Taste of the park: Foraging for food in downtown Whitehorse
Finding snacks, salads and fritter fillings right in the city
Did you ever eat dandelion flowers as a kid? Or pick raspberries off a wild bush and pop them into your mouth?
Some of us may have lost that notion to nibble the wild plants on a walk in the park, but Michele Genest hasn't. She's one of Whitehorse's experts on foraging for foods in the woods and even in downtown parks.
"When I first started learning about all these wonderful edible things, I was just blown away," said Genest. "It was kind of magical when I first realized you could just walk into a forest and pick spruce tips and pop them into your mouth, or pick a rose and eat that."
Ingredients for salads, pies, braises and rubs can be hiding anywhere in the city — in cracks in the sidewalks, in back alleys and on the sides of walking trails. You may pass them every day without even realizing what they are.
"A lot of the fun thing about discovering these flavours in the woods and in the parks is figuring out how to use them," said Genest.
Here are some of her favourites, found around Whitehorse — and some tips on how to enjoy them.
Genest describes wild chamomile as hardy, and able to grow where most plants wouldn't dare.
It's ideal for making tea, which can then be used for other things, like camomile tea ice cream. Genest also suggests making shortbread cookies with the wild chamomile.
"Wild chamomile a very subtle flavour," said Genest, "so it's best in foods that will highlight the flavour."
No, not the banana-like fruit that grow in the tropics — this plantain hugs the sides of park paths and school playgrounds.
As Genest describes it, it's a plant most people in Whitehorse would walk by every day, not knowing how it could be used.
It's good for salads, she says, especially when it's young and the leaves are fresh and tender. Once the plant becomes more mature, it's better to cook.
"The flowers are edible and delicious, the leaves are edible and delicious, but they're bitter," said Genest.
Similar to plantain, when the plant is young and hasn't blossomed yet, the leaves are good to chop up into a salad.
Once the flowers bloom, the leaves become even more bitter so are best cooked. Genest suggests quickly blanching the leaves, then sauteing them with oil, garlic and lemon.
The flowers can be nibbled on raw, or turned into fritters.
Yes — dandelion flower fritters. Use a beer batter and shallow fry them until they're crispy, add a drizzle of honey and there you it: a simple, wild breakfast or light dessert.
Genest was told that fireweed has four gifts: its greenery and fiery stem, its flowers, the leaves in the fall, and the seeds it sends out on gossamer wings. A fifth gift is its flavour.
It has a taste similar to asparagus, but with a bitter bite at the end. When the plant is young — around 15 to 20 centimetres high — it can be added to a salad for some extra flavour in a bowl of sweeter greens.
Juniper is one of the botanicals that produces gin. But it isn't just good for making alcohol — Genest says she uses the berries almost every day in her cooking.
She uses them for rubs and braises for wild game like a moose roast. She will crush them and put them in a soup stock or make them into tea. She also toasts them and adds them to scones with cheddar cheese and wild sage.
Juniper ripens all year round, so the ripe blue berries can be harvested even in the winter.
Bluebells / Lungwort
There's debate over what the leaves taste like. Lots of people taste cucumber in its fuzzy leaves. Others taste oysters.
Crunching on a Bluebell leaf, Genest began planning what she would experiment with next, using the leaves — a soup, perhaps, or tzatziki.
"You won't end up with something like cucumber soup, but you will end up with a very northern cold soup treat," said Genest. "The challenge is always figuring out what to do, how to use them."
If you've been on a walk in Whitehorse recently, you've likely noticed (and smelled) that wild roses are in full bloom. That means it's the time to harvest some of those velvet petals.
"They taste like a rose smells," said Genest. And the flavour only gets stronger when dried.
Genest uses rose petals for other delicate food items like meringues, sauces for fish, jellies and ice cream.
A word of caution
Since some of these foods may be new to you, Genest suggests trying small bits first to ensure there's no allergic reaction or sensitivity.
She also advises you to decide whether you actually enjoy the flavour before filling a basket with your harvest.
Speaking of which… don't pick bushes, flowers or patches clean. The bears, birds and bees need food too. Leave some petals on the flowers, some berries on the bush and some leaves on the plant for others to enjoy.
"It really takes on a different aspect of beauty when you know what it is and you know what you can do with it," said Genest.
"All of these plants and trees and bushes are beautiful to look at, but they kind of deepen in dimension when you know what they are and how to cook with them."