“If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.”
That’s what Mike Hayes, the host of the weekday morning radio show “La Crosse Talk” on WIZM AM, says his dad used to tell him years ago in their home kitchen. It was there, in Michigan, that Hayes gained an appreciation for food, but never felt a real need to develop the skills to make it for himself. It wasn’t until he ran out of bologna and cheese combinations much later in life that he decided he should learn to make the things he loves! Today, he is still like a kid in the kitchen sometimes, but this kid has some serious skills that have been honed by necessity while raising three boys, and developed through conversations with some of the Coulee Region’s top chefs.
Hayes has lived in Onalaska for 30 years and has been the host of “La Crosse Talk” since day one. If you have tuned in to the humorous and informative program, you know you’re just as likely to hear about the mayor’s take on the new budget as you are the latest Christmas must-haves, and everything in between. It wasn’t until two years into the job that Hayes asked his listeners what a caper was, which led to dozens of phone calls and an idea that became the “Coulee Region Cooks” radio show.
This segment has aired every Thursday from 10-11 a.m. on WIZM for the past 28 years. While Hayes enjoys talking food and sharing tips and recipes with some of the area’s best chefs (all in the name of making it fun in the kitchen), the program has affected his outlook in many ways. Over the course of trying, failing and reaching out for help in the kitchen (including the time when his father walked him through deboning a chicken over the phone), he’s developed something. It’s a philosophy, nay, a lifestyle he affectionately refers to as “fridge-door cooking.”
Hayes has become a master of putting something together with seemingly nothing because, sometimes, times were tough, or there was too much snow, or someone simply forgot to visit the store. Fridge-door cooking is opening the fridge, cupboard or pantry, seeing what is on-hand, and then visualizing a meal or using a recipe for inspiration and putting it together in a new, functional and delicious way. He talks often on “Coulee Region Cooks” about having no food but plenty of ingredients, which many of his listeners relate to and struggle with as well.
But, as is evident in the recipe he’s shared with us, it’s not what you have but what you do with it that really counts. That, and if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.
Fridge-Door Wednesday With Pasta
- Ground beef, leftover from spaghetti
- Spinach, handful
- Double-smoked bacon, 2 pieces
- Onion, ¼, diced
- Mushrooms, sliced
- Green beans and corn, cooked, leftover from dinner
- Orange pepper, diced, cooked, leftover from another meal
- Worcestershire sauce, few dashes to a dollop
- Jimmy’s Holy Smoke, big spoonful
- Small noodles (shells this time), always good to have some around
Using a large skillet (cast iron, if possible—every kitchen should have one), cook the bacon to your liking, then set aside to cool and chop for later. Brown ground beef using a tablespoon of the bacon drippings, then add onions, stirring occasionally for a couple of minutes. Add mushrooms, peppers and other pre-cooked vegetables. Stir everything together over medium-low heat, adding Holy Smoke and Worcestershire. Heat until mixture reaches a uniform consistency. Serve over cooked noodles, or, better yet, stir the noodles into your saucepan right after they are drained.
As is consistent with the “fridge-door cooking” frame of mind, every single ingredient in this recipe was left over from something else prepared in the preceding days. Simple sauces are easy to master, and experimentation in the kitchen is encouraged with fridge-door cooking. This same “recipe” would lend itself to rice or being served over sliced bread. Staple foods like meats and vegetables can be combined far beyond traditional recipes, and the fridge-door cooking mentality lends itself to finding new ways to substitute ingredients you have on hand for those you don’t. Try something new, or perhaps just try one new ingredient at a time. And remember, above all, to have fun!