Photography by Gabe Rodriguez and Caroline Hargraves
Ashley Rodriguez is one of those people who’s easy to admire. Her one-of-a-kind recipes are structured on what we believe is the very best outdoor cooking has to offer—delicious, healthy staples meant to be enjoyed around the campfire with freshly ground coffee, cocktails, and loved ones.
A lifelong and talented artist, Ashley’s pursuit of an art career led her to Italy where she fell in love with food and cooking—so much so that it warranted a career shift. Her creativity, ingenuity, and knack for teaching paved the way for her career change and the eventual launch of her blog, Not Without Salt.
We’re long-time readers and admirers of Not Without Salt and the many incredible recipes Ashley’s dreamt up and perfected. (If you haven’t tried her cast iron Sopa de Lima or Mustard-Braised Chicken Thighs, we recommend putting both at the top of your spring cooking list ASAP.)
Her clever creativity, culinary courage, adventurous exploits, and rosy demeanor make her not only a talented chef, but an absolute joy to be around. So what else could we do but spend an afternoon (or two) with her to dig deeper into what inspires her, motivates her, and fuels her outdoor cooking passion?
For Ashley, it stems from a simple but profound appreciation.
“Cooking by the fire, you connect to what cooking is at its complete and utter roots,” Ashley says. “There’s no dependence on fancy cookware when you cook outside. The simplicity of it is so freeing and so satisfying.”
In a cluttered world of overdoing and over-preparing, her shared appreciation and passion for simplicity in these outdoor moments drew us in immediately. The urge to reconnect with food and preparation in its simplest form struck a chord right away. But we know that cooking outdoors can intimidate even the best stovetop chefs.
Ashley’s approach to getting comfortable cooking outdoors is just as simple: “accept that you can’t control it.”
Embracing the Process
“The real trick is to embrace the process,” she says. “You have to rely on your senses, and your ability to adjust when the fire goes out and things stop cooking. It’s more about what it looks like and what it smells like, rather than cooking time. You kind of have to let go and be okay with a completely different process than what you’re used to.”
Letting go isn’t something that seems to come easily for most of us—especially when preparing a long-awaited campfire meal. Luckily, for those of us equipped with less culinary prowess, there are un-intimidating ways to get our feet wet. Rather than diving head first into a complicated recipe that can introduce stress to an experience meant to eliminate it, Ashley recommends starting with something simple and using ingredients you’re already familiar with.
“Start with the absolute basics. Olive oil, salt and pepper. When you’re cooking outside, you want ingredients that will carry a lot of impact without taking up a lot of space.”
Utilizing basic practices and simple ingredients, however, doesn’t mean foregoing your desire to create something entirely unique and satisfying. Consider Ashley’s delicious Grilled Peach Toast with Prosciutto and Pecorino. With only eight ingredients, it’s a simple yet sophisticated recipe that even first-time cast iron cooks can master.
Food and the Wild
While Ashley’s passion for developing recipes like these was reignited in Italy, the roots of her love for cooking and the outdoors—and enjoying them both together—go all the way back to her childhood.
“I have such fond memories of these experiences as a kid. We grew up and the woods were our backyard. It’s satisfying now on this deep level because I remember these things I got to do as a kid,” Ashley says. “Our day-to-day world is so busy and so cluttered. Going out in the woods with the only task of preparing food, it’s just this simplicity that’s so healing.”
Ashley’s passion for outdoor cooking is one shared by her family, and has set in motion another mission with her brother as partner. Their newly-launched video series, Kitchen Unnecessary, is worthy of adding to your must-watch list, whether you’re a first time forager or expert campfire cook.
“My brother and I both have this deep love for food and the outdoors, so we kind of started to play around with this idea of showing people how to really enjoy both simultaneously,” Ashley says. “Kitchen Unnecessary combines our love of the outdoors with our desire to encourage people to get outdoors no matter the season and cook beautiful food over the fire. We both have a passion for learning more about wild foods, so this is an exciting opportunity to connect with experts and teach other people about food that comes from the wild.”
This endeavor came on the heels of Ashley’s first book, Date Night In. Her second book, Let’s Stay In, will be published later this year.
What’s your strategy for planning a few days of meals while camping?
“The first meal should always the one that’s got ingredients that will perish quickly, like the Chorizo Butter Oysters. Then you kind of work toward using more canned foods on day two. By day three, I like to plan for simple, yummy stews and things like that.”
What are some of your favorite go-to ingredients, besides salt, pepper and olive oil?
“Pickled chilis. They add so much flavor for not a lot of prep and not a lot of actual space. At home, I use quite a bit of parmesan for that very same reason.”
What’s your advice for those a little intimidated to cook these kinds of meals outdoors?
“I think people tend to believe that you have to sacrifice good food in order to really get out and get away. But I totally believe that the outdoors and whole, thoughtfully prepared meals go hand-in-hand. We absolutely do hiking and plan adventures, but ending the day around the fire cooking? You just connect to what’s completely simple.”
What are your go-to tools for foraging and campfire cooking?
“I love the Backpack Cooler. It’s a great size and keeps things cool for such a long time. And I really, really love the scissors. They’re perfect for foraging and doing some light meal prep by the fire. Also the Pulaski Axe. We used it on the Kitchen Unnecessary shoot and it is really great. But more than anything else, I think the Gathering Bag is my absolute favorite.”