Every holiday season, it's an interesting little challenge to come up with fresh, thoughtful gift ideas that say "love" without adding to our oversized eco-footprint or leaving a debit hangover as big as Vancouver Island.
My annual "gifts that disappear" for all you holly-dazed gift fairies with too much on your plates, and no time to even think, has a definite nutty twist this year, thanks to inspiration from our lovely Clark's nutcrackers. Get it? Holiday season? Nutcrackers?
If you've hung out in any of Whistler's mountain coniferous forests, especially around the treeline, you've probably crossed paths with these smart, sassy jays who often come begging for food. Whistler Naturalists' Bob Brett's excellent photo, above right, might jog your memory. They're easy to confuse with the grey jay (whisky jack) because both can beg for food, but the nutcracker has more black and white and a longer, pointier bill. It also has a unique eco-role.
According to Jennifer Ackerman's delightful book, The Genius of Birds (a wonderful gift for anyone who can read), to survive a single winter, a nutcracker will gather 30,000-plus pine seeds in summer by carrying up to 100 seeds at a time in a special pouch under its tongue. The nutcracker then buries the seeds in maybe 5,000 different caches. Amazingly, they can recall the locations of their seed caches—most of the time. And that's where their crucial role with a certain tree comes in.
The whitebark pine, explains Bob, is a distinctive broccoli-shaped, lighter green conifer with a wide, rounded crown. It lives right at treeline (you can spot it near Rendezvous Lodge or the Roundhouse), and it's threatened by the spread of blister rust, a fungus brought to North America in the early 1900s.
"The interesting thing is that whitebark pines need Clark's nutcrackers, but not the reverse," he says.
Whitebark pines, essentially, can only reproduce with the help of nutcrackers. The fat-rich seeds, which are much like the pine nuts we eat, are an excellent source of nutrients so nutcrackers cache them in bare soil that gets lots of full sun—areas that see snow-melt first, so the birds are able to access them as early as possible in the spring. Seeds in caches the nutcrackers forget about are perfectly positioned to grow into new trees: Whitebark pines can only germinate in full sun.
It's this kind of happy symbiosis I hope you'll enjoy with the following recipes. In homage to the nutcracker, I've asked some smart locals who've helped our human community flourish to share recipes they love—ones that contain some kind of nuts. All of them come with stories linked to family and memories. Everyone promises the results are delicious, plus you can easily give them as gifts with a genuine Whistler twist this Christmas season.
Pecan Butter Balls
Given our theme, let's start with this recipe from biologist and nature interpreter Kristina Swerhun—a longtime Whistler Naturalists' volunteer and museum employee who started the Discovery Nature program at Lost Lake. Kristina grew up in Scarborough, Ont., helping to make and eat these yummy pecan balls. The recipe is from her mom, who managed to leave East Berlin only a month before the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. "Mom always said little hands made the balls better," Kristina says. "Our favourite part was rolling them in the icing sugar when they were still warm."
2 c. finely chopped pecans
2 c. flour
1 c. butter, softened
1/2 c. sugar
2 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. salt
Chop pecans in blender. Combine them in a bowl with flour, butter, sugar, vanilla and salt. Mix with a fork, or your hands, until well blended (hands work best). Shape in one-inch balls and bake on ungreased cookie sheets at 325 F for 20 minutes until browned. Let cool slightly and roll in icing sugar.
Marika's Easy Granola
This recipe comes from Joan Richoz, who's been instrumental in getting the arts embedded at Whistler. Joan was instrumental in starting Arts Whistler, and she's the impetus behind Whistler's library—including serving as its first librarian. She's also an excellent cook. This recipe was created by her daughter, Marika, a creative force in her own right who has run several eateries and is about to launch her own cookbook.
"(Marika) definitely loved cooking with me as a young girl, but her creativity has certainly surpassed mine by miles (or kilometres!)," says Joan, who's been making this yummy granola as a gift for years.
2 c. oats
1/2 c. shredded coconut
1/2 c. pecans (or almonds or hazelnuts)
1/4 c. pumpkin or sunflower seeds
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
3 tbsp. coconut oil
1/4 c. maple syrup
3/4 c. chopped dried apricots (or dates, raisins, or dried cranberries)
Preheat oven to 350 F. Combine first six ingredients in a large bowl. Combine coconut oil and maple syrup in a small bowl. Add oil and syrup to oat mixture. Spread evenly on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake 20 minutes then use a spatula to stir it gently so it can be evenly toasted. Cook another 10 to 15 minutes until it's a light golden-brown colour. Let cool and add dried fruit.
Pique's own movie guru and one of Whistler's original creative forces in wordsmithing and film (he makes horror shorts just for fun), Feet Banks grew up in Northern B.C. and moved to Whistler when he was 12. Wherever you live, don't pick a movie without reading his Pique column "Notes from the Back Row," and don't visit Whistler without reading his Mountain Life blog. Feet's mom, Sheila, made this recipe throughout his childhood. She got it 30 years ago from longtime Whistler local Kathryn Mooney when they both lived in Pinecrest Estates.
"But if anyone had ever asked me what it was I would have said, 'cashew brittle!' with 100-per-cent conviction," he says. Turns out it's almond Florentines. "In any case, it has nuts and is pretty easy to make."
Feet has his own ideas on how to take this recipe to new heights with a little help from your weed-y culinary skills, but you'll have to ask him about that in person.
1 c. brown sugar (sometimes his mom's sweet tooth thinks it's better to use 1 1/2 c. each of brown sugar and butter)
1 c. butter
1 c. sliced almonds
Combine butter and sugar in a saucepan and cook over medium heat for five minutes. Do not boil. Line a cookie sheet with whole graham crackers. (Cookie sheet needs to have sides or your kitchen and oven will be a big mess.) Cover with sugar mixture. Sprinkle with almonds. Bake at 375 F for seven minutes. Turn off oven and leave in oven one hour. Remove from oven and, when cool, break into pieces. Eat.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who'll have some fun with these new recipes.