In our Powered by Plants series, created in partnership with Califia Farms, we're highlighting forward-thinkers who use plants to fuel their lives—and their passions. They're out to prove that plants are so much more than just a sad plate of broccoli. Check out the other plant-based pros here.
If you’ve seen recipes from The Forest Feast, you can’t forget them. Erin Gleeson, the brains behind the blog and series of best-selling cookbooks, creates vibrant, simple vegetarian dishes. She plates them on antique dishware, uses the redwoods outside her house in northern California as the backdrop for her food photography, and then adds stunning watercolor embellishments. It’s not just a recipe, it’s art.
Gleeson sticks to plant-based recipes, and most of the ingredients come from seasonal produce in her weekly CSA box. But her connection to nature runs much deeper: The woods outside her home actually inspire her recipes. Here she gives us a behind-the-scenes look at how she creates them, tells us the one food we’re missing out on, and shares the secret to getting kids to eat their veggies.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Literally, a crying baby and a hollering toddler! But in a larger sense, I am interested in helping bring people together around healthy food, and I hope to offer some creative inspiration along the way.
How does your cabin in northern California—being surrounded by all those plants and nature—influence your creative thinking?
You know, there really is something about being near these majestic redwood trees on a daily basis that I can’t explain. We moved here from Brooklyn, where the hustle had started to roadblock my creativity a bit. I didn’t expect that the calm of the woods would bring about new inspiration for me, but it certainly did—my books were born here. It’s the first time I started to combine watercolor illustration with my photography, and that has become a defining look for my work now. Also, there is just something about the light here that made me want to shoot outdoors in a new way.
Can you give us a behind-the-scenes look at how you come up with recipes? What inspires you?
It often starts with color. We get a weekly [CSA] farm box, and I am always looking for a vibrant item that will look beautiful on a plate. Then I think about what will be delicious mixed with it. This week we got the most amazing purple carrots that still have dirt on them. I keep thinking about shaving them into ribbons with a peeler to reveal the orange insides and putting them on an old floral china dish. Maybe with pomegranate seeds and cilantro on top? I’ll play around with it.
Why do you photograph your recipes with the forest as your backdrop?
I think I was tired of seeing dishes shot on a tablecloth or slab of granite, so when I started my blog, I began to walk around with the plate outdoors to look for a more interesting background texture. And I’m invested in connection to place. I start with local ingredients, and I like the idea that my photos show a little of the dirt and the place near where it was grown. Plus, it’s way more fun to photograph a platter on a beautiful patch of green moss than on your kitchen table, right?!
What’s one food you think people are missing out on?
Persimmons! You can’t find them in many places, but in California we are lucky to have them in the fall. If you can get your hands on some, they are delicious orange gems.
What’s your go-to dinner on busy weeknights?
I often make a big sheet pan of roasted vegetables, and we throw those on top of creamy polenta, rice, lentils, or noodles.
You grew up vegan, and most of your recipes in The Forest Feast are vegetarian. Why are you so focused on plants?
Eating a plant-based diet is better for you and for the environment. And you don’t have to cut out the “bad stuff” completely; just have it in moderation. I like Mark Bittman’s VB6 motto of being vegan before 6 p.m. (I like cheese too much to follow that daily, but it’s a good guideline!)
What’s the best thing you’ve cooked lately?
Roasted butternut squash and red onions on top of fresh fettuccine with basil and truffle salt. (And a glass of cabernet!)
You have two young children. Do you have any secrets for getting them to eat their veggies?
Reintroduction is the name of the game, I’ve found. My 2-year-old’s taste buds are changing constantly, and often he’ll suddenly like something that he wouldn’t touch the week before. Lately he started eating broccoli, which is kind of blowing my mind, but I’m trying to act cool about it (in front of him, anyway!). Also, putting kale in smoothies always proves successful.