By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Food Columnist
Last week I knocked the top of McKinnick Trail off my bucket list. Though I started not long after sunrise, and I was well prepared with water and snacks, it was a bit more grueling than I had anticipated. About halfway between the second bench and the summit, I was hot and tired and feeling close to defeat. Eyes downward on the trail, gripping my trekking poles and placing one unsteady foot after the other, I trudged on.
Suddenly, before I even saw them, that lovely familiar scent of ripe and ready huckleberries filled the air. It was the perfect reward for my efforts and immediately altered my attitude from tired hiker to woodsy berry picker. There’s nothing like plucking that first, big fat purple berry of the season into your mouth. I ate a few, then dumped the almonds from my snack container into a pocket and filled the empty container to the brim with huckleberries.
With newfound energy, I couldn’t wait to reach the top of the trail. Once there, I sat on the sturdy landmark bench, perfectly pleased, overlooking the panorama of Lake Pend Oreille and far beyond Hope, savoring the simple joys of summer – a modest picnic of almonds, a (warm) cheese stick and those wonderfully sweet and tart huckleberries.
I haven’t yet made it to “my” huckleberry patch this year, but it’s on my short list of projects. There are few things more sacred than the location of a good fishing hole or a prime huckleberry patch, and I’m always grateful when I find my hillside still intact with the Idaho state fruit. My best haul ever was four gallons, which over the span of a year, I transformed into liters of aged huckleberry vodka, and then (under the guise of vinegar), shipped to Chicago for my daughter Casey’s wedding.
Picking is fun, but it’s also a lot of work. Take a friend. Though they won’t necessarily save you from a bear encounter, it will give you someone to relive the experience with, year after year (yep, another “Marcia in the woods mishap”). And, like fine wine, the story gets better with age.
Be gentle on the bushes. Huckleberries should always be picked by hand (never cut branches, and even using berry rakes can damage new growth on bushes). Also, don’t be greedy—pick only what you need, as the birds and bears depend on those berries as an important food source. Many folks don’t realize that it’s illegal to pick huckleberries in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest with the intent to sell. Minimum fines start at $250 per offense.
There’s no shortage of commercial huckleberry products available to us — candles, candies, jams and jellies, syrup, salad dressing, vodka and myriad baking mixes. The best selections can be found downtown at Litehouse Blue Cheese Factory and Huckleberry Depot on the Bridge.
If you want to make your own goodies but don’t feel up to the task of a trip to the woods, you’ll find fresh contraband berries around town that are going for $50 a gallon bag. Rumor has it sales are brisk.
When you get home with your prized purple loot, give them a quick sort, discarding stems (and other bits of the forest you’ve brought home). Then freeze the berries right away, in single layers on sheet pans. Once frozen, place them into quart-sized freezer bags—it makes them easy to measure for favorite recipes. I always add mine frozen, at the last minute, so the color doesn’t run (after a quick rinse in a colander). They’re also a delicious snack. Pop a handful into your mouth (straight from the freezer), or sprinkle the little gems onto your morning yogurt.
I have picking plans and a few new recipe ideas mulling in my mind. Besides the requisite pies and cobblers, I love adding huckleberries to condiments, such as bacon jam, savory sauces and grilled onions, all perfect complements to meat, particularly grilled chicken and pork. For sweets, I especially love the combination of lemon and huckleberry, a flavor foundation for many of my summer huckleberry desserts. Especially this family favorite, Lemon Huckleberry Bars. Your taste buds will thank you.
• Lemon Hucklebrry Bars • Makes 9 x 9 inch pan
These bars are tart, with a rich and buttery crust. Perfect for a cool dessert on a hot summer day (don’t be tempted to add more huckleberries or the batter won’t set).
•12 tablespoons butter, softened (1 1/2 sticks)
•1/3 cup sugar
•1 1/2 cups flour
•1 cup sugar
•3 tablespoons flour
•1 tbs lemon zest
•1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
•1/2 cup Greek yogurt
•1/2 cup fresh huckleberries,
plus a ¼ cup to sprinkle
on top before baking (if
frozen, do not thaw).
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a 9 by 9 inch baking pan by spraying it with nonstick spray and lining it with parchment paper, leaving excess paper hanging over the sides for easy removal after baking (or use a tart pan, with removable rim).
In the bowl of a standup mixer, cream together butter and sugar on medium low speed. Add flour and mix until a dough is formed. Press the dough into the bottom of the 9 by 9 pan (dust your fingertips with flour to prevent sticking).
Bake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees.
Filling (no need to wash mixing bowl between jobs):
In the bowl of the mixer, whisk eggs and sugar until smooth.
Add flour and zest, mix, add lemon juice.
Divide filling batter in half; whisk the yogurt into half.
When the crust comes out of the oven, pour the yogurt filling over the hot crust. Sprinkle on the huckleberries, lightly tap pan or with fingers, gently press berries into batter. Pour remaining batter over berries. Sprinkle additional huckleberries over the top.
Return to the oven, and bake for another 20 minutes.
Cool completely, then refrigerate at least two hours before serving. Use the parchment paper handles to lift the bars out of the pan to make cutting easier. Cut and dust with powdered sugar.
Garnish with lemon zest, or mint leaves before serving.