Just because you’re roughing it on the trail doesn’t mean your taste buds must suffer. That indulge-while-outdoors philosophy is celebrated in Dirty Gourmet: Food for Your Outdoor Adventures, a new cookbook by longtime friends and bloggers Mai-Yan Kwan, Aimee Trudeau, and Emily Nielson. They collectively answered a few of my questions via email in anticipation of their July 17 event at Telegraph Brewing Company.
You all come from pretty diverse backgrounds. How did you meet? And was camping at the core of that relationship from the beginning?
Besides existing family ties, camping was very much present in establishing our friendships. Aimee and Emily are cousins whose dads were mountaineering partners and brothers. They spent their childhoods camping together with our families between Las Vegas (where Emily lived) and Los Angeles (where Aimee lived). Aimee and Mai-Yan met on a camping trip in the Panamints after Mai-Yan moved to Los Angeles from Quebec, Canada. Finally, Emily met Mai-Yan at Aimee’s wedding, which was a multiday campout at San Clemente State Park.
Aimee and Mai-Yan planned and executed a bike tour from Los Angeles up to Vancouver and across Canada to Montreal the summer of 2009. At the time they returned from camping and cycling all summer, Emily was just finishing living in the woods outside of Big Bear for three years. All three of us came together with a lot of outdoor cooking experience and started curating our recipe collection that became the Dirty Gourmet blog.
Did you start off doing more “traditional” foods while camping, like hot dogs and easy stuff? Or did you start off going big with more involved meals?
As kids, we ate a lot of standard “camp food,” but things began to change by the time we were cooking for ourselves. We’d camped for so long that we couldn’t bear to look at another packet of instant oatmeal or ramen.
Aimee and Mai-Yan used delicious end-of-day meals as motivators to get through long days cycling. They were both pretty excited about cooking at home beforehand and realized they could make the foods they loved outdoors by simplifying a few techniques or ingredients. Emily ate countless amounts of kid-friendly camp food as an outdoor science instructor, so she was happy to jump on board with developing more exciting outdoor recipes when the three girls came together to start Dirty Gourmet.
When did this hobby become something that you decided to make into a book?
Dirty Gourmetstarted as a hobby blog in 2010. The hobby grew into our full-time jobs organically as we started getting more and more opportunities to cook onsite at different outdoor events. We had received offers to create a book along the way, but didn’t jump on the opportunity until Mountaineers Books approached us. Their mission is very in line with ours, and it was the ideal publisher for us to partner with. We developed and photographed all the recipes ourselves in a six-month time frame, and the resulting cookbook, Dirty Gourmet: Food for Your Outdoor Adventures, really captures who we are as an entity and individuals.
What are some of your favorite recipes in the book and why?
This is always the hardest question for us! Food is so subjective and dependent on seasons and your mood. Now that we have a tangible cookbook to reference, we have been cooking from it a lot, and some of the recipes currently on repeat are Spiced Nuts with Shallots, Grilled Green Bean Salad, and Pea Pesto Dip. These are all easy and quick appetizer recipes perfect for summer get-togethers.
What were some memorable location/food pairings?
During the peak of the cookbook process, we went camping almost every weekend to test and photograph recipes in a real outdoor setting. It was exhaustingly fun work. One location that stands out is going to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park during the super bloom. After a long day of cooking and shooting, we did a short sunset hike. Being the middle of the desert surrounded by that explosion of flowers and colors was incredibly inspiring and made us so grateful for the fact that camping and being outdoors is our “job.”
Are there techniques that the book discusses that can be used for multiple recipes?
One of our main goals with the book was to make each recipe simple to execute, as well as very adaptable, knowing that every trip and group of participants varies widely. Most of the techniques discussed can be added to a “bag of tricks” that can be used in a pinch on any trip. For example, we recommend bringing mason jars on every car camping trip, which can be used for multiple purposes such as storing leftovers, scrambling eggs, making salad dressings, or cutting biscuits. One of our favorite tips is to always have fresh citrus, shallots, and avocados on hand (even in the backcountry!) to add a little pizzazz to any meal — even if it’s prepackaged.
Do you get any flak from traditionalists who think backpacking should be about minimalism? (I certainly have.)
There are always skeptics! Our backcountry recipes are meant for a traditional to lightweight-leaning backpacking setup (20-15 lbs. base weight). Gourmet doesn’t have to mean complicated, heavy, or perishable.
We expect that by the time you’re ready to cook dinner on a backcountry trip, you are likely exhausted and need to execute a virtually brainless meal. With a few little tricks, that meal can be delicious and special as well.
Everyone will have to look at their own gear list and decide which recipes will make the most sense for their preferred gear setup and trip particulars such as expected weather, distance, elevation, and other equipment they can’t part with. For example, I would be willing to bring an extra frying pan if I knew it was likely I’d catch fish for dinner (since I don’t have to pack the fish in and out), but I probably would avoid that if I was going on a trip farther from water sources.
We are not targeting the audience who prides themselves on being truly ultralight, which generally means sub-10 pounds of base weight (although it’s not impossible that they can bring some of our recipes on their trips as well).
How have people received the book? Any plans for another, or any events building off of this?
Dirty Gourmet: Food for Your Outdoor Adventures has been very well received so far. After just one month on the shelves, the book has already had a second printing. We have also been getting great feedback and photos from people trying out the recipes. We love to hear how people are making these recipes their own.
As for plans, we have been touring at many retail locations along the West Coast, from specialty cookbook stores in Seattle to outdoor gear shops across California. Our cookbook tour will continue through the end of the year. On the events side, we will be cooking for outdoor events such as REI Co-op’s Outessa and Member Exclusive Campouts this summer, and our book has been a nice addition to these experiences for participants.
We see it a timeless addition to any cookbook collection for any home who appreciates diversity and simplicity in cooking.
The authors of Dirty Gourmet are coming to Telegraph Brewing Company (418 N. Salsipuedes St.) on Tuesday, July 17, at 6:30 p.m., for a talk, demo, and signing. They’ll also be at the REI in Oxnard (2700 Seaglass Wy.) on July 18, at 6:30 p.m. See dirtygourmet.com/cookbook.