Why I Cook: The Forest Feast’s Erin Gleeson

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For her Forest Feast cookbooks and blog, pro photographer and self-taught cook Erin Gleeson takes advantage of the great outdoors and its fresh edible offerings.

After a cross-country move from New York to California, Erin Gleeson went from photographing lavish dishes in the city to simple recipes in the woods—an artistic pivot inspired by her new home, a charming cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Nearly a decade and four best-selling cookbooks later, The Forest Feast is as fresh as ever.

Taste of Home: How did you become interested in cooking?

Erin Gleeson: I grew up in rural Sonoma County, California, on an apple orchard. We had a big vegetable garden and cooked a lot as a family. Then, in college, I studied art for a year in Bologna, Italy’s culinary capital, and that really solidified my love of food and cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients.

(Check out these expert vegetable gardening tips for beginners!)

TOH: You’ve been photographing food for years. What initially drew you to food photography and ultimately your unique organic, whimsical style?

EG: When I was in New York, I was shooting food at a lot of fine dining restaurants, so there was a more minimal, fancy, plated-with-tweezers kind of look. When I got to San Francisco, editors told me they were looking for photographers with a more rustic aesthetic, and I thought, “I am living in a cabin in the woods! I can do that!”

I didn’t know any chefs in the area yet, so I started cooking simple dishes to shoot from our weekly CSA box. I grew bored of my kitchen tablecloths and fabric napkins, so I started taking the plates of food out into the woods and shooting them on old stumps, piles of leaves and mossy logs.

Thas21 Erin Gleeson Forest Feast 011 Previewcourtesy Erin Gleeson

TOH: You describe your recipes as “very simple.” What’s your process when creating them?

EG: I went to art school, not culinary school, so I am a home cook! I make simple dishes, and many of them have fewer than five ingredients. I get intimidated if a recipe takes up more than a page and has a lot of steps, so I try to keep things short and simple with visual diagrams and little illustrations. This way, they’re approachable and people will actually make them!

(Try our favorite 5-ingredient recipes for fall.)

TOH: How do you incorporate California’s local bounty of fruits and vegetables into your dishes?

EG: We are lucky to have a lot of amazing produce year-round. We get a weekly farm box full of local produce, and I find I’m always reaching for the most colorful item in the box. For example, I could make hummus…or I could make pink beet hummus! Colors make everything more fun—and often more tasty.

TOH: Which ingredients do you always keep on hand?

EG: Onions, sesame oil and Bragg liquid aminos!

TOH: What tips do you have for home cooks interested in eating meatless more often?

EG: Look for colorful, in-season vegetables to keep things fun. A sheet pan of vegetables with a little olive oil, salt and pepper can go a long way! Add a favorite grain and some legumes, and it’s both filling and tasty.

(Add these sheet-pan recipes to your weeknight rotation!)

TOH: Your blog is just as much about entertaining as it is about cooking. What advice do you have for hosting a successful soiree?

EG: Keep it simple! If I don’t have a lot of time, I often make one thing and buy the rest at a deli. I think guests remember the conversations they have more than the hosting details, so put more effort into an intentional guest list and thoughtful introductions at the party. And champagne always helps!

TOH: What’s your favorite thing about cooking? The “why” of why you cook!

EG: My goal is to get as many people as I can eating more vegetables and having fun cooking vegetarian meals!

Shop Erin’s Cookbooks

Thas21 261573 Erin Gleeson Forest Feast 006 Previewcourtesy Erin Gleeson

Erin’s Apple Matchstick Salad

Try one of Erin’s favorite fall side dishes that features some of the season’s best ingredients. The recipe serves six.

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp. lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 4 apples, julienned
  • 1/3 cup chopped pecans, toasted
  • 1/4 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/4 cup golden raisins
  • 3 Tbsp. cilantro leaves

Directions

Whisk together olive oil, lemon juice and salt. Stir in apples, pecans, cranberries, raisins and cilantro. Serve immediately.

Get to know Erin even better! Follow her on Instagram @theforestfeast or visit theforestfeast.com.

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Annamarie Higley
Annamarie Higley is an Associate Print Editor for Taste of Home magazine, as well as the brand's special issue publications. A midwestern transplant originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she enjoys hiking, trivia-ing, and—you guessed it!—all things cooking and baking.