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News / Life / Food

How to make great outdoor dishes

Chef lived for two years in a 22-foot camper

By MARK KENNEDY, Associated Press
Published: June 12, 2024, 6:12am

NEW YORK — Look carefully at the photo next to Lee Kalpakis’ recipe for hot dogs with fried leeks and sauerkraut, and you might notice a small intruder: A honeybee has invaded the outdoor dinner shot.

Other chefs might balk at keeping that photo or insist on Photoshopping out the bee, but not Kalpakis, who is all about celebrating cooking in nature, including its ups and downs.

“I wanted to show this unpolished version of the lifestyle, in hopes of giving a little reality check but also to embrace the fact that things shouldn’t be so perfect,” she says.

Kalpakis has earned the right to do as she pleases: She lived for just under two years in a 22-foot camper in upstate New York, refining the 75 recipes in her book “Out There.”

“It’s helped me to be a more efficient cook,” says the one-time food stylist, recipe developer and private chef. “You’re cutting out the fluff a little bit.”

The book offers everything from Blueberry-Olive Oil Pancakes to Shrimp with Ramp Butter, from Burnt Eggplant Spread to desserts like Sour Cherry and Nectarine Crisp. She braises a pork shoulder in black vinegar, rubs sumac on chicken wings, fries breadcrumbs to put over a salad, and combines pearl couscous with mixed vegetables and feta for a mountaintop lunch.

“Cooking this way showed me that a lot of things can be made better with that open fire, wood fire, element,” she says. “The flavor that brings to so many dishes is really incredible.”

Take Campfire Bucatini with Charred Tomato Sauce, which calls for cooking the pasta straight in the sauce instead of boiling it separately. Cherry tomatoes are charred on the grill, and Kalpakis says the finished dish tastes like smoked meat even though there’s none.

She also takes a high-end protein — scallops — and throws them into a cast-iron skillet, adding peas, shallots, white wine, lemon zest and prosciutto.

“Cooking with cast iron is such a great way to cook something like scallops because you’re getting such even heat distribution,” she says. “I was so pleased with the way they come out when I’m cooking them on cast iron over fire. They’re just perfect.”

The book comes out just in time for the summer camping season and Kalpakis, born and raised in New York’s Hudson Valley, wanted to show that dinner outdoors can be more than granola bars and ‘s’mores.

She hopes both to provide new recipe ideas to people familiar with outdoor cooking and to reach those who don’t, “sort of guiding them slowly in this way of starting small.”

Living in a camper through winter snowdrifts and August humidity — with her partner, Sean, and dog, Mac — taught Kalpakis a lesson we all need to be reminded of: Stay flexible.

“When we are outside and we are camping, it’s inevitable that things are not going to go exactly how you want them to go. There will be an ingredient that’s not available at that local grocery store, or something gets burnt or something is dropped on the ground or whatever. And I just really believe in accepting that,” she says.

“It’s really just a matter of learning how to pivot rather than having the mindset that something is ruined. I think that helps tremendously when you’re trying to cook outside, but it also helps so much in whatever kitchen you’re in.”

Interest in communal camping is high these days, and many people don’t want to scrimp or miss out on the finer things just because they’re vacationing outdoors.

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But Roger Shaw, Kalpakis’ publisher at Weldon Owen, an imprint of Insight Editions, says “Out There” also has ideas and dishes for people who never intend to go outdoors.

It’s for college students living in small spaces or those with a shared kitchen area, or for people staying at an Airbnb with under-furnished kitchens, he says.

“Here’s some great recipes you can do with minimal kitchen appliances with minimal pantry. And I think that’s quite a nice aspect of the book. It’s not just for the hardcore campers,” he says.

Kalpakis laughs at the way some people on social media portray living in the woods, posting images with no bugs or mess and where sunlight hits their perfect smoothie bowl, tagged with #vanlife.

She, on the other hand, endured rodent infestation, frozen pipes, bears, fallen trees and hornet stings.

“It’s important to show the underbelly of it, and to show it in a way that’s realistic, but in this perspective of, it’s nothing to be afraid of. I really wanted to show the hardship of it,” she says.

Scallops With Peas and Proscuiutto

Serves: 2. Recipe by Lee Kalpakis

2–4 slices prosciutto

Olive oil for cooking if needed

10 large scallops

2 shallots, thinly sliced

1 cup dry white wine

2 cups shelled English peas

(fresh or thawed frozen)

Grated zest and juice of

1 lemon

Kosher salt and freshly

cracked black pepper

1 tablespoon butter

Flaky salt for finishing

Place a rack on a sheet pan and set it near the stove. Heat a large cast-iron frying pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add the prosciutto and cook like bacon, flipping to get both sides, until the fat has rendered out and each slice is as crispy as possible, 3–5 minutes. Transfer the prosciutto to the rack so it remains crisp, leaving the fat behind in the pan.

If the pan is not evenly coated with prosciutto fat, add a little oil. Add the scallops and sear until a golden crust forms on the underside, then flip to form the same crust on the other side. This should take only a minute or two on each side; if left too long, the scallops will overcook and be chewy. Once they are properly seared on both sides, transfer them to a plate, cover with aluminum foil to keep warm, and set aside.

Add more oil if needed to coat the bottom of the pan, then add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until they have softened and are browning, 5–7 minutes. Pour in the wine and deglaze the pan, stirring to dislodge any browned bits on the pan bottom.

Add the peas and stir, then add the lemon zest, season with kosher salt and pepper, and cook until the peas are vibrant green, 1–3 minutes. Pour the peas out onto a large platter and place the scallops on top of the peas.

Add the butter and lemon juice to the pan and swirl the pan until the butter melts.

Pour the lemon butter over the scallops and peas, then crumble the prosciutto over the top. Finish with flaky salt and more pepper and serve immediately.