Cooking School

Cross Canada Cooks: Yukon

By: Rheanna Kish and Melanie Stuparyk

©iStockphoto.com/eppicphotography Author: Canadian Living Credits: ©iStockphoto.com/eppicphotography

Cooking School

Cross Canada Cooks: Yukon

By: Rheanna Kish and Melanie Stuparyk

Yukon facts
Population: 35,276

Area: 482,443 square kilometres

Location: The Yukon is a triangle-shaped territory in Canada's northwest. It is bordered on the east by the Northwest Territories, on the south by British Columbia and on the west by Alaska.

Capital and Largest City:
Whitehorse

History: Entered confederation on June 13, 1898

Main Industries:
Mining and tourism

Farming in the North

Farming has been a small but important part of life in the Yukon since the 1800s. Today there are approximately 160 farm operations in the territory. While climate proves to be the number one constraint, most Yukon farmers get into it for the love of the place; they have a passion for farming and enjoy the sense of security that comes from having the means and ability to produce food for themselves and the larger community.

The short growing season, frigid winters and semiarid conditions mean that farmers need to consider hardy, early-maturing plants and vigorous animals. Many Yukon farmers grow hay for animals; in fact, it's one of the top crops of the North. In addition, many farmers raise livestock and grow vegetables for food.

They employ many creative methods in their attempts to work with the Yukon climate, including the use of greenhouses to extend the growing season. There are six certified-organic growers in the Yukon and approximately 12 others who grow organically but are not certified.

There may be many challenges to growing in the North, but there are many positives as well. Limited industry and government involvement allows growers to connect with the community in ways that would be more challenging in other parts of the country.

The Fireweed Community Market and its members are an example of this. The market as it's known today began in 2005 as a society, setting up an outdoor market in Shipyards Park in Whitehorse.

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Today, the Fireweed Community Market is an outdoor summer market that runs from mid-May through mid-September, with over 100 vendors throughout the year and a solid core group of 20 to 30 vendors at each weekly market.

It includes a year-round indoor office and retail space for farmers and local artisans. It also hosts the annual 12 Days of Christmas market, featuring Yukon-made foods and gifts.

The Fireweed Community Market is filling a gap by promoting local foods, arts and crafts. The incredible support of the people of Whitehorse and the surrounding area has made the growth of the market possible.

There are a few other farmer's markets across the territory that spring up occasionally, depending on the local farmers' crops and produce availability. You can find these markets in Carmacks, Dawson City, Haines Junction and other communities.

Farmgate sales are another way for farmers of the North to sell their products, and a great way to meet farmers and people who are passionate about living in the Yukon.

Wherever there are people, there is a need for food. And wherever there is a need for food, you can bet there are farmers doing extraordinary things -- even in the Yukon.

Profile:
Wild Things

Foraging, whether for greens, mushrooms or berries, is a practice as old as mankind. Recently, foraged foods have been finding their way back into foodie kitchens and haute cuisine.

Most of us have long overlooked wild edibles, but in the Yukon these tasty treasures are hard to miss, and for two transplants who have made the territory their home, foraging has become a way of life.

Ying and Eric Allen live on a few acres of land bordered by Little Fox Lake on one side and the highway to Dawson City on the other. It was the perfect location to build their Honey Shack. Selling their fireweed honey to passing tourists led them to start their local-goods company, Wild Things.

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After retiring, Eric, a native Californian, and Ying, originally from China, committed to growing their family business full time.

If you ask Eric, the idea of owning land in the Yukon is highly overrated. As far as foraging goes, all public land in the Yukon is "effectively ours," he says. A season's haul will include rose petals, fireweed, high bush and low bush cranberries, and Canada buffaloberries. Also known as the soapberry, the buffaloberry is traditionally whisked together with sugar and water to make the regional treat known as "Indian ice cream."

Morel mushrooms
The most valuable find, says Ying, are morel mushrooms, which, when dried, bring in upward of $100 per pound. "The springs following forest fires bring the most wonderful morels," she says. "And then comes the fireweed" -- a plant so common in the north that it is featured on the Yukon's flag.

Ying has a hard time describing her fireweed jelly, but the floral, honey-like flavour has drawn chefs to use it in everything from sauces to vinaigrettes.

Arctic char
Among the other wild things on offer is Arctic char. The government granted Eric permission to stock a nearby lake with the fish in 1998; it flourished. The Allens camp and fish there almost weekly during the summer; they sell their catch at local farmer's markets and gift shops.

The demand for local and wild products has brought offers for the Allens to expand their business, but they are drawn to the calm, quiet beauty of the north and prefer to keep things small and natural. "There is no place on earth as beautiful as the Yukon in the summer," says Ying. "This feels like more of a hobby and a joy than a business to us."

From the earth, naturally

While the productive months for plant life may be few in the North, they are intense, as plants burst forth with vibrant life and colour. For many people, it's not just the plants' looks that are attractive -- it's also their myriad culinary uses, and the way they provide contrast to hunting-based diets.

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For folks in the towns and cities of the Yukon, foraging offers a chance to get outside, explore the wild and bring home tasty treats to cook and enjoy. Here are a few of the berries, plants and mushrooms common in the Yukon, and some ways to enjoy them should you be so lucky to come across a patch of your own.

Berries
Cranberry: Low- and high-bush cranberries are prolific across the territory. Their tart, sour flavour is ideal for use in sweet baked goods, such as cookies, squares, tarts and quick breads, or for jams, jellies and chutneys. Berries can be frozen to be used year-round.

Cloudberry: Also known in some parts of Canada as bakeapples, cloudberries are a lovely salmon pink when ripe. A little bitter, these berries are great baked into desserts or made into jam.

Soapberry: These bright red berries have been used by the First Nations population for hundreds of years; their high iron content and the medicinal properties of the twigs and leaves make them especially useful. When whipped with a bit of sugar, the berries produce a much-loved dish called Indian ice cream.

Other berries that are prized and abundant in the Yukon include raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and Saskatoon berries.

Plants
Fireweed:
This tall, stunning pink-and-purple plant is a symbol of Canada's North. Almost all parts of the plant are edible, but the blossoms are especially prized, and used for making jelly and syrup. Bees love the bright colour of the blossoms, and so fireweed honey is also a delicacy of the Yukon.

Labrador Tea:
This low-growing evergreen shrub has been used by the First Nations population for hundreds of years for its medicinal properties; the leaves are steeped for tea. Labrador tea grows slowly, but in large patches, so pick from many plants instead of just one to avoid overharvesting.

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Discover Yukon foodie finds on page 5
Mushrooms
Morels: A harbinger of warmer weather, morels pop up across the territory and are prized for their delicate taste. Use morels in place of button mushrooms in any recipe; they pair especially well with chicken. Fresh morels can be dried to use through the year. Dried morels are available in stores across the country year-round.

Shaggy Mane: Next to morels, Shaggy Mane mushrooms are among the more recognizable wild mushrooms of the Yukon -- a bell-shaped cap with shaggy red or brown scales helps them stand out. Use these mushrooms in soups or sautés.

While foraging is fun, always consult a field guide or guidebook or, better yet, forage with an expert who can show you the ways of wild edibles. Many safe to eat plants closely resemble poisonous ones. If you have any doubt, leave it alone.

Foodie finds -- coffee, tea and chocolate
Images of stunning mountains, fast-flowing rivers and gold miners may first come to mind when thinking of the Yukon, but the frontier isn't all rough-and-ready. Chain coffee shops and commercial chocolate are available, but a handful of businesses put a unique and homegrown spin on these indulgences.

Midnight Sun Coffee Roasters: This microroastery in Whitehorse takes pride in roasting coffee the right way -- in small batches, with the best beans and a dash of love -- for the ultimate coffee experience. The roastery also hosts a casual espresso bar. While the name alone might speak to the roastery's pride in the North, check out its coffees, named for exceptional Northern places and characters, such as Sam McGee's Black Coffee.

Bean North Coffee Roasting Co.: Bean North features organic and Fair Trade coffee beans from around the world, roasted on-site in the Takhini Valley, northwest of Whitehorse. The roastery also boasts a quaint cafe and tons of information about the coffee farmers and Fair Trade products. Giving back to the communities that produce the coffee is incredibly important to Bean North, so you can feel good about this delicious indulgence.

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Aroma Borealis Herb Shop: In addition to herbal skin-care and aromatherapy products, Aroma Borealis, a Whitehorse-based company, also offers a unique line of herbal teas inspired by the Northern forests. Check out the Spirit of Borealis Tea, a bold blend of Labrador tea, sweetgrass, horsetail, peppermint and more.

The Chocolate Claim: Specializing in handmade truffles using the finest Belgian chocolate and some locally sourced ingredients, The Chocolate Claim is a well-loved spot in Whitehorse. In addition to fine chocolates, the shop also features a cosy cafe, delectable baked treats and catering menus for all your gourmet needs. Check out the Wild Cranberry Truffle, featuring local wild cranberries, for a true taste of the North.

Menu of the month
Farmers and gardeners in the Yukon and across the country are just beginning to celebrate the fruits (and vegetables) of their labours. In honour of Yukon farmers, here is a casual menu that celebrate's spring's bounty.

Cedar-Planked Salmon With Dill Sauce for Six

As the salmon grills or bakes on the piece of soaked cedar, the wood infuses the fish with a delightfully smoky flavour. Grill asparagus alongside for an easy but very special menu.

Lemon Roast Potatoes
These crispy golden brown potatoes add zest to a familiar menu.

Sauteed Spinach

Cran-Raspberry Shorty Squares
Thick and moist with a jewel-like cranberry and raspberry filling, these delectable squares pile up high and tempting on a plate.

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Cross Canada Cooks: Yukon