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How to make great outdoor dishes, from a chef who lived in a camper

NEW YORK (AP) — 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.
This cover image released by Weldon Owen shows "Out There: A Camper Cookbook: Recipes from the Wild" by Lee Kalpakis. (Weldon Owen via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — 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.

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.


Mark Kennedy is at

Mark Kennedy, The Associated Press