During the height of the pandemic we were all cooking like mad and avoiding restaurants and hotels. Short Vrbo or Airbnb vacations were in. Now it’s all about work-cations — staying in a scenic location where you’re on vacation any time you’re off the clock.
What better time for a travel book that’s a cookbook too? One with simple recipes that can easily be prepared without all the gadgets you’d never drag on the road. With “The Forest Feast Road Trip: Simple Vegetarian Recipes Inspired by My Travels through California” you’ll never have to pack a food processor, mixer or waffle iron.
Erin Gleeson has figured it all out for us and points the way to cool locations around the Golden State. A former food photographer in New York City, she moved to a cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains and started a blog that turned into “The Forest Feast” series of cookbooks filled with 100 vegetarian dishes.
Get ready for Brussels sprouts oven roasted until they’re bronzed; buttery lavender shortbread; and easy, no-bake Mediterranean Nachos — that’s crispy pita chips loaded with creamy hummus and Greek yogurt, briny kalamata olives, fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and tangy feta cheese crumbles.
Gleeson takes inspiration from the scenery and the local ingredients, comes up with the recipes, shoots the pictures, then adds charming water color paintings. We had to ask how she put the book together and get her tips for making tasty, Instagrammable meals on the road.
Q. This book is a road trip through our glorious state. What brought you to California?
A. I’m from California, but I was shooting as a freelancer in New York and I did my MFA in photography then I taught photography at the Fashion Institute of Technology. But my husband got a job in California, which brought us West.
Q. How did this series of cookbooks start?
A. I was just trying to create a new food portfolio, hoping to transition from journalism to shooting more cookbooks, like other people’s cookbooks. So, I started out with a blog because it was an easy way to put photos online. I could send editors a link and say, this is what I’m working on. I wasn’t really into food blogs and I didn’t know that much about blogging — this was like 2012 and food blogs were still sort of new. But the blog took off and within about a year of starting it, I had a literary agent reach out to ask if I was interested in turning it into a book.
Q. Do you have any professional culinary training?
A. No, I don’t. I’m very much a home cook, which is why I keep the recipes very simple. Everything from the beginning has been inspired by our farm delivery box that we get every week. It’s a box of local produce.
Q. Your previous cookbooks in this series include the New York Times bestselling “The Forest Feast,” a kids’ book, another called “Gatherings” and the most recently, “Mediterranean.” With “Road Trip” it seems like the timing is magical because in the last two years, everybody wanted to travel but they were cautious about staying in hotels and eating out. That led to lots of Vrbo or Airbnb trips. Do you think the pandemic created a perfect environment for this book?
A. Yes, definitely. I signed on to do the book before the pandemic and shot a good chunk of it in the summer of 2019. Like you said, the timing was somewhat magical for this theme. But we did continue road tripping throughout the last couple years. And took a lot of photos even during the pandemic that are included in the book.
Q. How did you find cool places to stay?
A. My husband is the mastermind behind our route. So the first big trip was three weeks and it was 2,500 miles without leaving California. We stayed in the majority of the places that are featured in the book and then a couple more after that on long weekend trips. He came up with the itinerary of how many days in each place and I would look on Vrbo, Airbnb and other vacation rental sites to try to find cool places.
Q. Where did you stay?
A. Because my first books are very much inspired by the idea of cooking from a cabin in the woods, I wanted to take that idea on the road and stay in other cabin-like places. I wanted them architecturally to be a little bit different, so there’s an octagonal house in Tahoe and an A-frame in Big Bear and a yurt on an urban farm in LA a Craftsman cabin in Big Sur, a beach house. We mixed it up, but they all have a similar wood structure kind of vibe.
Q. I love cooking on vacation and I’ve been known to pack mixers, blenders, food processors and more. I tend to overdo it. What’s the trick to traveling light?
A. I don’t usually take like blenders or mixers or anything like that, but I do like to bring some ambiance things that make it kind of feel special. I bring my twinkle lights and my candles and a Bluetooth speaker for some music and some cocktail supplies to make a nice drink. Just little touches. I think they really do make it feel more like you’re on your vacation.
Q. This book reminds me of the Malibu Farm cookbook. It captures California cuisine in a fresh and colorful way, but you combine watercolors and watercolor effects with photography. Did you also have a hand in the graphic design?
A. I laid out all the pages. Yeah, this is like one big art project to me.
Q. Your handwritten instructions and vegetarian recipes have drawn comparisons to the Moosewood Cookbook. Do you take that as a compliment?
A. yeah. She’s a huge inspiration. She’s one of the first people I ever saw use her own handwriting and illustrations mixed in with the recipes. So, I’m a big Mollie Katzen fan. I’ve been to Moosewood a couple times. I have one of the early editions that came from my husband’s grandmother. … I think it might be a first edition. Yes, that’s one of my prized possessions.
Q. Like Moosewood, this book feels cozy, but it’s sophisticated and very stylish. Why did you decide to craft the recipes with such simplicity?
A. Because I think people often will think it’s so simple that they can actually do it. And they are not intimidated by it and they might have those things on hand and then sometimes, because there are so few ingredients they’re kind of inspired to add their own twist to it, which I always love. … One of my huge goals is to make people feel creative in the kitchen. And I think when the recipes are simple enough it leaves you room for creativity, which I encourage.
‘The Forest Feast Road Trip’
Author: Erin Gleeson
publisher: Abrams Books