A Taste Of The Northwest
Several Vancouver Island chefs share their favorite sea-inspired creations

By Laurel Kallenbach
Food photos by Rita Maas

Lush old-growth forests, rich farmland, mountains, and rocky coastline: Vancouver Island's rugged terrain takes your breath away. Separated from Washington state by the Strait of Juan de Fuca and from mainland Canada by the Strait of Georgia, Johnstone Strait, and Queen Charlotte Sound, this British Columbian island is home to a community committed to healthy living, caring for the environment, and enjoying nature.

These priorities appear in the region's cuisine, created from fresh seafood, pasture-raised meats, organic produce, local wines, and foods gathered from the forest. Victoria, an elegant city and the capital of British Columbia, stands as the island's culinary capital as well, alive with innovative restaurants. Outside Victoria, off-the-beaten-path gourmet getaways with a northwestern flair abound. At Clayoquot Wilderness Resorts on the Pacific coast, guests can visit environmentally responsible salmon farms, and farther inland in the agricultural Cowichan Valley, tours of farms and wineries complement field-to-table cooking classes.

Chef John Crossley-Hall of Victoria's Cassis Bistro describes the area's predominant culinary philosophy: "To me, a true Vancouver Island dish springs from local sources," he says. "When Brother Francis from the monastery comes knocking at my door with 10 pounds of chanterelle, lobster, and chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms, I center my menu around that. One day I might get fresh duck, line-caught salmon, or a special goat cheese. Or it could be just-picked berries, apples, peaches, and pears—all from the Island, all the highest quality."

Part of the area's current food style echoes the influence of Native North American cooking. The Northwest's first inhabitants lived off the bounty of the forest and ocean, celebrating the abundance of salmon and berries with great potlatch feasts. These festive celebrations were not unlike our Thanksgiving, linking the land, its unique flavors, and its grateful inhabitants.

Wickaninnish Potlatch Stew

Serves 6 / A potlatch is a Native American tribal celebration, hosted on special occasions such as marriage, the naming of a child, or house building. Central to the ceremony are the traditions of sharing, gift giving, dancing, and feasting. This recipe by Chef Jim Garraway of the Wickaninnish Inn, which is located on the rugged west coast of the island, was inspired by potlatches given by the inn's namesake, a well-known chief of the Ahouset Nation.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 bulb fennel, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons mixed chopped herbs (for example, cilantro, thyme, and basil)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, including liquid
1/2 cup water
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
8 ounces halibut
8 ounces salmon (spring or sockeye)
8 prawns, peeled and deveined
8 sea scallops
1-1/2 cups white wine
12 mussels (in the shell), cleaned
12 manila clams (in the shell), cleaned
4 crab legs

1. Heat olive oil over medium heat in a large stockpot. Add vegetables and herbs and sauté until soft, about 8 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook for 4 minutes. Add diced tomatoes, water and salt to stock pot and simmer over low heat for 25 minutes.

2. Dice halibut and salmon into 1-inch pieces. Add halibut, salmon, prawns, and scallops to stew; cover and simmer 5 minutes or until seafood is cooked.

3. In a separate large saucepan, bring wine to a boil, then add clams; cover and cook until just beginning to open. Add mussels and crab legs; cover and continue cooking for 5 minutes.

4. With a sharp knife, slit crab legs along soft side and remove meat. Ladle stew into bowls and garnish with shellfish and crab.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 286 calories % fat calories: 32 Fat: 10g Saturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 77mg Carbohydrate: 17g Protein: 31g

Grilled Clayoquot Salmon With Thyme Potato Hash And Lentil Ragout

Serves 4 / Salmon has long been the most important food to northwestern Native Americans, both nutritionally and culturally. Because the fish was plentiful and easily dried and stored, families were assured of a steady food supply as they wintered in cedar longhouses. This recipe by Chef Timothy E. May of Clayoquot Wilderness Resorts takes advantage of freshly caught salmon from Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island's Pacific side.

Lentil Ragout:
1/2 cup dried lentils
1 medium onion, diced
1 large celery stalk, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
6 medium Roma tomatoes, diced
4 ounces tomato paste
1 cup vegetable stock
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Thyme Potato Hash:
1 medium onion, sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 medium russet potatoes, peeled and finely diced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 leeks, julienned (enough to make 1/2 cup)
1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
4 salmon steaks, 8 ounces each, skin on
Sea salt
Black peppercorns, coarsely ground
1 lemon, halved
3-4 thyme sprigs

1. To make lentil ragout: In a small saucepan, soak lentils in cool water for 15 minutes. Drain, then cover with fresh water and cook over medium heat until soft but not mushy, about 15 minutes. In a separate pan over medium heat, sauté onion, celery, and garlic in olive oil for 5 minutes. Stir in thyme, tomatoes, and tomato paste. Add vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer gently for 30-40 minutes. Stir in lentils; season with salt and pepper.

2. To make potato hash: In a large skillet, add sliced onion and 1 tablespoon olive oil; sauté over medium heat until transparent. Add
1 tablespoon olive oil and potatoes; cook until golden brown and caramelized, stirring occasionally, about 40 minutes. Add thyme and season lightly with salt and pepper. Cover and keep warm on stovetop.

3. Meanwhile, sauté leeks in oil over high heat until dark and crispy. Drain on a paper towel.

4. Preheat grill. Brush salmon skins with oil. Season lightly with sea salt and crushed peppercorns. Squeeze lemon over flesh. Hand-crush 1-2 thyme sprigs and sprinkle over top. Grill briefly to avoid drying fish. Keep warm.

5. To serve, place a dollop of lentil ragout on a plate and top with a dollop of potato hash. Flatten the mound slightly with the back of a spoon and place grilled salmon on top. Garnish with a sprig of fresh thyme and crispy leeks.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 798 calories % fat calories: 43 Fat: 38g Saturated Fat: 7g Cholesterol: 150mg Carbohydrate: 57g Protein: 58g

Chicken with Sun-dried Cranberries and Tarragon

Serves 4 / Chef Mara Jernigan, owner of Vancouver Island's Engeler Farm in the Cowichan Valley, makes this dish from fresh local ingredients, including the unfermented juice (verjuice) of Siegrebbe grapes harvested from her own organic vines. Try the cranberry tarragon sauce as a flavorful alternative to Thanksgiving turkey gravy.

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper
4 boneless chicken breasts, skin on
3/4 cup verjuice or fruity white wine (such as Gewürztraminer), divided
2 large shallots, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1-1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup fat-free half-and-half or whipping cream
1 cup sun-dried cranberries
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon

1. Preheat oven to 375°F.

2. On the stovetop, preheat a large, stainless-steel skillet over medium-high heat. In a shallow dish, combine flour with salt and pepper. Dredge chicken breasts in flour and place in skillet, skin side down (cooking chicken with skin on will keep the meat moist). Sear chicken breasts on both sides until golden. Transfer chicken to baking dish; place in oven and bake for 12-15 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, return skillet to stovetop, reducing heat to medium. Drain and discard chicken grease, but do not wash the pan. Deglaze pan with half the verjuice, scraping the bottom with a wooden spoon. Add shallots, garlic, chicken stock, and cream, and simmer until reduced to a consistency that coats the back of a wooden spoon.

4. Add remaining verjuice, sun-dried cranberries, and lemon juice. Stirring with a whisk, reduce sauce a bit more, then season with salt and pepper and add chopped tarragon.

5. To serve, slice chicken breasts on an angle and fan out on a plate. Top each breast with a generous helping of sauce.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 356 calories % fat calories: 21 Fat: 8g Saturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 83mg Carbohydrate: 37g Protein: 33g

Carrot and Ginger Bisque with Shiitake Mushroom "Caviar"

Serves 4-6 / Chef Christophe Letard of The Aerie Resort, 30 minutes from Victoria, pairs traditional French techniques with organic Pacific coast ingredients, accenting the mix with Asian flavors—in this case, ginger and shiitakes.

2 pounds carrots, peeled and diced
4 medium shallots, diced
1 small leek, white part only, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup white wine
2-1/2 cups milk or light cream
2 cups water
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt, to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste

Mushroom "Caviar":
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
Handful of fresh parsley, finely chopped
1/4 cup white wine
Fresh thyme, for garnish

1. To make bisque: Place carrots, shallots, leek, garlic, olive oil, and butter in a medium saucepan. Sweat for a couple of minutes over medium-low heat (vegetables should not change color). Add white wine, cover, and cook for 5 minutes.

2. Add milk, water, ginger, thyme, bay leaf, salt, and pepper. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer gently until the carrots are tender, 30-40 minutes.

3. Remove bay leaf. Pour mixture into a blender and purée until creamy (for extra smoothness, pass the mixture through a fine sieve). Adjust seasonings and keep warm.

4. To make mushroom "caviar": In a small saucepan, melt butter and sauté mushrooms, shallot, garlic, and parsley until tender. Add white wine. Cook for 5 minutes, until wine is absorbed. Pour mixture into a food processor and chop for 15 seconds. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

5. Serve bisque in a warm soup plate, garnished with "caviar," fresh thyme, and pepper.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 370 calories % fat calories: 41 Fat: 18g Saturated Fat: 9g Cholesterol: 44mg Carbohydrate: 47g Protein: 10g

Pumpkin Risotto With Asiago Cheese

Serves 4-6 / This colorful risotto, created by Chef John Crossley-Hall of Cassis Bistro in Victoria, serves as a festive entrée or side dish. The freshly squeezed lemon juice is key to bringing out the risotto's flavor. Vancouver Islanders take their gourds seriously; pumpkin patches dot farmland throughout the Saanich Peninsula, and prize pumpkins can top the scales at around 350 pounds.

1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, finely diced
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 leek, white part only, peeled and finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 small pumpkin, peeled and finely diced
1 pinch ground or grated nutmeg
1 pinch ground cloves
2 cups arborio (risotto) rice
1/2 cup white wine
6 cups vegetable stock
1 lemon, halved
Freshly grated or shaved Asiago or Parmesan cheese, to taste

1. In a medium saucepan, melt butter over low heat until foamy.

2. Add olive oil and onion and sweat until onion softens. Add a dash of salt and pepper. Add leek, garlic, and pumpkin and sweat over low heat until pumpkin softens, 20-30 minutes. Add a pinch of nutmeg and cloves.

3. Add rice and stir it around the pot, making sure each kernel is well coated with oil. Increase heat to medium, add white wine, and cook until liquid is reduced by half.

4. Immediately reduce heat to medium-low and add 1 cup vegetable stock, stirring constantly as risotto simmers, until liquid is absorbed. Continue adding stock in 1-cup increments and stirring until the risotto is soft, about 30-35 minutes. Adjust stock amount as necessary to moisten risotto to a creamy, firm texture.

5. Squeeze lemon over risotto, and salt and pepper to taste. Divide onto plates. Grate or shave desired amount of cheese over risotto. Serve immediately.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 486 calories % fat calories: 14 Fat: 7g Saturated Fat: 3g Cholesterol: 8mg Carbohydrate: 95g Protein: 10g

Arugula, Pear, and Romano Salad

Serves 6 / This deceptively simple salad is loaded with crisp fall flavors, especially when made with fresh arugula or other cool-weather greens, as it is at Hollyhock educational retreat center on Cortes Island, at the entrance to Desolation Sound along the Sunshine Coast north of Vancouver. The Hollyhock staff grows most of the center's fruits and vegetables in their biodynamic, organic garden.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1-1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
6 cups loosely packed arugula, washed and dried
2 pears, peeled, cored, and sliced
3 ounces (about 2/3 cup) Romano, Parmesan, or Asiago cheese, coarsely grated or shaved
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped walnuts or hazelnuts, toasted

1. In a small bowl, mix olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper.

2. Toss arugula with dressing, and arrange on six salad plates. Top each plate with slices of pear and cheese shavings, and sprinkle with nuts.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 177 calories % fat calories: 64 Fat: 13g Saturated Fat: 4g Cholesterol: 14mg Carbohydrate: 11g Protein: 6g