By Kate Daly
Special to The Almanac
Hanukkah is a "sweet holiday to have people over," says Erin Gleeson, who with her husband Jonathan Prosnit, associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Am, enjoys welcoming family and friends into their cozy two-bedroom cabin in the redwoods in Skylonda. The couple strive to make the occasion "simple, but still special," she says.
Those words could also sum up Gleeson's business model ever since the couple moved here from New York seven years ago. Leaving the bustle of Brooklyn behind and resettling has brought along many changes, including a pivot in Gleeeson's career that led to her becoming a best-selling cookbook author known around the world.
More than 250,000 copies of her three "The Forest Feast" vegetarian cookbooks have been published in 10 different languages. Her fourth book is due out in fall 2019.
Relocating reinforced her objective of wanting to create a sense of community and build relationships around eating healthful food. Gleeson was raised in Sonoma County eating "mostly vegetarian" for health and environmental reasons.
Gleeson and Prosnit have two young boys, and she says that "as a parent, I'm always trying to get more vegetables into their food."
When she makes latkes for Hanukkah, for example, she might add grated carrots and zucchini or minced cauliflower to the potato pancakes.
Another recipe variation she has published is for sweet potato latkes, which she suggests serving with Greek yogurt and chopped scallions. (See recipe, next page.)
Otherwise, the family loves sticking to their Hanukkah traditions of lighting the menorah candles every evening, playing dreidel with chocolate gelt, and making spice cookies in the shape of the Star of David, dreidels and menorahs.
They exchange one gift during the eight-day celebration, which this year began on Dec. 2. Christmas with their relatives in Sonoma is another story.
In New York, Gleeson worked as a professional food photographer. When she came to California, editors told her that her work needed to look more informal and rustic, so she started cooking food to photograph for a new portfolio.
The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm box of seasonal fresh produce that arrived each week inspired her, and so did her cabin's natural setting.
She found that simply walking outside with her Nikon camera and placing the food in artistic and colorful arrangements in the natural late afternoon coastal light -- on mossy logs, rocks, and fallen trees -- provided an abundance of texture and possibilities.
Gleeson, 38, started writing a blog about her experiences, and within six months a literary agent contacted her about turning her recipes into a book, "The Forest Feast," which came out in 2014.
Gleeson then took 20 of that book's 100 recipes and concocted 20 more to create "The Forest Feast for Kids." She then published 100 new recipes in "The Forest Feast Gatherings."
Her next book, "The Forest Feast Travels," is based on the three months she spent with her family eating their way through Spain, Portugal, France and Italy, focusing on small plates or favorites such as romesco, a roasted red pepper sauce with tomato that was sampled in Barcelona, and a walnut pesto with marjoram that stood out in the Cinque Terre region of Italy.
Gleeson adapted the tasty garbanzo bean and cod salad they dined on at a beach in southern Portugal, substituting torn mozzarella for the fish.
Her goal in putting together the books is to take recipes with only a handful of ingredients and present them visually "to make them more approachable and easy." She uses no printed fonts, just handwritten notes, diagrams, stylized photos and drawings.
Gleeson, who started taking watercolor classes when she was 5, keeps a small studio in her garage for painting illustrations.
She also teaches Photoshop at Stanford Continuing Studies, but what really keeps her busy is maintaining her social media presence.
She has a website, theforestfeast.com, a Pinterest account, a Facebook page and an Instagram account that has more than 35,000 followers.
On Thanksgiving she was excited to see fans tagging her in posts about making her persimmon salad and asparagus tart.
Recently she Skyped with a book club group in San Jose when the members used her recipes in creating a meal and invited her to join their dinner party.
Her home, a 1950s cabin with pine wood paneling, a stone fireplace, a corner of floor-to-ceiling glass windows and doors, and a wraparound deck, is featured prominently in her work. Gleeson plates her food and stages photos with a flair that makes the space seem at times intimate and at other times expansive.
Her kitchen is small, "5-by-10," she jokes.
And yet she likes to entertain, and has these suggestions for keeping the stress level down: Choose one thing to make, buy the rest; float fresh cranberries or pomegranate seeds in champagne; have people bring dessert, or serve chocolate and fruit; light the candles; and turn on the music.
Looking for some instant holiday spirit? Gleeson shares her special Skylonda Cocktail recipe: Soak three cinnamon sticks in a 12-ounce jar of bourbon for three days, then strain. Mix four tablespoons of the cinnamon-infused bourbon with two tablespoons of dry vermouth and one teaspoon of bitters. Serve over ice with a slice of orange.