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Taste Testing: Erin Gleeson’s ‘Forest Feast’

On a recent spring evening, as I put the final touches on a vegetarian feast of kale caesar with polenta croutons, asparagus and brie tart and beets mashed with sweet potatoes and apples, my dinner guests couldn’t stop ogling my newest cookbook (two of the three wanted to run to the store to buy a copy). The recipes for the entire meal came from Erin Gleeson’s “The Forest Feast: Simple Vegetarian Recipes from my Cabin in the Woods.” The book is a collection of simple recipes illustrated with stunning photos and whimsical water colors.

The idea for the book grew out of Gleeson’s blog of the same name, which she started in 2011 to display her food photography skills. Gleeson had recently moved with her rabbi husband from New York, where she was shooting for such high profile publications as Gourmet and the New York Times, to a woodsy cabin in the Bay Area’s peninsula. Unfortunately, her New York photo style didn’t translate to Bay Area editors, the photos were too sleek and well-lit.

Gleeson had done watercolors as a child, and something about being back in natural surroundings with space and time to figure out what was next, led her back to her old hobby for the first time in many years. With a weekly farm share, she began creating recipes out of whatever was in season like a butternut caprese salad, or “accordion zucchini,” stuffed with slivers of garlic and baked. She created The Forest Feast as a way to show her work to California editors, using a watercolor illustration for the title, and then a photo of a diagram-like recipe with the raw materials laid out on a piece of natural wood or other surface, and then a stunning photograph of the finished dish on a vintage pattered dish, shot the natural light that fills her home.

The recipes are simple, with minimal ingredients (sometimes as few as three), and are well-suited for entertaining; Gleeson says one thing that brought her and her husband together is their mutual love of hosting, and numerous photos of their gatherings appear in the book. Given this, in addition to appetizers, mains and desserts, there is a cocktail section as well, making use of such things as frozen blueberries and ice cubes with fresh mint, basil and lemon slices frozen into them.

The book is vegetarian and there are a few Jewish recipes including challah, sweet potato latkes, and an apple and honey galette. (More Jewish content appears on her blog, with an especially charming menorah made out of citrus halves.)

The combination of Gleeson’s photography and watercolor recipes are indeed some of the most stunning work I’ve seen in a cookbook. However, the minimalistic directions require some prior kitchen knowledge. The book is geared towards those with less experience in the kitchen, but some may find that detailed directions are lacking at times in order to maintain the minimalist aesthetic for instance a two page spread in the book of eight salad dressings, dips and spreads, leaves out salt and pepper. One dinner companion said the book felt “less procedural and more impressionistic,” while another friend called it “inspirational,” in that even if you don’t follow her recipes exactly, you may see a gorgeous photo of beets, and realize you haven’t made them in awhile.

The success of the book’s recipes also relies on easy access to high quality in season produce — something that’s plentiful near Gleeson’s home but may be a challenge for some readers to find.

Still, the book is a feast for the eyes, part artwork, part culinary inspiration, it beckons readers to the kitchen — and the farm stand.

Kale Caesar with Polenta Croutons

Mashed Beets With Sweet Potatoes and Apples

Asparagus Tart with Brie

Recipes, art and photography from Erin Gleeson’s “The Forest Feast: Simple Vegetarian Recipes from my Cabin in the Woods” used by permission.


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