Culinary Experience with Richard Bleil
After attaining the rank of tenured full professor, dean, director of a forensic science lab, now I find myself selling cookware. It’s quite the fall from grace, but, honestly, I’ve always enjoyed cooking. One of my favorite ways to learn cooking is with stir-frying. There are a variety of stir-fry sauces available in the grocery store, so I would cut up chicken (my favorite meat for this type of cooking), vegetables, and start with one of these sauces. Then I would go through my spices, opening and smelling them and thinking, “would this be good for this type of sauce?” In the end, I would end up with something I could never repeat since I didn’t record the spices I’ve added but was usually unusual and delicious. Plus, I learned to cook based on smell, much like a musician might have the skill to “play by ear” without sheet music.
One of my favorite treats is buffalo wings. One of my earlier deans and I made it a habit to routinely go to a well-known national wing chain for the express purpose of trying every type of wing sauce. And let’s be real about this, that’s what wings are about. They started off as the “junk” part of a chicken, the part nobody wanted, until somebody put hot sauce on it and they suddenly became a hit. The reason they are so good for sauces, and traditionally so easily disregarded, is because there’s really nothing to them. They have very little actual meat, but a lot of skin and surface area. This means they can hold a lot of sauce, and the sauce doesn’t have to last throughout the thickness of, say, a chicken breast or thigh.
This, unfortunately, is also a problem. See, I love chicken wings for the sauce, but there’s very little substance to it. There’s a lot of fat because of the skin, but not even much protein since there’s not much meat. I wanted to come up with a dish that would be more appropriate for a meal, something that was at least moderately healthy but based on the buffalo wings that I love so very much.
Enter Chernobyl Chicken.
For a time, people didn’t understand this reference. See, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant had its meltdown on April 26, 1986. By 2010, many young adults had never even heard of Chernobyl. Of course, then Russia just had to invade the Ukraine, and take over the radioactive wasteland in the area, and have their soldiers sleep in this petri dish area of cancer, so now people get it.
My dish uses diced chicken breast or thighs (I actually use one breast and two thighs for variety), cauliflower florets (to absorb the flavor without drastically changing it) and thick noodles. I fry up the chicken in the wok using spicy chili wok while boiling the noodles. Once the noodles are done, I drain them and add a good amount of Frank’s RedHot Sauce (usually I don’t like using brand names, but I’ll make an exception here). I’ll set the noodles aside, and about this time the chicken is about done. I take the chicken off and put the cauliflower in the wok to steam it. When it’s about done, I add the chicken to the cauliflower in the wok, and maybe 8 ounces of Frank’s to it. I cook it to cook it down a bit, and when the Frank’s starts to thicken, I add the noodles, the rest of the Frank’s (I use a fresh 12-ounce bottle and use it all, but honestly, you can use any wing sauce you prefer in this recipe) and stir-fry it all together.
After eating, the plate usually has a nice layer of hot sauce left. As I was developing the recipe, I had a dog, Bella, mostly black lab, but with a quarter German Shepherd in her. She was a big dog, with the kindest heart. One day, cleaning the dishes, the plate was off on the counter as I was working on cleaning the Wok. Bella hopped up, putting her front paws on the counter, and tried to lick the plate. Of course, I shooed her away. And she tried it again. By the third time, I thought, well, she’ll learn. I let her try it. Thinking she’d quickly yelp and go away, she instead lapped it up quickly, loving it, much to my surprise.
I told this story to some of my colleagues where I was teaching. They insisted that I make my Chernobyl Chicken for them to try. So, fine, let’s do it. The three of them came to my place, and I started making the dish for them. Unfortunately, by that time, my spatula was getting old, and as they watched me work, the spatula finally gave up the ghost. The head fell off of the handle. From that point forward, my beloved Chernobyl Chicken had the reputation of eating spatulas.