There is a two to three week growing season for fireweed shoots in Haida Gwaii and here at the intersection of Chef Broadie Swanson's front door, the Masset Inlet, and my curiosity, I’d arrived just in time to learn how to harvest and cook them.
Just steps from the salty waters of the Masset Inlet on my knees, I’m getting a very hands-on lesson about harvesting and cooking this asparagus-like wild vegetable.
Brodie Swanson, whose Haida name is Kil Tlaa'sgaa (strong voice) is a local chef I stumbled onto whilst hoping to learn about island cuisine. I’d sent him a message a few days earlier and he responded instantly.
“Haaw’a (thank you in Haida) for reaching out. I’d be happy to chat. I’ll be available Tuesday afternoon, 3:30 pm”
And, here we are on a Tuesday at 3:30 pm under the warmth of the only sunny day I saw during my week on this lush island rainforest. Welcomed like an old friend Brodie had invited me to his home for a live cooking demonstration. He didn’t know me any more than I knew him, yet I was soon standing in his kitchen learning about local food and culture.
Brodie, a local Haida, is built like an island warrior with a barrel chest, broad shoulders, tattoos up both arms that reflect his heritage, and jet-black hair that goes nicely with his black-on-black attire. At first look, one might be a little intimidated. The intimidation factor quickly dissipates while I watch him just in front of me on one knee with a pair of scissors smiling while delicately snipping the heads of fireweed leaving the base to grow another flower. He notes the short growing season and how great it is these vegetables grow right across the street from his house.
A dozen or so headless fireweeds later we were headed inside, almost. He spotted a patch of freshly sprouted stinging nettles on the other side of a pile of logs and decided to grab a few bunches for something else he had in mind. The warning is in the name and he says it’s better to wear gloves when handling the nettles, though he seems unfazed by their sting.
Haida Gwaii whose inhabitants date back thousands of years have two distinct island clans, the Eagles and the Ravens. Brodies explains his family belongs to the Ravens and en route to his house, I notice we are on Raven Road. How fitting I thought.
Proud of his distinct roots, Kil later tells me his grandma was a Haida language teacher who was trying to preserve this endangered language. Kil guesses that less than 1% of the population can speak Haida fluently and he has been taking language classes hoping to bring that number up.
The rich earthy terra and abundant waters of Haida Gwaii are an edible paradise where various seasons bring to life a number of plants, vegetables, and seafood ripe for the picking. Unlike a large part of the planet, the ground here has evolved without commercial farming and the use of pesticides & herbicides that typically come with it. For the most part, it's as it has been since the dawn of time and it’s easy to find organic certified farms on the island. It’s this untampered soil that allows us to walk across the road from his house to harvest the fireweed and nettles.
Once harvested we head into the house, passing a number of planter boxes he says that in the summer he grows other vegetables here including rose hips. The rose hips are left alone until the first frost ices over the berries in the fall, causing them to soften up and intensify their flavors. At that point he explains, they are perfect for making rose hip ketchup!
The side door opens into a modified chef's kitchen. A stainless steel prep table makes up the island and we are surrounded by various saute pans on one side and a wall of industrial-grade cooking supplies on the other. Shelves of large stainless steel pots, strainers, chaffing dishes, knife sharpeners, tongs, a brown canvas chef's apron. Everything you’d need to cater a party from 1 to 100. This wasn’t the type of home where you’d find an Air Fryer and Instant Pot. And if that wasn’t enough to solidify his dedication to local cuisine, I was then greeted by two dogs, Zara, and Nettles. Yes, he loves the plant so much that he named the dog Nettles 🙂
Once inside we quickly get down to culinary business. A pot of water and some pans hit the stove, then some butter and spices begin to materialize. Brodie tells me we are making Brown Butter Fireweed Shoots and Nettle Goame. He explains the fireweed tastes like a mix of green bean and asparagus making a great side dish and the nettles are hearty like kale but not quite as meaty and can be used most anywhere you’d use spinach.
Waiting for the water to warm, Brodie starts pulling out various jars and concoctions for me to smell or taste. A jar of elderberry passes under my nose while informing me the little berries can be found all over the island and they make excellent vinegarettes. Another jar makes its way from the fridge, this one is pickled sea asparagus from the inlet with garlic scapes grown in his planter boxes. One hits my lips and the vinegar puckers my face a little. It tastes like farmers' market dill pickles. Brodie tells me they are great for making tartar sauces and slaws.
The water is hot and in goes the nettles just before it boils, he leaves them in for about a minute before transferring into a cold water bath to save from overcooking and turning grey. Next, a pinch of salt is added to the pot of water, and in go the fireweed shoots for the same treatment.
Once cooled the nettles are rinsed in cold water to remove any last bits of potential dirt and then spun in a salad spinner before being squeezed out in a paper towel to get them as dry as possible. The white paper towel looks like a faded tie-dye t-shirt afterward.
The stems of the nettles are removed and a mortar and pestle appear on the stainless prep table. Some toasted sesame seeds are then ground down before the chef adds in some soya, saki, mirin, rice vinegar, and a touch of salt. Everything is further muddled to create this Japanese dressing before it’s tossed with the nettles. As expected, the dish is both unique and intriguing, much like the island and the man behind the mortar.
Next, the fireweed shoots are given the same rinse and spin treatment as the nettles while butter simmers in a pan. Once the butter turns to a rich nutty brown color the shoots join the butter in the pan. With a light saute and a few fancy mid-air flips, chef then adds a splash of apple cider vinegar and lets it simmer away before adding a final pinch of salt. In a few short minutes, the dish is ready and it's aligned gingerly in a small serving dish.
Allowing the dish to cool briefly, Brodie and I then sample it. The fatty warm taste of the butter quickly coats the inside of my mouth before the salt flares my tastebuds. The dish is rich and delicious, something that would go well atop a medium-rare porterhouse. Not far off, chef tells me that as well as a side dish, he likes to use this as a layer in a venison sandwich. I’m thinking that might be a good way to use up a few of the two hundred thousand black-tailed deer that overpopulate the islands.
As the cooking class closes we get to chatting about Brodie's life, local foods, and life on Haida Gwaii. As a kid on an island with limited outside influence, he’d see meals on t.v. or in cookbooks and couldn’t go out to your typical mainland restaurants so he’d try to recreate dishes at home with what was available to him. He said his family didn’t cook like this, but they did often can and preserve foods throughout the different growing seasons.
Formerly the executive Chef for Haida Tourism, having done some freelance catering and previously a stint in Vancouver where he became heavily influenced by Japanese cooking under one of his mentors, Nathan Lowey of Dosanko. Hence the “Japanese Gomae”. He now prefers to cook for friends, family, and for some the islands' Potlatch events. A ceremonial feast that was suppressed during colonialism where locals would get together to display wealth & prestige.
The in-house cooking demonstration under the watchful eye of Zara and Nettles was the perfect reflection of the hospitality of the Haida people and my personal chef for the afternoon was clearly happy to talk about island foods. However, it's when the conversation shifted to totem poles that he really lit up. Poles are another proud marker of the locals, that was also suppressed during the times dark days of colonial religion, politics, and whitewashing.
In 1969 local Haida artist Robert Davidson decided to break a nearly 100-year-old gap in the tradition of pole carving on the island and his courage sparked a much-needed reboot of culture. Brodie proudly explains there are now 19 poles around Masset and more spread across the archipelago, a symbol of the locals' strength and resilience.
The dishes were simple yet thoughtful, the afternoon was intimate and informative, and the setting was welcoming and inspiring. A reflection of Haida Gwaii as a whole. Imagine a world where you can survive off of what's harvested outside of your house and your front door is a welcome symbol for friends you haven’t met yet.
Gomae is a traditional Japanese salad typically made with spinach. This recipe will yield enough for roughly one side dish.
-Mortar & pestle
-Pot for blanching half full of water
-Paper towel (white is more fun to see the color from the nettles after)
The ingredients will all work together to balance out the overall taste. The sesame will help add to the nutty flavor of the dish, the sweetness of the mirin will help to balance out the bitterness of the nettle and the pinch of salt at the end will help to enhance the overall flavors.
-1 cup fresh nettles (careful they sting!)
-A few pinches of salt
-2 tbsp of mixed, toasted sesame seeds
-2 tsp of soya sauce
-Cap full of saki (1 tsp +/-)
-2 cap fulls (2 tsp) of Mirin. Mirin is a sweet Japanese rice wine.
-Teaspoon of rice vinegar
Rinse fresh nettle under cold water, you may want to use gloves for picking and handling prior to blanching as “stinging nettles” tend to live up to their name.
-4-6 heads (roughly 1 cup dry on the stem) of nettles blanched for one minute in rolling but not boiling water. Then remove and place in a cold water bath immediately otherwise the nettle will turn grey. Let stand in cool water for several minutes then remove, rinse under cold water then spin in a salad spinner until damp. The rinse and spin will help remove any dirt that may have been on them.
-Remove stems, then place nettle leaves in a paper towel and squeeze out excess moisture. The color from the nettels will come off on the white paper towel showing shades of purple, green, and blue. A sort of culinary tie-dye.
In the mortar and pestle add the 2 tbsp of toasted, black and white sesame seeds (or white if that’s all you’ve got) and muddle to a coarse grind.
Then add in 2 tsp of soya sauce, a cap full of saki (1 tsp +/-), 2 cap fulls (2 tsp) Mirin, and a teaspoon of rice vinegar.
Mix together all ingredients except the Nettles with a small whisk or spoon to make a thick dressing.
In a small bowl add the nettles then spoon roughly 1 tsp of the mixture and lightly toss with a spoon. Then add another tsp and toss with a spoon. Add a pinch of salt to enhance the flavors and enjoy!
Brown Butter Fireweed Shoots
Typically as a side dish served with red meats or added to something like a nice venison sandwich.
-Pot for blanching half full of salted water
- 6-8 heads of fireweed (pre-flower)
-1 TBSP of butter
-1TSP apple cider vinegar
-Pinch of salt
-Rinse fireweed under cold water to remove excess dirt.
-Place fireweed blanched in rolling but not boiling salted water (tsp of salt) for a minute. Then remove and place in a cold water bath for several minutes. Remove, rinse under water, and spin in a salad spinner until most of the moisture has dissipated. This will also help remove any hidden dirt that may have been on them.
-Bring a tbsp of butter to a simmer over medium heat until the color turns to a nutty brown shade. Then toss fireweed into the mix. Add half a cap full (1 TSP +/- ) of apple cider vinegar into the pan while cooking. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Remove from the pan and plate appropriately as a side dish. The earthy flavors work well with red meats and will make an excellent addition to a venison sandwich, like those made from the abundance of black-tailed deer running around Haida Gwaii.