High Summer Huckleberry Heaven

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Native Fruit Makes Good (Pies)

Summertime, and the eating is…fabulous, especially now that the huckleberries are ripening. Indeed, f you want, you can skip all the chatter and cut straight to the recipes below, which I promise you will not regret. Anyway, one of the highlights of my summer is always the huckleberry harvest. Yes they are fiddly to pick and yes they are a bother to stem, but nothing matches that tart-tangy flavor of the wild berries. The maritime Pacific Northwest is home to over a dozen species of huckleberries, and several of the tastiest are still quite common despite rampant development. In high summer, the berry-laden bushes are busy with birds and bears, not to mention squirrels, raccoons, opossums, foxes and even mice. Everybody loves a tasty treat, and picking in the wild can be an adventure as various critter fan clubs protect their territory. Luckily for me, I’ve got several kinds of hucks growing along my lengthy driveway, and so far, the fiercest harvesting competition comes from my young housemates.

While many parts of the country lay claim to huckleberries, not all are members of the Vaccinium or blueberry clan, as our maritime Northwest hucks are. In fact, what some regions call huckleberries are nightshade family members, toxic when raw, but our natives are all edible raw or cooked. Not surprisingly, First Nations folks have delighted in these piquant berries since forever, and after a few decades of decline, commercial harvesting in state and national forests has picked up speed again, both for fruit and for florists greenery. However, huckleberries aren’t the only wild thing out there: If you are wandering through the woods and come across bright berries, check for the distinctive circular ripple or ‘crown’ marking on the blossom end. If it looks like the one on a blueberry, it’s edible. If not, leave it for the birds, please.

Huckleberry Friends

Though huckleberry/Vaccinium taxonomy is complex (with around 450 species, no wonder, really), for most of us, the most beloved kinds include both black-fruited, evergreen V. ovatum and red-fruited, deciduous V. parvifolium. Evergreen huckleberries make excellent garden plants, stretching anywhere from 6-12 feet high and nearly as wide over time. Their small, serrated leaves and eccentric form make them especially valuable in naturalistic landscapes, but they can also be sheared into cubes or bloblets if that’s your groove. The dainty pink spring flowers are bee magnets and by high summer, the handsome shrubs are heavily hung with tiny berries, which may be a faded-jeans blue, a deeper midnight purple, or a glossy black. Though they thrive in shade, they can also take quite a bit of sun as long as they also get some summer water during hot spells. Lacking pests and suffering from few diseases, these hard workers make great choices for sustainable garden designs. Two selected forms of V. ovatum, Thunderbird  and Wunderlich, are particularly compact and shapely.

Deciduous and delicate looking, red huckleberry (V. parvifolium) is the quintessential nurse log companion, with soft green leaves and small, vividly scarlet berries. Quite variable in the wild, it ranges from 3-10 feet high, tending to be more compact in sun and taller and more open in form in shady spots. Like the evergreens, these attractive shrubs prefer moist, retentive, acidic soils and do best with morning sun and light afternoon shade. They tend to bear heavily in alternate years (at least, mine do) and their flavor is brighter and a bit sassier than the evergreen hucks.

Hogging The Huckleberry Harvest

Whatever the species, huckleberries start ripening in mid to late August and can continue well into September, especially if we’ve had a few good summer rains. Picking huckleberries is no task for weenies, as the berries are annoyingly small and ripe ones are almost always mixed with unripe fruit, so you really have to pay attention if you want to keep the harvest going. The process is greatly eased by using a two-hand picking container; my favorite is a large Nancy’s yogurt tub fitted with a wide cloth neck band (adapted from an old guitar strap). Wearing this extremely attractive item, I can pull down a loaded branch with one hand and carefully pick off the ripe berries with the other, letting them tumble into the large container just a few inches away.

After the tedium of picking, rinsing, and stemming the little buggers, here’s what I do with these precious delectables:

Irresistible Huckleberry Pie

2 pie crusts (see below or use your favorites)
1 cup cane sugar
1/4 cup quick-cooking tapioca
1 teaspoon ground coriander
pinch of sea salt
5 cups fresh huckleberries, stemmed, rinsed, drained
1 lemon, rind grated, juiced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold, diced

Line a pie dish with one crust, set aside. In a large mixing bowl, stir together sugar, tapioca, coriander, and salt. Stir in huckleberries and lemon juice and let stand 20 minutes. Preheat oven to 450 F. Fill pie crust with huckleberry mixture and dot with butter. Top with second crust, trim edge and flute or crimp. Slit crust a few times so steam can escape, place pie dish on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 450 F until crust starts to brown (20-25 minutes). Reduce heat to 350 F and bake until crust is golden brown (35-40 minutes). Remove to a cooling rack and let stand for 20 minutes before serving. Serves at least one.

Perfectly Simple Flaky Pie Crust

2-1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in 1/2 inch pieces
1/3-1/2 cup ice water

In a food processor, pulse dry ingredients together 2-3 times, then add butter and pulse 3-4 times until evenly distributed. Drizzle in ice water a tablespoonful at a time, pulsing once each time, until mixture clumps together in small balls. Divide in 2 pieces and chill for 30 minutes, then lightly roll each piece into an 12 inch circle. Makes 2 crusts to fit a 9-inch pie pan.

Lemon Huckleberry Birthday Tart

A few days ago, a dear friend came of age (ok, turned 60) and as my part of the potluck festivities, I made a lemon curd tart dotted with tart, tangy huckleberries. The combination was sumptuous; velvety, spunky, and intriguingly sweet-tart. Despite competition from a magnificent chocolate and coconut layer cake, there wasn’t much lemon tart left at the party’s end (darn). For one thing, everyone knows what a pain huckleberries are to pick, so the labor-of-love part was pleasantly acknowledged.

If you give it a try (and you will be glad you did), it’s wise to use organic ingredients, since you’ll be eating both lemon zest (no pesticide residues, please) and lightly cooked eggs. To make serving easier, use a two-part tart pan so you can transfer the baked crust to a platter before filling it. An immersion (stick) blender makes this recipe a lot simpler as well.

Lemon Cream Tart With Huckleberries

4 large or 6 smaller lemons
1 cup cane sugar
4 large eggs
6 tablespoons unsalted pasture butter
1 baked pie shell (can be gluten free)
1 cup huckleberries, stemmed, rinsed, and drained

Grate the rind off 3 lemons, set aside. Juice lemons and strain juice into a measuring cup; you want a generous 3/4 cup. Set aside. In a large bowl, combine the sugar with the grated rind and rub together thoroughly with your fingers. Whisk in eggs one at a time, then whisk in lemon juice. Set the bowl over a pan of simmering water over medium low heat, whisking continually (more or less) until mixture thickens and the whisk leaves little grooves in it. This can take a while, 20 minutes or so, so have a magazine on hand. If you have an instant thermometer, keep going until it hits 180 degrees F. Remove the bowl from heat and cool for 15 minutes, then cut in butter with the stick blender. Blend the cream until light and, well, creamy (2-3 minutes). Cover bowl and chill for at least an hour before filling the baked crust. Cover the top thickly with huckleberries and refrigerate until serving time (3-4 hours is good). Serves at least one.

Gluten Free, Dairy Free Tart Crust

This is a great substitute for a graham cracker crust, and works for savory things too. Where dairy is not an issue, you can substitute butter for the coconut oil if you prefer, and many kinds of nuts will do the trick, though very high-fat nuts like cashews and peanuts tend to turn to butter very quickly, so walnuts, pecans, or macadamias make better choices.

1-1/2 cups almonds or hazelnuts
1-1/2 cups old fashioned rolled oats
3 tablespoons coconut oil
pinch of sea salt

Preheat oven to 350 F. In a food processor, grind nuts and oats to a coarse meal, add remaining ingredients and pulse a few times until mixture forms a ball (or ring). Pat into a pie pan and bake at 350 degrees F until golden brown (12-15 minutes). Cool on a rack to room temperature before filling. (This crust may be too brittle to transfer so fill and serve it in the baking pan.)

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4 Responses to High Summer Huckleberry Heaven

  1. Shannon says:

    All I can say is “yum”. They are one of the best of our fruits! Thank you…

  2. Lauren says:

    I have read that First Nations folks used to use a wet, rough, plank propped up so it was at somewhat of an angle and then poured the huckleberries at the top and let them roll down. The wet roughness caught a lot of the stems and various unwanted things that stick to the berries. I’ve not had the opportunity to try this but it sounds like it might work well…

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