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‘Forest Feast’ cookbook inspired by California road trip

Packing tips for road trips

Here are some tips from Erin Gleeson’s “The Forest Feast Road Trip” on what to pack for a trip that will keep the family well-fed and occupied:

Food basket: Bring a large, shallow basket to keep near the front of the car with water and cups that can be filled with snacks for the kids and passed back and forth. This basket can also hold kitchen essentials that may come in handy: a good knife rolled in a kitchen cloth, kosher salt, a small pepper grinder, olive oil, coffee and a cone dripper with No. 2 filters, reusable food storage bags, containers for leftovers, a small container of dish soap and sponge, baby wipes and a roll of small garbage bags. And, for after the kids go to sleep, a cocktail shaker and some bitters.

Picnic backpack or basket: This comes in handy for making sandwiches out of the back of the vehicle or having a picnic dinner at the beach. Picnic backpacks often come stocked with essentials like a small cutting board, wine opener, plates, cups and silverware. Gleeson adds fabric napkins, sporks, wooden bowls and a tapestry tablecloth that can double as a beach blanket.

Cooler: This should not be too big but have wheels that help it roll. It’s perfect for storing produce from farmers markets and lunch essentials like condiments, cheese, lettuce and avocado. Use ice packs that refreeze.

Ambience: Bring some votive candles and string twinkle lights over an outdoor dining area, and bring a small Bluetooth speaker.

Clothing: Consider packing one big suitcase, with each person’s clothes in individual zipper pouches. Look for accommodations with a washer and dryer and pack some laundry detergent pods.

Car activities: For each child, pack a canvas tote to keep by their seat with their favorite pastimes, like Silly Putty or a sketchbook. Download audiobooks and kids’ podcasts, such as “Circle Round,” and headphones so they can listen on their own tablets and the adults can listen to a different podcast. Play road-trip games like 21 Questions or pack a scavenger hunt card game.

Once you arrive: Bring a deck of cards, travel board games like Scrabble and art supplies, and download a couple movies, shows and playlists ahead of time.

In “The Forest Feast Road Trip” (Abrams, 2022), Erin Gleeson offers an idyllic and delicious view of the Golden State from the windows of the family’s Nissan Pathfinder as it glides over back roads and stops at breathtakingly beautiful vistas.

If you’re not planning a road trip this summer, this cookbook may change your mind. Once you gaze at its beauty shots, you’ll be packing your picnic basket and heading for the open highway, even if it’s just for a long weekend to Gualala or Tahoe. And, hopefully, you’ll be cooking along the way.

“We considered a cross-country road trip of America, but we didn’t have time for that,” Gleeson said of how the book came about. “My husband wanted to see more of California, and there was a lot of the state that I hadn’t seen.”

Raised in Sebastopol, Gleeson now lives in a cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains with her husband and three young kids: Ezra, Max and Winnie. With Winnie’s arrival in 2020 in the middle of the cookbook project, the couple switched to a minivan to finish up their research on the road.

The cookbook idea grew naturally from Gleeson’s most recent book, “The Forest Feast Mediterranean” (2019), based on the family’s three-month trip through Spain, Italy, France and Portugal.

Her first cookbook, “The Forest Feast” (2014), was a New York Times bestseller. It was followed quickly by “The Forest Feast for Kids” (2016 and “The Forest Feast Gatherings” (2016). Those grew from a blog she launched after moving West.

“When my husband got a job in California, I left behind a career as a freelance food photographer in New York,” she said. “I felt like I was starting over, and I started a blog called the ‘The Forest Feast.’”

One project led to another, and pretty soon “The Forest Feast” blog fledged a line of gift items such as art prints, stationary and mugs, available on her website (theforestfeast.com).

Roots in agriculture and farms

In “The Forest Feast Road Trip,” the artist and mother chronicles the family’s series of road trips with mouthwatering food photos woven together with snapshots of the geographically diverse farms, beaches and markets along the way, plus the charming cabins and cottages where they bunked for the night.

“It’s very much like a personal travel journal of a cookbook,” Gleeson said. “It’s not a guidebook, and it’s not a comprehensive look at California in terms of culture or California cuisine. That would be a whole other book.”

Instead, she wanted to capture the flavors of a culinary road trip, grounded in the Golden State’s rich and diverse agricultural roots.

“This is very personal and agriculturally inspired,” she said. “There were so many farms.”

And if you salivate over photos of beautiful, cozy cabins, you’ll find plenty of guilty pleasures in the book, including watercolors of 10 “homes on the road.”

“I tried to find cabin-esque places — an octagonal cabin in Tahoe, a Craftsman cabin in Big Sur, my aunt and uncle’s beach house in Santa Barbara,” Gleeson said. “None of the homes are fancy.”

As the family toured from the Mexican border to the Coast Redwoods of Humboldt County, Gleeson took notes on the foods she encountered at farms, farmers markets, restaurants and ranches. Inspiration came everywhere, from a date farm near Palm Springs to a lavender farm near Lone Pine in the Eastern Sierra.

“Those gave me ideas for different flavors and ingredients to play around with,” she said. “The recipes evolved as we traveled.”

Signature aesthetic

Back at home, Gleeson set to work developing the book’s 100 plant-based recipes, inspired by everything from the grapes of her native Wine Country to the avocados of San Diego. Then she styled all the food, shot the dishes herself and designed each page with her signature style.

Each chapter focuses on a different region of the state and includes everything from snacks and drinks to main dishes and sweets. The recipes are illustrated with photographs and watercolor drawings, typewriter font and hand-painted lettering, all mashed together.

Despite the pretty graphics, Gleeson said she hopes the book serves as inspiration in the kitchen and isn’t just a coffee-table curiosity.

“I think of myself as a cookbook author,” she said. “My job is (not to) teach people how to cook; it’s to give people ideas of colorful ways to use produce. And I try to make it as approachable as possible.”

Instead of making focaccia dough, for example, she uses ready-made pizza dough and decorates it with herbs and flowers to create a Floral Flatbread, perfect for serving as an appetizer with dips.

Packing tips for road trips

Here are some tips from Erin Gleeson’s “The Forest Feast Road Trip” on what to pack for a trip that will keep the family well-fed and occupied:

Food basket: Bring a large, shallow basket to keep near the front of the car with water and cups that can be filled with snacks for the kids and passed back and forth. This basket can also hold kitchen essentials that may come in handy: a good knife rolled in a kitchen cloth, kosher salt, a small pepper grinder, olive oil, coffee and a cone dripper with No. 2 filters, reusable food storage bags, containers for leftovers, a small container of dish soap and sponge, baby wipes and a roll of small garbage bags. And, for after the kids go to sleep, a cocktail shaker and some bitters.

Picnic backpack or basket: This comes in handy for making sandwiches out of the back of the vehicle or having a picnic dinner at the beach. Picnic backpacks often come stocked with essentials like a small cutting board, wine opener, plates, cups and silverware. Gleeson adds fabric napkins, sporks, wooden bowls and a tapestry tablecloth that can double as a beach blanket.

Cooler: This should not be too big but have wheels that help it roll. It’s perfect for storing produce from farmers markets and lunch essentials like condiments, cheese, lettuce and avocado. Use ice packs that refreeze.

Ambience: Bring some votive candles and string twinkle lights over an outdoor dining area, and bring a small Bluetooth speaker.

Clothing: Consider packing one big suitcase, with each person’s clothes in individual zipper pouches. Look for accommodations with a washer and dryer and pack some laundry detergent pods.

Car activities: For each child, pack a canvas tote to keep by their seat with their favorite pastimes, like Silly Putty or a sketchbook. Download audiobooks and kids’ podcasts, such as “Circle Round,” and headphones so they can listen on their own tablets and the adults can listen to a different podcast. Play road-trip games like 21 Questions or pack a scavenger hunt card game.

Once you arrive: Bring a deck of cards, travel board games like Scrabble and art supplies, and download a couple movies, shows and playlists ahead of time.

“The focaccia trend during the pandemic was crazy, but I was never going to make the focaccia dough,” she said. “I’ve been wanting to have a Floral Flatbread cocktail hour with girlfriends. You can all have your own station and chat while you make them.”

In the same vein, she calls for ready-made dough for a Calzone Bar, perfect for a weeknight. She lets the kids choose their fillings and fill the dough, then top their calzone with grated cheese in the shape of their initials.

There are also hearty vegetarian entrees ideal for weekend entertaining and dinner parties, including Walnut Enchiladas and Polenta Lasagna, which can be made ahead of time.

On the road, Gleeson said, she often found herself cooking breakfast for the clan, so she packed a lot of just-add-water oatmeal and pancake mix that she would jazz up with veggies like beets.

“We made the Veggie Spaghetti a lot,” she said. “I did a whole wheat spaghetti, then picked up zoodles and did a little toppings bar with Parmesan and veggie meatballs and basil pesto. That was an easy one to make in a kitchen you don’t know.”

The cookbook also includes some very helpful road-trip tips, from what to pack for the car to how to keep kids occupied during long drives.

“Our first trip was about 2,500 miles, from our home in Santa Cruz south to L.A., over to the Eastern Sierra, up to Lassen and Humboldt and down the coast,” she said. “Then we did maybe five or six shorter trips over the next year.”

Recipes that grew out of California’s family farms include Date Shakes, inspired by the Flying Disc Ranch in Thermal; the Gold Miner cocktail (Bourbon, orange and Meyer lemon), inspired by the preserved gold mining town of Bodie; and Lavender Shortbread, inspired by De La Cour Ranch, a lavender farm in Lone Pine they stumbled on out of desperation and ended up staying at for the night.

“I did not expect to love the desert so much,” she said. “We picked lavender there and brought lavender home.”

It all started in Sonoma County

Growing up, Gleeson lived in the west county, off Occidental Road, where her parents planted a big garden and cared for an apple orchard. In the 1980s, her mother took classes from John McDougall of Santa Rosa, who teaches about the benefits of a whole-food, starch-based diet, and she transitioned the family to eating vegetarian.

“I was about 7 or 8 at the time, and I was very interested in it,” Gleeson said. “It was formative for me to see her make a food revolution for our family.”

As a child, Gleeson was encouraged to draw, and she took watercolor painting classes in a studio for kids in Sebastopol. Her uncle was a professional painter, and her mother and grandmother loved to paint.

“It was a career that was regarded as viable in my family,” she said. “And we talked about how teaching could be part of it.”

While studying fine art at UC Santa Barbara, she went abroad for a year to the culinary capital of Italy — Bologna — where she explored photography and became more deeply involved in food.

After college, she moved to New York and worked with magazines and studios, then got an fine arts degree in photography and started teaching at a local college.

While on her road trip for the book, Gleeson met up with her parents and other family members at Sea Ranch. Other familiar destinations that appear in the book include a vineyard near Campovida in Hopland, the Russian River and her brother’s property in the hills near Calistoga. His cabin burned in the Glass fire in 2020, but her parents’ home in the same area vicinity was miraculously spared.

Among other farms that inspired recipes in the book is Flygirl Farm in Pescadero on Highway 1, where the farmers grow flowers and dry farm near the beach.

“We picked strawberries with them one day, and that inspired the Strawberry Caprese,” she said. “I’m always trying to create very simple recipes that focus on the produce and are simple enough that people will actually make them.”

The following recipes are from Erin Gleeson’s “The Forest Feast Road Trip: Simple Vegetarian Recipes Inspired by My Travels through California” (2022, Abrams, $40).

“Our friend Debbie runs a farm in Los Altos Hills, and we stopped by in the spring to pick snap peas and oranges,” Gleeson said. “I came home and made this snacking platter, which works well as an appetizer or alongside soup for lunch.”

Spring Ricotta Salad

Makes 4-6 servings

1 large handful snap peas, trimmed and sliced

5 radishes, cut into matchsticks

3 sprigs mint, chopped

2 tablespoons pepitas

1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for sprinkling

Squeeze of clementine juice

Salt and pepper

4 clementines (1 zested)

6 ounces ricotta

1 baguette

Toss together snap peas, radishes, mint, pepitas, 1 tablespoon olive oil, clementine juice, salt and pepper in a bowl.

Grate zest from 1 clementine. Peel and slice 3 more clementines into rounds. Spread ricotta out on a platter or large plate. Fan out slices from the clementines over the ricotta. Pile the pea mixture in the middle and sprinkle the platter with salt, pepper, olive oil and clementine zest.

Serve with baguette slices and spoons for scooping the mixture onto the bread

“After a trip to the Saturday farmers market in downtown Santa Barbara, we stopped for lunch at Natural Cafe on State Street, where I got a grilled eggplant sandwich that inspired this one,” Gleeson said. “My version riffs on egg salad and adds cucumber for crunch.”

Eggplant Salad Sandwiches

Makes 4 servings

¼ cup olive oil

1 large eggplant, cut into small cubes (peel on)

1 small red onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

Salt and pepper

Cucumber, thinly sliced

4 ciabatta rolls

For dressing:

2 tablespoons grainy mustard

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

⅓ cup chopped scallions

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

Heat a pan with the olive oil and saute eggplant, onion and garlic, adding salt and pepper.

Once the eggplant mixture becomes translucent (about 8 minutes, stirring often), cool it and mix it in a bowl with the dressing ingredients.

Spread the eggplant mixture onto 4 ciabatta rolls, adding thinly sliced cucumber to each.

“It’s become a tradition in each of my books to have a twist on my favorite shortbread cookie recipe,” Gleeson said. “The base recipe is very simple, and you can add almost anything to flavor it. I created one of these after staying at a stunning lavender farm, De La Cour Ranch, in the Eastern Sierra.”

Lavender Shortbread

Serves 4-6

1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, cut into cubes

¼ cup sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon dried culinary lavender, finely chopped

Pulse all ingredients in a food processor until well combined. Press the dough into an ungreased 8-inch-by-8-inch pan and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Allow to cool 5 minutes, then cut into squares. Allow to cool completely before using a fork to transfer squares to a plate.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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