago.
During one of Damani’s cooking sessions with me, we made our bacun. Naturally, he was sworn to secrecy, so I can’t turn around and divulge a few aspects of the process that we think are unique to our bacun makin’. What I can tell you is that this seitan-based product also includes several ingredients whose chemical reaction was akin to love at first sight.
For his part, Damani got an ‘A’ on his project, and left saying that his time with us will keep cooking on the front burner of his career thoughts. I am less convinced he’s truly excited about taking chemistry in high school, but we’ll see.
The recipe below is one that I have enjoyed making over the years and am especially pleased to have been able to adapt it to being 100-percent plant-based. I hope you enjoy it. You can also follow this link for a recipe card version at kulinarian.com: Fried Rice.
2 tbsp. sesame oil
1 cups cooked rice
1/2 cups bragg’s liquid aminos or soy sauce
2 Tblsp sriracha
1/4 cup sweet chili sauce
2 Tblsp rice wine vinegar
1tsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. minced ginger
¼ cup carrot, small dice
¼ cup onion, small dice
¼ cup celery, small dice
⅛ cup peas
1 oz. kimchi
green onions for garnish
1 Cook rice and set aside. It works best if the rice has had a chance to cool down
2 Chop veggies and mince garlic and ginger
3 Whisk together: Sriracha, liquid aminos, sweet chili sauce, rice wine vinegar.
4 Heat oil over medium-high heat.
5 Saute broccoli, garlic and ginger (about five minutes)
6 Stir in cooked rice. Cook until lightly browned adding oil if needed
7 Add sauce and peas and mix thoroughly.
8 Top with kimchi and green onions