Babine Lake in June was one of my favourite times and places I have worked as a bush cook. It was in northwest British Columbia, 3 hours from the nearest highway on dirt, which once reached, only meant you were another 3 hours from the nearest town on pavement. It had some of the brightest and longest days I have experienced in the bush, as the calendar approached solstice and camp was situated so far north. The landscape was epic; vast forests, massive lakes, and mountains.
We were so far in the bush that part of our journey included barging across a huge inland lake none of us had ever heard of, because it was usually reserved for logging trucks and not somewhere the general public might think to go. We set up an isolation camp, meaning once we had arrived, none of us would leave until the contract was finished, which was about 3 weeks. This was fine with me, because waking up at 3:45 am became easier as the song birds came alive while the early sun rose, and there was a sense of accomplishment that fueled the cooks, as the days flowed and we realized we were almost halfway through our season. I was thankful to be doing what I loved in such a beautiful place and little did I know, I would cook one of my most memorable meals to date in that isolation camp.
Camp was situated at the intersection of two logging roads, with dense mature forest surrounding the large wall tents and cook trailer we had set up upon arrival. The kitchen was parked alongside the treeline, sheltered from the sun by a canopy of mixed cottonwood and spruce trees. The bugs were insane, but the cookshack stayed cool in this green landscape, and we were so far from town, the food was trucked to us. Our days were simple: sleep, cook food, bake bread, serve meals to hungry tree planters, find a swimming hole on day off, and repeat.
As the days passed and the trees planted, we came to realize we were not as isolated in the bush as we had thought. Despite being hours from the nearest town, what none of us had realized was that we were actually camped quite close to a First Nations Reserve. Members of the local First Nation stopped by one evening to check in and ask what kind of work we were doing. This incredible landscape we were privileged to even see, so remote that it was, belonged to them. As stewards of the land since time immemorial, First Nations people are very aware of any kind of activity or resource extraction on their territory. Although we were contracted by the timber industry, they were happy to hear we were there to replant the forests, not cut them down.
One afternoon, we heard a knock on the cookshack door. One of the members of the Nation was holding a large black garbage bag. It was dripping with blood. “Moose meat!” he exclaimed. “I shot it, hung it, and butchered it. Thought you might like to cook with it”, he shared. I was stoked. He proceeded to hand me the bag, along with some dried moose meat to snack on. I thanked him and could not believe his generosity. Fresh moose meat, given to us by a local First Nations man, from his land that we occupied. It was to this day the most special ingredient I have been lucky enough to cook with. There we were, replanting the forests that belonged to his people, and he was generously giving us food from an animal he harvested from the land. It wasn’t just a small piece, it was enough to feed our camp of 50 people. The meal we cooked with this gift from the land provided me an even deeper appreciation for the environmental conservation efforts that First Nations commit themselves to through asserting their rights to govern their traditional territories. I have shared it below, Gnocchi With Moose Meat Ragu.
For the Gnocchi
4 whole russet potatoes, scrubbed clean
2 egg yolks
1 cup all-purpose flour
For the Moose Meat Ragu
2 lbs moose meat, cut into 3 inch pieces (beef works well as a substitute)
Salt & pepper
5 cloves garlic
2 cups red wine
4 tbsp tomato paste
3 bay leaves
2 sprigs rosemary
4 cups beef stock
Balsamic vinegar, to taste
1 bunch parsley, finely chopped
Parmesan, for serving
Begin by braising the ragu. Preheat your oven to 350. Season the meat on all sides with salt and freshly cracked pepper. Heat a large dutch oven to medium high heat. Sear the meat in batches, ensuring it browns evenly, without overcrowding the pan.
Once the meat is brown all over, remove it from the pan. Add 2 tbsp of olive oil along with the garlic, rosemary sprigs, and bay leaves. Sautee the aromatics for 1-2 minutes before adding the tomato paste. Cook out the tomato paste for another minute, stirring constantly. Deglaze the pan by adding the wine, scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Allow the wine to bubble and cook down for 2 minutes before adding the beef stock and the meat. Give it a good stir, cover with a lid, and braise in the oven for 3-4 hours, or until the meat is fork tender and the braising liquid has reduced.
While the meat cooks, give your potatoes a good scrub and poke all over with a fork. Place them directly on the oven racks to bake. Once tender, after about 40 minutes, remove them from the oven and allow them to cool slightly. While they are still warm, slice them in half and either grate the flesh through a cheese grater, or scrape out the potato and pass it through a ricer or food mill, directly onto your countertop or work surface. These methods, in addition to baking the potatoes instead of boiling them, yield a fluffier, drier cooked and mashed potato, ideal for gnocchi making. Once the potato is on the countertop, allow it to cool off and release some steam for about 5 minutes.
Once the potato has cooled slightly, pour over the egg yolks, along with a pinch of salt and half of the flour. Using a fork, and one hand, lightly toss the ingredients together. Sprinkle in the remaining flour and you lightly press the dough together, taking care not to overwork it. It will feel wet, but that is just fine. (You want a balance between chewy and delicate gnocchi. If you keep working the dough, it will feel more wet, and you will be tempted to add more flour. However, this will yield a tough, chewy gnocchi more reminiscent of pasta, which is fine but not as delicious as a tender, fluffy gnocchi). Keep your hands lightly floured and shape the dough into a ball. From here, cut the dough into 4 sections and roll each into a log, 1 inch in diameter. Slice the logs into 1 inch pieces, forming gnocchi. Place the gnocchi on a flour lined baking sheet, and unless cooking right away, store them in the freezer to solidify.
Remove the ragu from the oven and give it a good stir. The meat should fall apart and create a thick sauce with the braising liquid. If it seems too thick, pour in a little more water. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and add a splash of balsamic vinegar, about 1-3 tablespoons, to brighten the flavours and cut through the richness. Set the ragu aside while you cook the gnocchi.
In a large pot of boiling, salted water, gently add the gnocchi. Using a slotted spoon, gently stir the gnocchi so it doesn’t stick to the bottom. Once the gnocchi are floating, remove them from the water and add them straight to the ragu. Gently toss them together, adding more cooking liquid as needed to create a saucy consistency. Sprinkle in the chopped parsley, and season to taste with salt and pepper one last time. Serve with parmesan.
Hannah Rogger is a Canadian backcountry chef who grew up skiing in the foothills of the Cariboo Mountain Range. A devoted cook from a young age, she stepped into her career by spending her summers between college years cooking for hundreds of tree planters deep in British Columbia’s wilderness. She is currently the chef at a ski touring lodge in the Valhalla Ranges, feeding skiers while also finding time to join them on the skin track and the slopes. She finds cooking for people in wilderness settings inspiring and fulfilling. She is Broad Beta’s resident chef and creates content and recipes for Bush Cooking, the backcountry food section of our website. She splits her time between the traditional territories of Nsyilxcən, Ktunaxa, and Secwepemctsin speaking peoples (Nelson BC) and Songhees and Esquimalt speaking peoples (Victoria BC).
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