When Michele Genest moved to the Yukon, she was a vegetarian.
She fell in love with the land immediately - but it took a while for Ms. Genest to embrace the local cuisine. "For the first six years I cooked a lot of Indian and Thai food. Then I discovered I was anemic." The solution was to start eating meat, which opened the door to an exploration of the food of the north, from wild herbs and berries to wild game.
She also confirmed one of her first impressions of her new home. "People do eat a lot of moose," she says, laughing, 15 years later.
Now, Ms. Genest is one of the territory's resident culinary experts, cooking with and writing about an incredible range of indigenous ingredients including, of course, moose, highbush and lowbush cranberries, spruce tips and birch syrup to name a few. The former Toronto-based food writer now pens a column called the Boreal Chef for Yukon, North of Ordinary magazine. And in her new book, The Boreal Gourmet: Adventures in Northern Cooking, she sets out to share with fellow Canadians just how diverse the cuisine is.
Part gastro-memoir, part cookbook, part info-guide, The Boreal Gourmet is packed with more than 100 recipes, interesting food facts and stories about hunting and gathering in the North - including a moose hunt, which, days after returning home, had her waking up at 4 a.m., weeping at the memory of the kill.
Luckily for foodies, she recovered from that trauma and came out of it with a deep appreciation for wild game, along with a passion for cooking it.
"The dish I'm really in love with right now is moose ribs, slow-cooked in espresso stout," Ms. Genest says. "But I also love the taste of moose unadulterated."
A moose steak, she says, is best served rare. "It's an entirely different taste, and because it's a denser texture than beef, it's not mushy, the way that a very rare steak can be."
There's also caribou, which she describes as more like venison, a darker, richer meat with a more pronounced flavour. It shows up in The Boreal Gourmet in recipes such as wrapped, roasted caribou shoulder with demi-glace and rowan jelly. Elk shows up as elk liver pâté - "I've never tasted better, even in France," she writes in her book.
Then there are the foods for which she has learned how to forage over the years: rowan berries, rosehips, shaggy mane mushrooms, lambs quarters, wild sage, highbush and lowbush cranberries, "particularly the highbush because they have this intense, unusual flavour, dark red and tarry. I fell in love with it right away. There was nothing in my repertoire I could compare it to."
Lately, Ms. Genest's culinary experiments have been focused on spruce tips and birch syrup.
Spruce tips, the bud of the spruce tree, have to be picked when they're small and tender. Ms. Genest calls them "magic food" in her book, and she uses them in sweet (shortbread) and savoury (rhubarb and spruce tip salsa) dishes. She describes the flavour as elusive and evocative, "kind of sweet and tangy and resiny and lemony all at the same time."
Birch syrup - which is made by boiling down 80 litres of sap into one litre of syrup - she enjoys best as a simple marinade for Arctic char or salmon.
For those south of 60, who aren't likely to find themselves foraging or hunting in the Yukon any time soon, many of the foods Ms. Genest describes are slowly but surely trickling into urban markets, whether it's frozen elk meat or pickled spruce tips - or available online. (The downside is that they haven't been plucked fresh off the land.)
And wild foods aren't all Yukoners subsist on either, she points out. Home gardens and farmers' markets have been blossoming in the North, Ms. Genest says, partly inspired by the farm-gate movement that has captivated the rest of the country. "If you walk by the downtown urban gardeners' society in … Whitehorse, you'll see arugula, cabbages, kale and lettuce planted in people's boxes, because that's what really works."
It's a challenge, given the area's short growing season, but Ms. Genest has a simple explanation: "We're so far away and dependent on transportation lines being intact to get food, so the more self-sufficient we are the better. The imperative to grow your own stuff becomes stronger."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Birch syrup marinade for salmon or Arctic char
¼ cup (60 mL) birch syrup
¼ cup (60 mL) olive oil
2 tablespoons (30 mL) balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon (15 mL) soya sauce
Marinate two pounds of salmon or Arctic char fillets or steaks in birch syrup mixture for 2 to 3 hours, turning every hour or so. Cook at 350 F (180C), 15 minutes for each inch of thickness. Err on the side of underdone, because the fish will keep cooking once it's out of the oven. Let cool slightly so it re-absorbs the juices, and serve with simple green vegetables and boiled, buttered potatoes.
Makes about ⅔ cup (160 mL) of marinade
Braised moose ribs with espresso stout and chocolate
2 ounces (60 gr) salt pork, blanched for 10 minutes in simmering water, cooled and diced
2 tablespoonsTbsp (30 mL) olive oil
5 pounds (2.25 kg) moose ribs (or substitute bison outside round, cut into 2-inch pieces)
1 large carrot, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 large pieces of celery, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 dried ancho chilies, crushed
1 tablespoonTbsp (15 mL) smoked paprika (if not available substitute regular paprika)
1 tablespoonTbsp (15 mL) cumin seeds, crushed and dry roasted in an iron frying pan until aromatic
1 tablespoonTbsp (15 mL) oregano
1 tablespoonTbsp (15 mL) tomato paste
1 25-ounce fl oz (750 mL) can plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped
2 341-millilitre bottles (341 mL each) Yukon Brewing Co. Midnight Sun Espresso Stout (or substitute the same amount of coffee porter, or your local espresso stout or 1 cup (250 ml) espresso coffee and enough stout to make up the difference
2 tablespoonsTbsp (30 mL) birch syrup
2 tablespoonsTbsp (30 mL) soya sauce
1 teaspoon (5 mL) salt
3 bay leaves
3 1-ounce squares (3 oz / 85 g ) unsweetened chocolate
Juice of 1 lime
½ bunch of cilantro
Brown salt pork in olive oil for 10 minutes in a heavy casserole or Dutch oven over medium heat. Remove salt pork and brown ribs in batches over medium-high heat, reserving ribs on a platter.
Turn heat to medium and sauté vegetables for about 5 minutes or until they've softened. Preheat oven to 425 F (220C). Add garlic and spices to vegetables and cook for a further 2 minutes. Add tomato paste, work in thoroughly, then add tomatoes, espresso stout, birch syrup and soy sauce, salt and bay leaves.
Stir, bring to simmer and add the moose ribs, making sure the liquid almost covers the ribs - use another ½ bottle of stout, if necessary.
Put the casserole into the oven and reduce heat to 320 F (160C). Cook for 3 to 3½ hours. Remove from oven, cool and store in fridge overnight.
The next day, take out the casserole about 4 hours before you're ready to serve. Two hours before, heat the mixture to a slow simmer in a 320 F (160C) oven.
Finish the sauce on the stove top on low heat - first take out the ribs and reserve them on a platter, covered. Add the chocolate and stir until melted. Add the lime and cilantro, return the meat to the sauce briefly to warm up and serve. Pour extra sauce into a gravy boat for the table. Rice, quinoa or polenta are all good accompaniments, and so is Swiss chard braised in a sauté pan with garlic and balsamic vinegar.
Makes six servings.