By Miche GenestI picked up my first Solvest Inc. CropBox subscription order of fresh, local, hydroponically grown greens on January 23 at Baked Café in Whitehorse, located a 10-minute walk from my house (convenient!). For the uninitiated, the CropBox System is a portable, hydroponic greenhouse system, entirely contained in a sea can, developed by Vertical Crop Consultants, an American company based in North Carolina. Solvest Inc., a Whitehorse- and Yellowknife-based company that sells custom solar energy systems, is the Canadian provider and distributor of the CropBox system. Solvest Inc. has a particular interest in the viability of the system for growing fresh greens in remote northern locations. The company installed its first CropBox unit in Whitehorse in the spring of 2018, and is tweaking the system for optimal production in cold climates. And they are selling the crops — fresh lettuces, kales, chards, herbs — produced in the unit to Whitehorse residents and some restaurants on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. I am a brand new subscriber. A couple of other subscribers arrived at the cafe at the same time as I. They clearly knew the ropes — one had a clutch of breathable string bags with her and the other a small cooler. (Customers are asked to bring their own bags or containers and transfer their order from the company’s refillable boxes at the pick-up point, part of Solvest Inc.’s effort to be a zero-waste operation. ) Next time I too will bring a cooler, easier than bags because you can lift the whole clump of greens out of the box and put them into the cooler, which insulates the greens if you’re transporting them in cold temperatures, and then sort them at home. The smell of the fresh greens when I opened the box was intoxicating — pungent, sweet, peppery — a complex blend of fragrances emanating from basil, dill and arugula that was utterly uplifting at five o’clock on a winter afternoon. This first box contained butter lettuce, rainbow chard, and the arugula, Thai basil, Genovese basil (the classic pesto basil), and dill that were causing my nose to twitch. The total weight was 400 grams; though the mix of fresh greens varies from week to week the weight remains the same, and so does the price — $15 for 400 grams. That amount is calculated to be enough to feed one or two people. Tarek Bos-Jabbar, who coordinates the CropBox program and operates the unit in Whitehorse, harvests greens such as chard, lettuce and arugula by cutting leaves from the plant. With herbs, he generally harvests the entire plant, with the root plug attached. Once you get the CropBox order home, there are a few things to sort out. If the herbs come complete with plug, theoretically you can place them in a jar of water and they’ll continue growing. I haven’t yet tried this, but a Whitehorse friend who has subscribed to Cropbox since December reports anecdotally she hasn’t been successful at keeping the herbs going; they tend to wilt fairly soon. My herbs came without a plug. I cut a couple of millimetres off the ends of the Genovese basil and dill stems and stood them in cold water, but they wilted in a few hours. I think the old trick of refreshing herbs and greens in ice-cold water, and then wrapping them in a tea towel and putting them in a re-sealable bag in the fridge is the way to go. The lettuce I treated this way is still crisp and crunchy, six days after pick-up. There were a few wilted leaves among each crop but those went straight into a bag in the freezer and, once the bag fills up with other vegetable ends and trimmings, will contribute to vegetable, fish or meat stock. Nothing wasted! (Well, except a bit of dill. See below.) The flavour of the greens fulfilled all the promise of the first smell: from-the-garden fresh, and to my palate, more intensely alive than the basils and arugulas and lettuces I bring home from the supermarket. This is the crux of the matter: the flavour. In winter, the flavour of greens grown elsewhere and brought up the highway just doesn’t compare. Here’s a quick rundown of what we did at my house with our first CropBox order, with a rough calculation of number of servings. Butter leaf lettuce and arugula: Half the lettuce and all the arugula went into a mixed salad that fed three people at supper, with seconds all around (just for interest, the protein was elk smokies and the starch, sourdough buns). Thai and Genovese basil: On the second day after pick-up my husband turned both basils into pesto, in order to catch the herbs at their best. The pesto was more than enough for 250 grams of linguine, which again, served three people (with no accompaniment except extra grated Parmesan and black pepper). Rainbow chard and dill: I used all of the chard and a third of the dill in a Colcannon, along with eight large baking potatoes, one large onion and three cups of cheddar and Parmesan, mixed, for a Robbie Burns supper. The dill is not traditional in Colcannon and neither is the chard but it worked; my visiting sister, who is a fine cook, said it was superb. Our Robbie Burns supper was cancelled due to illness, so I froze two-thirds of the Colcannon for later consumption; there are at least 12 servings in the freezer. The remaining third fed three people at two meals and there is still some left over. The remaining dill: I bought a cucumber in order to make tzatziki with the rest of the dill, but I didn’t get to it on time and the dill wilted and then rotted in its jar on the windowsill. Entirely my fault. And a lesson for next time. (See section on storage, above.) Genovese basil stems: The stems were packed with flavour, so I made a basil simple syrup for use in cocktails and anything else I can come up with. The remaining lettuce: Salad, to come in the next couple of days; there’s enough left to feed two of us one serving each. In conclusion, I’m in. I have a small household, so the amounts seem to work for me. Still, it remains to be seen whether we will subsist on greens from CropBox alone for the winter (there are options for ordering more frequently), or whether we will need to augment. But I’m excited about what might be coming in tomorrow’s box, and the culinary possibilities that will open up. And I like that this one $15 investment in 400 grams of greens contributed to dishes that fed many mouths — well, the same three mouths — many times over many days. That is, 26 separate servings of very different dishes. And that’s not counting the cocktails that will emerge from the basil syrup. Ultimate conclusion: Two green thumbs up. (Sorry.) For information on how to subscribe to the greens program in Whitehorse visit cropboxcanada.ca > Click here to view the recipe for Colcannon
by Miche GenestIn this small territory, it’s sometimes surprising how much we don’t know about what’s going on. A case in point: farmers and food businesses. There are 145 farms in the Yukon, but many of the territory’s chefs, caterers, retailers and distributors aren’t tuned in to who the farmers are or what they’re growing. The same is true of the farmers — they know those chefs, caterers and retailers are out there, but they don’t know who’s interested in local food or what products they’re after. All this not-knowing leads to lost opportunity — the opportunity to feature Yukon foods on local menus, in retail outlets and farmers’ markets, and on our tables, and to build lasting relationships that benefit everyone in the local food chain, including we who want to eat more of that food. Over the past several years Yukon farmers and food businesses have started to find each other, with great results, but there’s more work to be done. The good news is the Yukon Agricultural Association (YAA) and the Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon (TIAY) are on it. For the second year running, the two organizations co-hosted the Meet Your Maker event, held this year on Monday January 14 at the Gold Rush Inn in Whitehorse, bringing farmers and food businesses together. Imagine the scene: Yukon farmers, producers, chefs, caterers, restaurateurs, distributors and a Who’s Who of agriculture and food sector representatives, including Minister of Tourism Jeanie Dendys and Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources Ranj Pillai, all in one big room, cooking, eating, talking, making new friends and business connections, sharing recipes, tips, and growing techniques. “Farmers and producers were thrilled with Monday’s Meet Your Maker event,” said Jennifer Hall, executive director at YAA. Hall noted there were 100 attendees, evenly split between farmer/producers and buyers, including two large food distributors and a representative from a company that supplies groceries for mining camps in the Yukon. There were product samples and tasters at each of the 20 booths in the room, as well as two cooking demonstration stations where local chefs transformed home-grown products into dishes such as hollandaise sauce, ceviche, gravlax, cranberry fudge and mini, coffee-spiced burgers. Chef Robert Brouillette of the Gold Panner restaurant and his team produced a selection of appetizers made with products from eight local suppliers, proving that not only is local food abundant, it is delicious. This year’s event was fifty percent bigger than last year’s, and the number of buyers more than tripled. Next year, look out, said Jennifer Hall: “Several farmers/producers said that they wanted a booth next year so we will have to get a bigger room!” To learn more about Meet Your Maker, or for ideas on how to participate in agri-culinary events such as the Yukon Culinary Festival, contact the Yukon Agricultural Association or the Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon.
by Miche GenestA tomato still warm from the sun and just plucked from the vine, eaten in the hand without salt or basil or any other addition, is one of the gardener’s greatest seasonal pleasures. At the first bite you understand that yes, this is more fruit than vegetable; a ripe tomato is as sweet and juicy as any peach or plum. Now, in early November, it’s hard to find such a tomato in these latitudes. But until very recently the next best thing, a local, greenhouse-grown tomato from Yukon Gardens, was available at Wyke’s Independent Grocer in Whitehorse, around the corner from where I live. In the second week of October I had just arrived back from Portugal with tomatoes on my mind. In Portugal in September the tomatoes were ripe and plentiful, so plentiful they cooked them down for hours into a sweet, spicy jam we ate at breakfast with fresh bread and creamy butter. We ate fresh tomatoes in our picnic lunches with hard cheeses and dry salamis, and at dinner we had cooked tomatoes in fish stew and in one of the many variations of Carne de Porco a Alentejana (Traditional Pork and Clams from Alentejo) we relished in taverns along the Fisherman’s Way. On our first shopping trip back in Whitehorse there were the Yukon Garden tomatoes, so ripe they were almost bursting their skins. We came home with a few kilos because I really wanted to try that jam, and I really wanted a bread and tomato salad, whose origins are not Portuguese but Tuscan. I had a large bag of sourdough croutons in the freezer leftover from a catering job, and I had visions of chunks of toasted bread soaked in tomato juice and the rich, green olive oil given to us in Portugal by Maria, a family friend. Maria’s oil is pressed from her own olives, and over the years she has brought members of my family many bottles, and we love it. She decanted ours into an empty cognac bottle and we carried it home wrapped in a beach towel and stuffed into one of our knapsacks. It survived the journey. We ate bread and tomato salad the first night at home. It was everything I had anticipated-the bread both soft and crunchy in its bath of oil and and tomato juices, the tomatoes bright and sweet, the onion sharp, and the cilantro fresh and cool. The reason I’m allowed to share the recipe here, with First We Eaters, is because every salad ingredient, if not local in October (except the tomatoes), was available in August at the Fireweed Market—tomatoes, cilantro, purple onion. The bread we make at home from a starter brought to Alaska by a German family 100 years ago. Now that Suzanne’s year of eating only locally has ended, and a few items from abroad are creeping into her diet, we agreed that the olive oil got special dispensation. It was local to us when we were staying in Maria’s house and besides, I’ve known Maria since I was 12 and she was 21, and so what’s local to her is local to me, by association. That’s sound logic, right? > View the recipe for Bread and Tomato Salad
by Miche GenestThe buds are appearing on the trees, there’s new growth on the ground, and across the territory farmers, gardeners and consumers are gearing up for market season. In Dawson the first outdoor market took place on May 13, Mother’s Day; in Whitehorse the Fireweed Community Market officially opens May 17; and the Stewart Valley Community Market (SVCM) will rev up on May 26th. “Keep your friends close and your farmers closer,” says a poster on the SCVM Facebook page, which pretty much sums up the idea behind local markets: farmers and community. Joella Hogan is one of the SCVM organizers, along with Sandy Washburn and Susan Stanley. “We usually try to have five or six markets a year,” she says. “Usually the first one in spring so people can get bedding plants and visit, and celebrate spring. “When we started, our whole point was about connecting farms to local people, because lots of people couldn’t get out to the farms,” she continues. “We had no idea that it would become this huge social thing.” The market started up about seven years ago, with the help of funding from the Community Climate Change Adaptation Project at Yukon College, which enabled organizers to invest in tables, tents, a barbecue and a cooler. Now the market is totally self-sufficient, deriving revenue from table rentals at $10 a shot and a $25 buy-in fee for food vendors. Farmers Ralph and Norma Meese from Minto Bridge Farm are market regulars, and so are Adam and Danica Wrench from North Wind farm, a small family operation just up the road from the Meeses. “The Meeses sell mostly vegetables and eggs, whereas Adam and Danica are getting into pigs and chickens,” says Hogan. “There’s even a local lady selling eating rabbits.” The farmers are joined by a good handful of local food producers, artists and artisans. Sometimes jeweller Esther Winter of Winterchild Jewellery takes a table, especially when she’s testing new designs. “She’ll say, ‘These are three new designs; pick your favourite and there will be a draw.’ I love it!” says Hogan. This year market organizers are hoping to get more kids interested in participating, whether to sell lemonade or hold a bake sale. “We want to encourage entrepreneurship and small business, so we want to get the kids involved in the market so they understand more.” The other group in the community the organizers have their sights on is the seniors and Elders. “They’re our biggest fans; they love getting out and visiting. Our thinking is, let’s engage them to have more ownership — phoning their friends to remind them there’s a market and putting up posters, so that it becomes more of a community-wide thing.” Hogan recently attended the Zero Waste Conference in Whitehorse. “I said to Sandy, ‘We have to get on Zero Waste!’” Now, like the Fireweed Community Market and other markets across the country, SVCM is grappling with how to reduce garbage. “How do you do that? Do you offer incentives to the vendor? Do you, as the market, supply all the dishes and utensils so it meets your values? At what expense?” Already, SVCM uses compostable cups, and Susan Stanley has made felt holders that will go around mason jars, which Hogan then takes home and washes after the market. That is, if folks will allow her to take their coffee cups. Hogan says, “People don’t want to go home at the end of the day. We’re packing up and they’re like, ‘I just want one more cup of coffee!’”
by Miche GenestSheila Alexandrovitch has homesteaded on the Annie Lake Road, 40 kilometres south of Whitehorse, since 1981. Over the years she’s raised goats, llamas and sled dogs; she’s brought up her two children on the farm, and pursued an artistic practice there, working with materials like willow, beads, precious stones and wool. These days she raises sheep (producing beautiful felted work with their wool) and as always, vegetables. Lots and lots of vegetables. Alexandrovitch is locally famous for her vegetable ferments, selling jars and jars of them at the Fireweed Market in Whitehorse and the weekly market at the Mount Lorne Community Centre on the Annie Lake Road all summer long. At Mount Lorne’s last, stock-up market of the year, on September 26, she and her helper stood behind two tables groaning under her ferments, and giant mounds of fresh carrots and potatoes. As I purchased a few pounds for our house, we struck up a conversation about root cellars — I knew she was pretty much self-sufficient, and curious about her storage methods. Every winter, Alexandrovitch stores an impressive weight of vegetables in her root cellar — this year, she’s got 135 pounds of potatoes, 80 pounds of carrots, 40 pounds of beets, 20 to 30 pounds of parsnips, 35 pounds of turnips and 7 or 8 cabbages. Asked when she runs out of supplies, she replied, “I don’t. By the end of June I’m out of carrots, but I always have rutabagas and beets, and I always have potatoes. And by the end of June, we’ve got greens.” The cellar that stores this bounty is a hole dug into the ground under her house, accessed by a trap door in the kitchen floor. The cellar is framed in with 2 x 6 boards, insulated with Styrofoam, sheeted in on the inside and completely sealed. In the 2½-foot crawlspace between the earth and the floor of the house, the walls of the cellar are exposed, so the above-ground portion is wrapped with Styrofoam and foil and banked with dirt. The space is 7 feet long by 6 feet wide and around 4 ½ feet deep — about chest height for Alexandrovitch. There’s no ladder — she just lifts the trap door and jumps in. She piles whatever supplies she’s retrieving onto the kitchen floor, and then jumps out of the cellar, the same way you’d push yourself out of a swimming pool. (She finds this athletic feat unremarkable.) In winter the temperature in the root cellar is around 2° or 3°C above freezing. There’s no air circulation system, but she’s never noticed any ill effects from ethlylene — not surprising, because most of the foods she stores don’t produce ethylene. (Learn more about the fruits and vegetables that produce ethylene here.) Alexandrovitch keeps endive, leeks and chicory in pots, in another cold space, this one on her porch. She runs out of those greens sometime in January, but then she’s got all her ferments, plus frozen leeks and kale, kept in her freezer at a neighbour’s place. She has canned goods and grains in the root cellar, and she might drive to town for coffee, butter and oil, but she prefers to use goose fat—she’ll render 6 to 8 litres this year–or pork fat, which she’ll also render. Alexandrovitch estimated that she spends about 95% of her time growing, processing, preserving and preparing her food. “But what a good way to spend 95% of your time,” she said. “It’s not so hard. It’s just a bunch of work.”
By Miche GenestMiche here. In late October my household of two took delivery of a 35 lb box of local carrots, cabbage, beets and potatoes, part of a fundraiser for a local school. It was not an overwhelming amount, but it did bring up again one of our failures when we built our house in Whitehorse. We forgot to include a cold room. The family home in downtown Toronto, where I grew up, had a cold room. It was a dank, dark, spidery kind of place, and it was, on one occasion, the lair of a roast beef dinner, stored temporarily during a power outage and then forgotten. The roast beef, peeled potatoes and sliced onions transformed over time into an awe-inspiring, slime-covered monster. (We brought our friends to see it until my mother found out. As I recall she threw the dinner away, roasting pan and all.) But though not altogether welcoming the cold room did what it was supposed to do—it kept whole, unpeeled, raw root vegetables cool enough for long-term storage. Now, in present-day Whitehorse, my household doesn’t stockpile local root vegetables because we don’t have a cold space, apart from the fridge. Instead, we freeze, can, pickle, ferment, and go to the store to buy root vegetables that someone else has stored. Freezing, salting, drying, smoking, fermenting and canning are all technologies key to the long-term storage of food. But only cold storage preserves the vegetable raw, so you can eat a crunchy, home-grown carrot in January or grate a local beet into your coleslaw in mid-March. Over the next while here at First We Eat, we’ll be exploring food storage ideas from across the north. Tell us: how do you keep your vegetables over the winter? Do you have a root cellar? Do you cover your carrots in sand? Do you wash them first or not? What do you do about cabbage? In the meantime, I see a lot of kimchi in my future.
by Michele Genest, The Boreal GourmetI’ve kept this salad as simple as possible, reflecting the scantiness of the spring pantry, but the basic recipe can serve as the starting point for several variations. Feel free to add whatever else you’ve got on hand from last year’s bounty–grated carrots or beets, sautéed potatoes, toasted sunflower seeds. I used new dandelions from my backyard, last year’s onion from my sister’s garden on Vancouver Island, and last year’s garlic from a farmer in Atlin, BC. Suzanne isn’t going to have a lot of oil in her pantry come May 2018, so here I’ve opted to use ghee instead, because she will have access to a cow. Ghee is a great substitute for olive oil. And, a bonus: somehow this salad needed no added salt. Wilted Dandelion Salad with Crispy Onions and Garlic
4 cups (1L) of washed dandelion leaves, roughly chopped 3 cloves garlic 1 small red onion 3 Tbsp (45 mL) ghee, divided 6 Tbsp (90 mL) rhubarb vinegar 1 tsp (5 mL) Uncle Berwyn’s Pure Yukon Birch SyrupHave the dandelions ready in a salad bowl. Cut garlic in half lengthwise and slice into thin lengths. Do the same with the onion. Melt 2 tablespoons of ghee in a frying pan over medium heat. Add onions and cook until brown and crispy, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain on paper towel and reserve. Reduce heat to medium low and add garlic to the pan. Watching carefully that it doesn’t burn, cook garlic until golden brown and crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain on paper towel and reserve. Melt the third tablespoon of ghee in the pan. Once it has melted, whisk in the vinegar all at once (stand back, it could spatter a bit), followed by the birch syrup. Allow to bubble for about one minute, remove from heat and pour over the dandelions greens. Toss in onions and garlic and serve at once. Makes 4 servings.