I love this cookbook. Love it, love it, love it. So much. I bought it just under a week ago and so far I have made twelve recipes from it, and they were all gorgeous and it just makes me so happy, especially when Erin Gleeson uses vegetables I’ve never even heard of, but ought to have, like watermelon radish, which is a seriously wild-looking radish that is green on the outside and sort of fuchsia-magenta in the middle, and is clearly a vegetable worth using as often as possible.
And yes, that last sentence went on forever, but that’s because I love and adore this book and am too excited for sensible grammar.
The first thing to love about this book is how gloriously colourful it is. Erin Gleeson started off as an artist and a food photographer, and her food is inspired by the boxes she gets every week from her Community Supported Agriculture membership, so you can see already where it would appeal to me.
But even that can’t really explain how utterly inviting this book is – it captured Andrew’s attention, too, and I keep showing it to people who look at it to humour me and then go ‘ooh!’, and several minutes later they are still looking at it. It is both intensely visually appealing and extremely accessible. The recipes are simple, quick to make, full of flavour – but also quick to read, quick to assess. It’s easy to glance at any recipe and see immediately what ingredients you need and what you need to do with them.
A large part of this is due to a very well-considered layout. Each recipe occupies a double page. On the right hand page, you have a photograph of the completed dish. On the left, the recipe itself is laid out in a handful of steps, written simply and in large lettering, surrounded by photographs of the ingredients themselves and watercolour illustrations. This makes it sound very busy, but it really isn’t – it’s quite simple and very beautiful. (To see what her recipes actually look like, I recommend you visit Ms Gleeson’s blog, here – she has examples from the book itself, but this seems to be her standard recipe writing style, too.)
In fact, the simplicity of the recipes and the strongly visual aspect of the layout would make this book a good choice for children who are learning to cook (though they might want to skip the cocktail section), or for people with reading difficulties (or children who don’t enjoy reading but do enjoy cooking) – I showed this to a friend of mine whose daughter is intellectually disabled and lives semi-independently, and she thought it was a fantastic resource.
(And, of course, the photographs of the ingredients also have the advantage of helping those of us who are not from the USA identify aragula as rocket, or golden raisins as sultanas…)
But enough about the layout – and really, you know it must be striking if I care about it this much, because I’m really not a visual sort of person – what about the recipes? What, indeed…
The book is divided into five main sections – appetisers, cocktails, salads, vegetable dishes and sweets (yes, it’s vegetarian). The appetisers are mostly little nibbles to go with cocktails, and include gorgeously healthy little things like strawberry salsa, figs with honey, fetta and pepper, guacamole devilled eggs or baked garlic nuts, as well as utterly decadent things like brie baked in pastry, parmesan crisps and deep fried leeks. I can recommend the strawberry salsa in particular – it was absolutely gorgeous and will be appearing frequently in my summer menus, I think.
I don’t really drink, so I’m not in a position to discuss the cocktails (though, hmm, Eurovision – maybe I should actually make an alcoholic drink for a change?), but they tend to be fruit, vegetable or herb influenced – blood orange mimosa, rosemary gin fizz, or cucumber spritzer all look pretty fascinating.
The salad section includes both side-salad sort of salads and the kind that you can make into a main meal, and I think this is where Gleeson does some of her best work. Her butternut caprese salad (essentially a caprese salad with roast pumpkin through it) is absolutely marvellous, her red salad of apples, bell peppers, pomegranates, dried cherries, radishes, tomatoes and red onion was phenomenal, and I’m looking forward to trying her persimmon salad next time the neighbours give us a bag of persimmons. But the strawberry and cucumber salad looks great for spring, and I cannot help but love the woman who decides that what you really need to do with your beetroot and hard boiled egg salad is soak the eggs in the beetroot cooking water until they are blushing pink. Perfect!
Oh, and I just can’t resist the ‘salad’ that is a plate-sized circle of watermelon, topped with cheese, fresh herbs and nuts. Truly a visually stunning recipe, and I bet it tastes incredible, too.
The vegetables section also includes a combination of sides and of mains – and again, they are colourful and inventive and full of flavour. It is here, however, that I feel I should raise not a flaw, exactly, but one potential drawback of this book. Most of these recipes are not standalone meals – even those which are a bit more filling would probably would want a good salad to round out the flavours and nutritional value of the meal. Honestly, this hasn’t been a problem for us at all – on the night we made sweet potato latkes, we also made roasted apples and onions and had the leftover red salad on the side. On another night, cinnamon cauliflower accompanied a tagine (from another book). The carrot and zucchini ribbon pasta was a sufficient meal on a day after a big lunch, or would work with a salad on the side, or maybe polka dot focaccia. Finding good combinations is not a problem, and the recipes are for the most part so simple that making more than one is hardly a chore.
OK, I heard what you just thought. “But Catherine cooks all the time, of course she doesn’t find making two recipes a chore…”
Actually, on a weeknight, I do, rather. But when one recipe amounts to ‘combine this vegetable with these spices and some oil and bake it’, then I really don’t have a problem preparing a salad or a pasta dish while the baking goes on. And I cannot stress the incredibly short preparation time for most of these dishes – so far the most time-consuming thing I’ve had to do is get seeds out of a pomegranate for a salad, or use a vegetable peeler to make zucchini and carrot ribbons. A surprising number of the recipes, however, have taken me less than five minutes of actual kitchen time.
Let me tempt you with some more: collards with aglio e olio (garlic and oil, a traditional spaghetti sauce for the hurried and the impoverished, applied to greens); red cabbage baked with dried cherries and pecans, corn and cauliflower tacos, rosemary vegetable skewers…
These are truly beautiful recipes.
The desserts are, for the most part, simple, light and healthy – I love the idea of making a ‘cake’ from three kinds of melon, cut crosswise into circles and stacked, with the seed section cut out and filled with a mixture of yoghurt and nuts. Or strawberries, simply dipped in yoghurt and brown sugar (I have to try this with coconut sugar). I admit, last night’s chocolate and ricotta mousse was a bit excessive (I suspect Australian ricotta is thicker than the kind you get in California) – more like a cheesecake than a mousse in texture – but the flavour was amazing. The only complicated recipe in the book is for Challah – but this feels like the sort of book which wouldn’t be complete without bread, and after all the restful recipes elsewhere, I feel very nearly energised enough to make Challah on principle.
Did I mention that I love this book?
In terms of dietary requirements, the book is vegetarian, and is also very strong on gluten-free recipes – I would say that a good 90% of the book is either gluten-free or very easily rendered so by choosing the right bread or pasta (not that there is much of either – this book doesn’t rely much on grains generally). I’m less certain of its utility for vegans; while there are a lot of vegan recipes in here, many of the recipes rely on eggs or dairy products for their protein – though having said that, there are a lot of very inventive salads and side dishes that may make the book worth your while regardless, especially if you already had your protein taken care of by another dish. I’d say the book was pretty helpful for those on a low-GI diet; there’s very little sugar in these recipes, and the recipes tend to be fairly low in carbohydrates, and get what carbohydrates they have from vegetables, which is often a good sign. I’m less sure how those on a low fructose diet would go. There’s a lot of fruit in here!
Altogether, though, I think this is a book that a lot of people would enjoy. It is, as I have said above, really quite gorgeous to look at, and the recipes are both inspiring and easy. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants some new ideas for vegetables – and especially to anyone who is wondering what to do with that beautiful, but rather strange, new vegetable they bought at the farmers’ market…
The Forest Feast Cookbook is available from The Book Depository. You should buy it, because it’s awesome!
Two years ago: Fudgy Chocolate and Beetroot Cake