Midwinter is rife with tradition.
Celebrating, tolerating, or avoiding family gatherings and their associated rituals is part of many people’s December, whether they ascribe to Solstice, Christmas, or Chanukah.
I have no blood relatives in the Yukon, but within my family of friends there are myriad traditions celebrated this time of year, and they all have their own culinary highlights.
My neighbours to the west celebrate Chanukah with latkes and matzoh balls; the season’s greetings emails from my farmer friends all make note of what local veg and meat are being served at their table, and calendars quickly fill up with annual chili and snowshoe, or sausage and skate, events.
We live in an era of cheap food, available without regard for season or region, which means it is easier than ever to maintain culinary traditions even as we move around the globe. That’s a boon for those who insist on following grandmother’s recipes to the letter even while living in a foreign country.
But what about the foundations of those traditions?
Most food cultures develop out of what is locally available — in a sense honouring what the regional earth can provide. I get a kick out of a box of stroopwaffels once a year, reminding me of when I lived in Holland, but to pursue a cuisine based on imported ingredients doesn’t make sense to me.
My personal food traditions are diverse in origin, and I enjoy the challenge of re-creating a familiar meal that reflects the Yukon terroir and my food ethics: local, wild, and organic foods, wherever possible.
I choose an aspect of the dish – often the spicing and texture – that remains constant as I experiment with substitutions of other ingredients. Some call it sacrilege; I call it evolution.
My mom’s moussaka is a case in point.
She fell in love with Greek cuisine while on holiday, and her cooking has taken on a notable Mediterranean flare ever since. Her original recipe — itself an adaptation — comprises grilled eggplant layered with lentils (instead of the traditional ground lamb), tomatoes, and a béchamel sauce.
I tried growing eggplants this year, without much success, but I was rich in zucchinis. My lentils didn’t mature either, but I was able to trade a friend for some ground moose meat. I also helped a neighbour butcher a pig and in return received pig fat and goat milk.
Enter experiments with home cheese making and rendering lard.
Garlic, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, and basil are all within reach of the home gardener, and the Fireweed Farmer’s Market.
Schwatka Lake doesn’t quite have the blue of the Aegean Sea, but that doesn’t mean we can’t insert a little Mediterranean into our lives.
Recipe for a Yukon Moosaka
- 2 medium zucchinis ( approximately 1 1/2 lbs), in 1/2″slices
- 1 lb potatoes, in 1/4″ slices
- Brush zucchinis on one side with olive oil and grill. Sprinkle with salt. Parboil potatoes in water with a little oil.
- 1 onion, thinly sliced
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 1/2 pounds chopped tomatoes
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 4 Labrador tea leaves
- 1 teaspoon birch syrup
- fresh basil
- 1 pound ground moose (or substitute sheep, beef, etc.)
Fry onion in hot oil until limp. Add tomatoes, garlic and Labrador tea leaves, simmer 30 minutes or until cooked down. Add syrup, fresh basil, and salt and pepper just before turning off the heat.
Sauté meat in a separate pan with a little oil until no pink is visible. Mix into the tomato sauce.
- 3 tablespoons lard (or butter)
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 2 cups local goat milk (or substitute if you must)
- 1/4 cups grated hard cheese, such as romano pecorino
- 1 egg yolk, beaten
- nutmeg, freshly grated if possible
Melt fat and whisk in flour. Add warmed milk, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and add cheese and egg yolk, stirring until well combined. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Preheat oven to 400ºF. In a large greased baking dish, layer zucchini, potatoes, tomato sauce and béchamel twice (half in each layer), with a light grating of cheese sprinkled over top. Bake 30 minutes until golden, and allow to cool slightly before serving.