Suzanne’s Blog: Winter Pepper

The most notable thing about this photo is not that the pepper plant is dying – this is not an uncommon occurrence with houseplants under my care.  And it is December, the month of low light in the North.

The most notable thing about this photo is that there is a pepper!  In December, in the Yukon!

And this pepper was grown from a local seed!

As I ate local farmer, Grant Dowdell’s, delicious red peppers way back in the summer of 2017, I saved some of the seeds and stored them in an envelope over the winter. I didn’t get around to planting them until midsummer 2018, so the pepper plant was just starting to flower in the Fall when it was time to shut down the greenhouse. Rather than give up, I moved the pepper plant indoors.  And, low and behold, a pepper grew!

I was inspired by Dawsonite, Meg Walker, who last winter managed to get a pepper plant to flower and produce little peppers in her windowsill – quite a feat this far North.

I am very proud of this little red pepper.  It reminds me of both the resilience and the importance of a simple seed –  the starting point in the food chain.

There are many aspects to becoming more food self-sufficient in our own communities.  The cornerstone is our ability to save and re-grow our own seeds.

In an era where technology is considering the production of ‘sterile seeds,’ my red pepper reminds me how devastating that concept would be.  If we can’t save our own seed, what hope is there for global food security?

Transplanted Tomato Jam

by Miche Genest

Tomato jam, cream cheese, locally-made bagel — a great breakfast or snack.
On a recent trip to Portugal my companions and I discovered vegetable jams; they played a role on every breakfast buffet table at our hotels and B&Bs, and sometimes at dinner too. The morning offerings almost always included tomato jam, or carrot jam, or interesting (and delicious) combinations like zucchini and walnut jam. At our first dinner at a tiny restaurant in Porto we enjoyed an appetizer of a deep-fried cheese croquette drizzled with warm pumpkin jam. It was divine. In winter, when fresh tomatoes in season are no longer available, canned, whole plum tomatoes are the best possible substitute. Fine Cooking explains why. For a person like our friend Suzanne Crocker, who canned a whole lotta tomatoes last year and is now looking at a pantry of several dozen one-litre jars and wondering just how much spaghetti sauce the family will stand, tomato jam suddenly looks very appealing. We have always heard that tomatoes are not really vegetables, but fruits. Well it turns out that tomatoes are actually berries, as are peppers, kiwis, eggplants, bananas and watermelons. So, if your cranberry yield was small in this poor berry year, consider the tomato as a substitute in your favourite berry-based jam. For future reference and in anticipation of a great tomato harvest next year, the recipe for tomato jam includes amounts for both fresh and canned tomatoes. I like this recipe, adapted from portugueserecipes.ca, because it’s so simple and most closely replicates the jam we enjoyed in Portugal. But if you’re interested in something more complex, there are many recipes to explore among the usual channels that use cumin, hot peppers, lemon juice and other ingredients. Serve tomato jam on toast or a locally-made bagel with cream cheese or butter, with scrambled eggs, on charcuterie plates, on moose burgers or to accompany roasted meats. The jam is so versatile it flits back and forth between sweet and savoury with ease. > View the recipe for Simple Tomato Jam

Not Your Typical English Country Garden

Sister Island, a 42-acre property located just a couple of kilometers down river from Dawson City, has a long tradition of growing. Given to the Sisters of St. Ann in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, the nuns used the island to grow vegetables famous for their quality, and raised cows, chickens and pigs to feed a hospital and orphanage in Dawson.
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Sister Island has a long-standing reputation for growing great veggies. Photo by Lou Tyacke. The island was purchased a few years ago by Lou Tyacke and Gary Masters, and the couple are keeping the island’s growing tradition very much alive. Visitors are also able to come and stay on the island. Lou and Gary are originally from the U.K., and while the sub-arctic climate and short growing season they deal with is about as un-English as you can get, they are  trying some new cultivars and livestock not typical to the Klondike. Among the fowl they are raising are some species more common to the British Isles than the Yukon. This year they are raising  quail, pheasant, and heritage chicks as well.
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Lou and Gary are trying some exotic species more familiar to the U.K. like quail, pheasant, and heritage chicks. Photo by Lou Tyacke.
A Tamworth Pig enjoying its mud bath. Photo by Lou Tyacke.
There are also Tamworth pigs, a well-known species in the U.K. The animals seem well-adapted to their home, and when they are not chasing the farmers’ quad, love to take mud baths. Lou and Gary have been growing turnips to help feed the pigs, but they are growing so well, the farmers are thinking they’ll be keeping some of the vegetables for themselves.
Turnips were meant for pig feed but some of them are finding their way into the farmers’ pot too. Photo by Lou Tyacke.
> Check out the Sister Island Facebook page  

A Sub-Arctic Artichoke

An artichoke grown in Dawson City. Photo by Louise Piché
Louise Piché, one of Dawson’s great home gardeners, continues to defy expectations about what can be grown at 64 degrees north. Recently, she managed to grow an artichoke — perhaps the first ever raised in the Klondike. If you’re inspired and want to try following in Louise’s footsteps, the cultivar is the Green Globe Artichoke, and the seeds came from Best Cool Seeds, the online store for the Denali Seed Company, a Michigan-based firm that specializes in cold-weather  gardening. And check out the other seeds that have been proven to grow well in the North!

Suzanne’s Blog: A Taste Explosion of Fresh Veggies!

Suzanne in her greenhouse. Photo by Cathie Archbould, Archbould Photography.
There is nothing quite like the taste of the first cherry tomato, picked straight off the vine.  Especially after 10 months without!  It popped into my mouth with a burst of intense tomato flavour complimented by a long missed combination of sweet, salty and juicy. And the taste explosion continued with the first freshly-picked cucumber from the greenhouse and the first fresh zucchini from the local Farmers Market.   It is with great excitement that every Saturday morning I  head to our local Farmers Market  to discover which new summer vegetable will appear. I find myself grazing on both spinach leaves and chickweed from the garden. And then there is the lettuce!  I used to think of lettuce as a vehicle for salad dressing.   But this year, I can happily munch away on the leafy green all by itself. I am sure that the fresh vegetables of summer have always tasted this good, but the flavours seem more intensely delicious to me this year.  Perhaps it is simply the ten month absence of fresh greens from my diet.  Perhaps it is an increased sensitivity of my taste buds, after a year without salt and pepper. Whatever the reason, eating seasonally brings with it gastronomical joy! With the first taste of lettuce, my desire for root vegetables instantly diminished.  The potato, which has been our best friend and staple all winter, has been replaced with salad. And salad has never been so gourmet:  wild sheep and warm vegetable salad, smoked salmon salad, the sky is the limit! Thanks to Dawsonite, Kirsten Lorenz, I have even found a salad dressing recipe that rivals anything I ever made or bought in the past.  It is a flavourful combination of  berries, garlic, birch syrup and rhubarb juice. Summer has never tasted so good!!        

The Arugula of the North – Dandelion Leaves

Young dandelions are popping up everywhere
Those of us craving fresh local greens at the end of the long winter need look no further than our own backyards. The dandelions are coming up, folks! They’re fresh and tender now, before the flowers come into bloom; a good time to enjoy them in salads. If you like arugula, you will like dandelion leaves.! Later the leaves increase in bitterness, and are best in cooked dishes—try sautéing dandelion leaves with morel mushrooms and garlic scapes. Throw in a few flowers as well! Dandelions are legendary for their health benefits–the leaves are packed with Vitamins K and A, contain substantial amounts of C and B6, as well as thiamine, riboflavin, calcium and iron, among other nutrients, and are high in fibre. Current research suggests that extract of dandelion root may be helpful in the treatment of leukemia. Some tips for picking: grasp the leaves where they meet in a crown near the root, pull slightly and cut just underneath the crown, keeping the plant in one piece. Sometimes several plants are packed tightly together; then you’ll need to dig with your fingers to discover where each crown emerges from the root. Sometimes you can free a number of plants with one cut. Do the first cleaning outside, removing grass and other leaves. Use your knife to scrape away the sticky, dark skin at the base of the stem. Cut the stems off at the ends.
Dandelion hands
Remember old recipes that direct you to wash something “in several waters”? This is very important with dandelions. A gritty salad is no fun. Wash and wash again, lifting the leaves from the water into the strainer each time, leaving the dirt behind. When the water is clear, you’re good to go.
Wash and wash again
Remember to pick only in those places you know haven’t been sprayed, and avoid roadside ditches. Now, get out there with your trusty knife and have fun! For a dandelion salad recipe, click here.

Giant Cabbages in Old Crow, Yukon

Cabbages being grown in Old Crow. Photo by Mary Jane Moses.
Finding nutrient-rich soil in the far North can be tricky, but as Old Crow demonstrates, it’s not impossible. Old Crow, home to the Vuntut Gwitchin, is the most northerly community in the Yukon, located 128 km (80 miles) north of the Arctic Circle. A fly-in community of approximately 300 people, Old Crow rests at the confluence of Crow River and the Porcupine River.  Vuntut Gwitchin means “People of the Lakes”, named after the many lakes at Crow Flats, the second largest wetland in North America, and the main hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering area for the Vuntut Gwitchin. With no road access, grocery store prices in Old Crow are very high. Old Crow has seen detrimental effects from climate change over the past decades.  The permafrost is melting.  Water levels and subsequently salmon stocks are declining.   Lakes are drying up. In adapting to climate change, more folks in Old Crow are growing vegetable gardens. One couple, in the 1990’s, planted their vegetable garden about two miles upriver from Old Crow on the banks of the Porcupine River, about 50 feet back from the edge of the riverbank, in front of a drained out lake.  The soil must have been nutrient rich as the garden produced an abundant crop of carrots and giant cabbages that Old Crow resident, Mary Jane Moses, still remembers well. Take 26 minutes to watch “Our Changing Homelands, Our Changing Lives” to hear from Vuntut Gwitchin about climate change and food security in Old Crow To learn more about Old Crow and the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation check out www.oldcrow.ca And don’t forget to check out the Old Crow Recipe Page for delicious caribou, muskrat, rabbit, duck, ptarmigan and whitefish egg recipes!      

In Far Northern Norway a Chef Strives for Polar Permaculture

Chef Benjamin Vidmar in front of his domed greenhouse. Photo courtesy of PolarPermaculture.com.
Local eco-chef and self-proclaimed foodie Benjamin l. Vidmar, has a dream. He wants to make the remote northern Norwegian community of Longyearbyen, Svalbard more sustainable, and to produce locally-grown food. Svalbard is an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, located about midway between continental Norway and the North Pole. The latitude of the islands range from 74° to 81° North, making them some of the most northerly inhabited places on Earth. Like many communities north of the arctic circle, there is no viable soil in Svalbard.  How does one grow local food if there is no local soil? In 2015 Chef Vidmar started a company called Polar Permaculture Solutions, whose goal is to apply permaculture principles and ecological design to create a circular economy in Longyearbyen, and “to connect people back to their food.” Working at the time as head chef at the Svalbar Pub, he noticed how all the food was being flown or shipped to the island. However, in the past food had been grown on Svalbard, and Vidmar wanted to return to that tradition — but with some modern enhancements and without having to ship in soil. Vidmar started with hydroponic systems using commercial fertilizer, but felt he could do better. Why ship fertilizer up to the island, he reasoned, when there is so much food waste available to compost and produce biogas? Food waste in his town is dumped into the sea, and he took up the challenge to grow locally-grown food making use of available resources on the island. Polar Permaculture researched what others were doing around the Arctic, and opted to go with composting worms, specifically red worms, which excel at producing a natural fertlizer from food waste. He got permission from the government to bring worms up to the island, which took a year and a half, but “was worth the wait.” Vidmar’s company is now growing microgreens for the hotels and restaurants on the island.  Fine dining chefs use microgreens to enhance the attractiveness and taste of their dishes with their delicate textures and distinctive flavors. During the growing process, worm castings are produced, and this natural fertilizer that can be used to grown more food. In addition to composting with worms, Polar Permaculture has started hatching quails from eggs and is now delivering fresh locally produced quail eggs to local restaurants and hotels. Their next step will be to get a bio-digestor setup and to produce biogas with it. The worms are mostly vegetarian, but with a digestor, the operation will be able to utilize manure from the birds, as well as food waste that would normally be dumped into the sea. This will also allow them to produce heat for their greenhouse, as well as produce electricity that can run generators to power the lights. A natural fertilizer also comes out of the digestor, which will then be used to grow more food for the town. What started as one chef’s personal journey has become a local permaculture operation that is reshaping the nature of the local food economy, and providing an inspiration for other Northern communities interested in food sustainability.

Suzanne’s Blog: Sugar Beets Sweeten the Deal

Sugar beets can be turned into sugar (in jar, at left) or syrup (right). Photo by Suzanne Crocker.
I love birch syrup and am grateful to Sylvia Frisch and Berwyn Larson who are raising their two daughters in the bush and producing birch syrup commercially.  During the past 4 ½ months of eating only local foods, we have consumed 24 litres of birch syrup.  I have discovered that the flavour of birch syrup alone can substitute for the ‘far east’ spices of cinnamon and all-spice.  I have even been known to down a shot of birch syrup, straight up, during those moments when, in a previous life, I would have grabbed a piece of chocolate – to get me through a moment of emotional or physical despair. I also love David McBurney’s local honey – it is pure, delicate, and divine.  And it is treated like a delicacy in the family.  It also makes the perfect sweetener to enhance other delicate flavours that would be overpowered by the robust flavour of birch syrup. But there are times, especially in baking, when chemistry is required and a liquid sugar option just doesn’t do the trick.  Now that I have local flour, and Christmas is coming, baking is on my mind.  So what to do when crystalized sugar is required? Birch syrup, unlike maple syrup, does not crystalize.  I learned this last April while visiting Birch Camp.  So, with birch sugar no longer an option, I ordered GMO-free sugar beet seeds.  I have never had any luck growing regular beets, so I recruited others to grow the sugar beets for me –  the great gardeners Paulette Michaud and Becky Sadlier.  Unbeknownst to me, long-time Dawson farmer, Grant Dowdell, also had my year of eating local on his mind and ordered non-GMO sugar beet seeds to see if they would grow in the north.  The sugar beets grew marvelously for all, confirming that they are indeed a reasonable crop for the North.   They like warm days and cool nights – perfect for a Dawson City summer.  I ended up with 350 pounds worth to experiment with! Sugar beets contain approximately 20% sucrose, the same sugar found in sugar cane.  One quarter of the world’s refined sugar comes from sugar beets. In Canada, Taber, Alberta is the industrial hot spot for growing and processing sugar beets into sugar.  On a commercial scale, lime (calcium oxide) and carbon dioxide are added to form calcium carbonate which solidifies and pulls out any impurities – thus resulting in familiar white sugar.  No such additions for a local home-made sugar, so the resulting sugar is brown with a richer taste. There is a paucity of information out there on just how to make sugar from sugar beets at home, so I gave up on research and moved to trial and error.   After all, with 350 pounds of sugar beets, there was room for experimentation and failure.  And failure there has been!  Although no failure has yet to see itself in the compost.  The family seems more than willing to devour the failures – be they sugar beet toffee, sugar beet gum, sugar beet tea.  Even burnt beet sugar has found a use. (Thank goodness because there has  been a lot of burnt beet sugar!) In the process, I have also discovered the wonder of the sugar beet – a root vegetable that was previously unknown to me.  Sugar beets are often touted as a food for livestock or a green manure crop so I was expecting the taste of the sugar beet itself to be unpalatable.  But it is just the opposite!   Cooked up, it is a delicious, sweet, white beet.  The sugar beet leaves are also edible.  And amazingly, even after the sugar is extracted, the sugar beet pulp remains sweet and delicious.  I’m afraid the local Dawson livestock will be getting less sugar beet pulp than previously anticipated this year. One thing is for certain – processing sugar beets into sugar requires time and patience.  Here are my step-by-step instructions on how to make syrup (easy) and sugar (difficult) from sugar beets. Sugar was first extracted from sugar beets in the mid 18th century.   In the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic wars when French ports were cut off from the rest of the world, Napoleon encouraged wide-scale sugar beet production and processing.  France remains one of the world leaders in sugar beet production and most of Europe’s sugar comes from sugar beets, rather than sugar cane. Consider adding non-GMO sugar beet seeds to your next seed order.  In Canada, they can be found from Salt Spring Seeds and from T&T seeds.  Sugar beets grow well in the north and are a delicious root vegetable in their own right.  But don’t throw out the water you cook them in, as this water is sweet and can easily be used to make beet syrup and beet syrup candy.   And, if you are brave, sugar!  If you live in an area populated by deer, be warned that sugar beet tops are a great attractant for deer.  Word is now out to the Yukon moose so perhaps next year Dawson’s sugar beet rows will require fencing! > View the recipe for Sugar Beet Sugar and Syrup

Gerard’s Blog: Patchy Pumpkins Pose Problems

Who would have guessed that “the diet” would become a vehicle for enhanced weekend variety?  Previously, I had mentioned that driving kids to Whitehorse for recreational opportunities is a weekend pursuit familiar to me, as well as to many Dawsonites.  But last weekend I shirked that responsibility, displacing the schlepping responsibility to another unsuspecting parent.  And why, you might ask?  Well, the truth is that another task of joyful potential was imminently presenting itself to the arena of daily responsibilities. Suzanne had been dutifully storing the year’s supply of pie pumpkins in our cold storage room, which really isn’t a cold storage room at all, but rather, my otherwise cozy workshop / recreational room, which has been repurposed “for the greater good.”  Now the room stores food, and my main purpose for the space has been diminished to a cold storage place for my coat, boots, and hockey gear, so that my climatization process might begin well before I even step outside. So, with grave urgency and a voice of impending doom, Suzanne woke me, advising that her inspection of the food stores revealed a situation of calamitous proportions.  There were “soft spots” appearing on the pumpkins.  The dreaded soft spots that we all live in fear of.  The harbingers of rot, the messengers of mold, the precursors of peril.  And with all the vitality of Saint Nick on Christmas Eve, I leapt from my bed to save the pumpkins. So, the initial examination revealed that 45 of the 75 stored pumpkins were in need of some sort of resuscitation, presumably tainted by a touch of frost.  Suzanne did the initial triage, finding only a few code blacks.  These were quickly dispatched, put out of their suffering by cold immersion in the great outdoors.  We set to the code reds and yellows with some haste, fearful that the warmth of our working kitchen would disseminate the contagions, contaminating all that we have worked for, diminishing the project to a wasteland of sorrow.  We put the code greens aside for the next day, knowing that they were not in immediate danger, reconciling that this was an undertaking with great magnitude. Perhaps it is my training as a doctor or perhaps it is just human nature, but there is immense tactile joy when you insert your hand through the mold of a pumpkin, pulling out the diseased mush.  In some ways, extracting the soft spot of pumpkins is better that dealing with human rot, as it does not have the same intensity of smell, which is unmistakably pervasive in the case of humans. Anyway, back on track … the process was extensive.  There was the washing, the debridement of mold and mush, the separation of salvageable parts, including those seeds that were not black, or tainted in a cobweb substance that reminded me of the dendrites of neurons, as demonstrated in electromagnetic images of the brain. There was the scrapping of the pulp, the peeling of the skins, the chopping, the packaging and finally, the freezing for future processing.  We roasted seeds the whole while, using them as nourishment to fuel the event.  We collected the discarded parts, marveling that there was not so much waste after all, and that most of it was being commissioned as food for the pigs and chickens of Dawson. And at the end, using the logic that we were already in chopping mode, Suzanne pulls out more of the ubiquitous sugar beets for washing, peeling, chopping and boiling … Since I retired, one of the common questions I field is, “so, what are you doing with all your free time now?”  The truth is, the surgical part of my job is not much changed, it is just that my patients have.

Rooting Around in The Root Cellar

by Miche Genest

Sheila Alexandrovitch at Mount Lorne Community Centre in September 2017
Sheila 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.”
Some of Sheila’s work.
 

Singing the Storage Blues

By Miche Genest

Miche 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.