Spicing up routine meals
LAKE CITY – The NAPA store in Lake City is no five-star restaurant, but the culinary creations that owner Mark Wilkins whips up every few weeks never fail to receive rave reviews.
“I don’t use recipes, so we never have the same meal twice,” said Wilkins, who has owned the NAPA store for 25 years. “I’ve tried everything from soup to nuts, and things usually turn out pretty good.”
Wilkins’ ingredients come from the leftovers he freezes following his family’s meals, along with leftover baked beans, cheesy potatoes and meat from the meals that he and his fellow Lake City Fire Department volunteers prepare once a month at their regular meetings.
Every few weeks when Wilkins has saved enough meat, vegetables, pasta and more, he mixes up the ingredients to make a soup or casserole.
In between answering the phone and helping customers with everything from belts to fuel filters, Wilkins selects seasonings for his dishes from his well-stocked “spice cabinet” on a shelf behind the front counter, near the remanufactured alternators.
From tandoori spices to Cajun seasonings, many of Wilkins’favorite flavors come from Penzey’s Spices in Des Moines.
A small stove from a camper provides a convenient, portable oven in the back of the NAPA store, where Wilkins recently baked one his latest cheese-topped “NAPA casseroles,” complete with leftover spaghetti noodles, onions, bratwurst, baked beans, corn, Brussels sprouts, crushed potato chips and more.
Necessity is key
Wilkins, who also cooks on a grill and a smoker behind the store during warmer months, had a practical reason for honing his culinary skills.
“You can only go uptown to eat cheeseburgers and fries so many times before the monotony gets to you.”
A number of years ago he tried his hand at making soup and has since expanded his repertoire to competition cooking in Lake City’s Dell Blair Memorial Chili Cookoff.
He and some of his fellow Lake City Fire Department volunteers have won the contest two years running with their hearty Backdraft Chili. Wilkins’ secret to success?
“It’s got to have lots of meat, ” he said, “and a little hot and a little sweet. You know the chili is thick enough when a spoon stands upright in it.”
While Wilkins sometimes cooks for his wife, Julie, and their two sons, he has gained an even wider following by inviting friends over to NAPA at noon on casserole day or soup day, which he hosts every three to four weeks.
He said his guests are happy to honor Wilkins’ request when he needs a few extra ingredients to round out the meal, from a pound of hamburger to a bag of shredded cheese.
“Mark is one of the best cooks around,” said Dan Morrow, a Lake City firefighter who runs Morrow’s Standard Service in Lake City. “I like his soups and casseroles and I always go back for seconds.”
(Wilkins uses whatever leftovers he has in the freezer to make this versatile casserole, which can take on a different flavor profile each time it’s prepared, depending on the ingredients included.)
Spaghetti noodles, cooked
1 can mushrooms
1 can sliced water chestnuts
1 can baked beans
Corned beef and cabbage
Spices and seasonings, to taste
Crushed potato chips
Layer noodles on the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch casserole pan. Add the rest of the ingredients (except the cheese) in layers on top of the spaghetti noodles.
Spread the crushed potato chips on top of the casserole. Bake at 400 degrees for about an hour. Spread the shredded cheese on top of the casserole just before serving.
(Wilkins doesn’t have a specific recipe that he uses to make this award-winning dish. He simply adds ingredients and tastes the chili as he goes along until he achieves a spicy-sweet flavor that suits his taste.)
Country Blend spice mix (which is sold locally in Lake City)
1 or 2 cans of tomato paste
1 can of green chilies
Green peppers, chopped
Brown the beef and pork. Combine remaining ingredients and cook on low heat for several hours.
(“The ingredients here provide a good base,” said Mark Wilkins, who got this tasty recipe from his sister, Lori. “From there you can go crazy.”)
1 bag of coleslaw mix
Ham steak or left-over ham, cubed
1 to 2 cans of mushrooms
1 can of corn
Seasonings of your choice
Saute coleslaw mix with onions in chicken broth. Add remaining ingredients. Cook over low heat until soup is heated through.
You can contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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