It wasn’t until I moved to the Northwest that I tasted my first huckleberry. I was amazed at how something so tiny could pack so much intense, berry flavor. Not like a blueberry, not like blackberry, a huckleberry tastes like nothing else but a huckleberry: bright and startling.
A friend told me once that you can’t call yourself a true Spokane resident until you have your own secret huckleberry picking spot. When I asked where his was, he told me it was for him to know, and for me to find – my own.
Huckleberries are revered around here, not only for their amazing flavor, but perhaps because they aren’t readily available at mainstream grocery stores.
Plants can take 15 years to grow to maturity and produce fruit, preferring higher elevations and acidic soil – and making them very difficult to produce commercially. Farmers tend to shy away from them because each berry has to be handpicked.
So, at least for now, huckleberries must be foraged in the wild, appearing in summer months and lasting through early fall. And perhaps it’s the hunt that creates such huckleberry mania. Many people through the years have given me advice on where to go in general to find these delectable summer gems. Priest Lake and Mount Spokane are at the top of the list. They tell me to make sure to take a pail or bucket that straps over the shoulder in order to be completely hands-free. They discourage early morning or sunset picking because of the potential of running into bears.
If you haven’t found your own patch, the good thing is huckleberries are available to purchase at local farmers markets. Yes, they do cost a pretty penny – a pint-size bag sells for 10 bucks. But keep in mind, the person who harvested them had to drive a long way to get them, take time to find them and then perform the arduous task of picking each one by hand, all the while looking over his or her shoulder for hungry bears. I like to think of huckleberries’ somewhat shocking sticker price as “hazard pay” – and totally worth every cent.
Huckleberries are native to the northwestern United States and Canada, growing from Wyoming west to Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and up to Alaska. For thousands of years, they have been a source of sustenance for Northwest American Indian tribes who would make special combs of wood or salmon backbones to strip huckleberries off the bushes. They dried the berries in the sun or smoked them, then mashed them into cakes and wrapped them in leaves for storage. They would also use the colorful juice as dye.
When it comes to health benefits, huckleberries are at the top of the list. One serving of wild huckleberries has more antioxidant power than any other fruit or vegetable, with the exception of lingonberries. Huckleberries are high in B vitamins, which help support and speed up the metabolic rate, keep skin and muscle tone healthy, improve immune system function and help prevent pancreatic cancer. They also contain high levels of vitamin C, potassium and iron. Research suggests they have a specific effect on the pancreas: aiding in digesting sugars and starches.
It turns out the leaves of huckleberry have health benefits, too. They can be dried and made into tea which helps to stabilize blood sugars and aids in the digestion of starchy foods.
As it happens, the huckleberry seemingly got its name from a simple mistake. When the first American settlers arrived, they found several plants with small, dark-colored sweet berries and mistook them for English bilberries or blueberries. Back then these were often referred to as “hurtleberries,” which was corrupted to huckleberries.
At home, huckleberries are easy to incorporate into everyday recipes, simply replacing blueberries in muffins, pies, ice cream, scones and pancakes. In this gluten-free recipe for huckleberry flapjacks, almond flour is substituted for white flour and real maple syrup flavors the batter without the addition of sugar. The plump huckleberries burst with flavor, making for a healthy, hearty Northwest breakfast.
Try using huckleberries in savory meals, too. In this recipe for grilled, crispy-skinned wild salmon, huckleberries are given a light “pickling” along with minced shallots and whole coriander seeds – a tasty complement to the salmon. My husband calls this dish “a bear’s dream” and, even though I live within city limits, I’m tempted to peek over my shoulder when serving this. If you are not a salmon fan, this recipe for pickled huckleberries would also taste great with grilled chicken or lamb chops, or even scattered over quinoa.
During the heat of summer, cooling cocktails are even more refreshing with the addition of this colorful restorative berry. Add them to mojitos or margaritas for a Pacific Northwest twist. Their bright flavors do wonders to revive the wilt, after a meltingly hot day.
Huckleberry Almond Flour Pancakes
1/4 cup water
2 extra large eggs
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon orange zest (optional)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups almond flour
1 cup huckleberries, divided
1 tablespoon butter, oil or coconut oil for skillet
In a medium bowl, whisk water, eggs, maple syrup, salt, oil, vanilla and orange zest. Whisk in baking soda, then almond flour. Fold in half of the huckleberries.
Heat a large cast-iron skillet or griddle, with 1 tablespoon butter or coconut oil on medium heat. Spoon in 1/4 cupfuls of batter onto the skillet, and cook until edges become golden brown, or bubbles form. Flip with a spatula, and turn heat down to medium-low; cook until browned on the other side. If insides are still soft, either continue cooking on very low heat, or place in a 350-degree oven until cooked through.
Stack pancakes, top with fresh huckleberries and pour a little maple syrup over top.
Yield: 8 pancakes
2 ounces rum
8 to 10 mint leaves
2 slices of lime
1/4 cup huckleberries, divided
1 to 2 tablespoons simple syrup ( 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup water)
2 ounces soda water
Mint and lime wedges, for garnish
In a martini shaker, muddle rum, mint, lime, half the huckleberries, simple syrup with ice until mint is broken up. Strain into a glass filled with ice, add the soda water and whole huckleberries, stir. Garnish with a wedge of lime and a sprig of mint.
Yield: 1 cocktail
1/2 cup apple wood chips (optional)
1 1/2 cups fresh huckleberries
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds (optional)
1 large shallot, finely minced
1 1/2 pound fillet of wild salmon, skin on
Olive oil, for brushing
Salt and pepper
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, more for garnish
1 cup greens, such as arugula, baby kale and watercress
Preheat grill to medium high. Make a little bowl out of 2 to 3 layers of aluminum foil the size of half a grapefruit. Place dry apple wood chips inside the foil bowl, place the bowl directly on the heating grill, and close the grill lid.
Place huckleberries in a medium bowl. Heat sugar, vinegar, a generous three- finger pinch of salt and coriander seeds in a small sauce pan and stir until sugar has dissolved. Add minced shallots and simmer two minutes. Pour over huckleberries, stir gently and set aside.
Brush both sides of salmon with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place skin side down on the grill. Sprinkle with zest of one lemon, and 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves.
Once apple wood chips begin smoking, turn heat down to low, grill salmon, skin side down, directly on the grill, on lowest heat, closing lid. Check after 5 minutes. Shift salmon to create crosshatch marks on the skin, and close lid again for just a few minutes. Salmon at this point will cook quickly, especially if it’s a thinner piece. Once salmon is cooked to medium rare or medium, turn heat off.
Place salmon on a platter over greens. Squeeze with juice of half a lemon. Generously spoon pickled huckleberries and pickling liquid over the salmon and greens, and scatter with thyme sprigs. Serve immediately.
Yield: 4 servings
The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods she’s making in her kitchen, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home, www.feastingathome.com/.
Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter
Get the day's top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.