The road to photographer and cookbook author Erin Gleeson's cabin in the woods is a steep and winding one, flanked by soaring pines and redwoods and the occasional awe-inspiring panorama of Silicon Valley and the Bay. Higher up in the foothills, it no longer feels like the same ZIP code, but the Forest Feast's headquarters (and Gleeson's home) is technically in Redwood City. On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in November, the shaded forest is quiet, the road dappled with sunlight peeking through branches, and the mossy steps that lead down to the cabin with its view of the forested valley beyond is something straight out of a fairytale.
Gleeson, whose latest cookbook "The Forest Feast Gatherings: Simple Vegetarian Menus for Hosting Friends & Family" hit the shelves in late September, grew up in Sonoma County and said that she is used to living in the boonies. Prior to moving to the Bay Area with her husband in 2011, she spent 8 years in New York City, where she received a master's degree in photography from the School of Visual Arts and worked as a food photographer.
After making the cross-country move from New York City to Redwood City, she started -- quite literally -- playing with her food. Inspired by the variety and bounty she would receive in her weekly Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box, she started experimenting with making colorful dishes that she would photograph in and around her cabin. She said she discovered that the shaded natural light of the woods created ideal lighting for shooting outside.
She began a portfolio of her creations online -- a blog, though she didn't consider herself a "blogger" at the time -- and was quickly picked up by an agent who was interested in turning her work into a cookbook. Gleeson's first cookbook "The Forest Feast," was published in 2014, and she followed it with an adaptation for children, "The Forest Feast for Kids," in 2016.
Amid a cookbook market saturated with complicated recipes that require the most concerted of efforts to execute, Gleeson offers simple vegetarian recipes that are both beautiful and healthy. With a "show, don't tell" approach, her combination of photography overlayed by her own hand-lettering and watercolor illustrations displays recipes that are easy to follow (and easy on the eyes).
"My goal with this whole thing is to get people experimenting with vegetables and trying to make it approachable for people to actually cook with vegetables," she said. "Because I didn't go to culinary school ... what I do is simple, so I feel like it's pretty easy for people to follow along, especially since it's visually presented."
Gleeson's third cookbook, "The Forest Feast Gatherings," published just in time for the holidays, offers a variation on her original concept by introducing menus for different kinds of gatherings.
"We love to host and have people over, and so ... it just seemed like a natural next step to create a book that was really geared for entertaining," she said.
She said it was important for her to create menus that have an international appeal, choosing to leave out predominantly American events such as Super Bowl parties, bridal showers and even birthday parties. Instead, "Gatherings" features menus for occasions like brunch and cocktail hour, and themed menus for hosting a wine and cheese night or an (iced) tea party.
The menus are intended to ease the stress of hosting and added that some menus are more complex than others, Gleeson said. The weeknight menu, for example, requires less planning than the seasonal dinner party menus.
Gleeson, who for the first time will be hosting her family's Thanksgiving meal this year, said that it is a tradition for her family to cook together all day. One of her cousins often makes deviled eggs and Manhattan cocktails for the cooks.
In that spirit, she walked the Weekly through a combination of two of her recipes in her latest cookbook: deviled eggs with butternut hummus, topped with pomegranate seeds. (Watch a video of Gleeson making the recipe here.) The appetizer is ideal for snacking during upcoming holiday gatherings and -- importantly -- requires a minimum of that precious oven time. The butternut gives the hummus an even creamier texture and a nutty flavor while the pomegranate seeds complement the egg and hummus with a bit of crunch and tart sweetness -- and a festive flair.
Gleeson has thought through every aspect of gatherings, from prep time to the way that dishes work together to create a warm and inviting tablescape, and includes stress-free ideas for how to put together last-minute decorations for the table by using colorful produce and foraged items.
The idea stems from a Gleeson family Thanksgiving tradition. Right before the evening meal at sunset, everyone ventures outside, aprons on, a glass of wine and a paper bag in hand, and picks flowers or gathers bits of nature that have fallen on the ground -- bark, pinecones, acorns, different types of leaves. They decorate the table, along with candles and other edibles sprinkled throughout
"We (also) usually buy a bunch of pomegranates and persimmons -- something kind of colorful -- some fresh produce to mix in there and little votive candles, and that's the centerpiece every year," she said.
Gleeson has plans to explore other creative ventures for The Forest Feast, including launching an online stationery shop this month. In an interview, she reflected on what has led to The Forest Feast's success.
"I had so many other little projects that didn't take off, and I was sort of like 'what was it about this one that people were drawn to somehow?' I think it was that I was drawn to it more ... I was just doing what was fun, and that idea of remembering what's fun -- I think if you can hold on to that, it can take you in a good direction," she said.
Gleeson will be signing copies of her new book on Sunday, Nov. 20, at 5 p.m. at Books Inc. in Mountain View.
-- Roasted squash
Slice a medium butternut squash in half lengthwise and remove seeds. Lay one half of the squash face down on an oiled baking sheet and roast at 425 F for 30-40 minutes, or until fork-tender. Let it cool and then scoop the flesh into a food processor.
(This step can be done ahead.)
Blend roasted squash with:
1 15-oz can of chickpeas, drained
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder (or 3 cloves, minced)
Juice from 1 lemon
Spoon into a bowl and sprinkle the top with paprika, olive oil and coarse salt. Serve with slices of red, yellow or orange bell peppers.
The hummus can be made up to 2 days in advance and kept in the refrigerator.
Watch a video of Gleeson making the below recipe here.
Butternut hummus deviled eggs
This recipe was adapted by Gleeson from the butternut hummus and hummus-tomato deviled eggs recipes.
Peel and halve 12 hard-boiled eggs, then remove and set aside yolks.
Mash yolks in a bowl with 2 tablespoons of the butternut hummus (or substitute regular hummus), 2 tablespoons mayonnaise and 2 tablespoons mustard (can be prepared one day ahead).
Spoon mixture into egg white halves.
Garnish each with a grape-tomato half, plus a sprinkle of paprika and salt. (Gleeson replaced the grape tomato with a few pomegranate seeds for her twist on this recipe).