Eight years ago when Greenbriar Inn’s Kris McIlvenna was thinking about expanding her catering business, she wasn’t thinking about huckleberries.
That’s when she was approached by the persistent owner of a huckleberry product business, who sent samples of huckleberry jelly to McIlvenna. She remembers thinking, “This is so good. I see all kinds of ways to apply huckleberries to culinary uses.” McIlvenna was so impressed that she and her husband bought the business in 2001 and named it Wildbeary Huckleberry Products.
“Huckleberries are unusually flavorful. They tend to be tart, with an intense flavor profile,” she said. “They are kind of like grapes. The flavor depends on altitude and moisture of the soil,” McIlvenna says.
She started developing new products right away, with some challenges along the way. “When you heat huckleberries they lose flavor,” she says, so perfecting huckleberry flavored popcorn took some experimenting.
Building on the original six products, McIlvenna developed more than a dozen more gourmet huckleberry food products including sauces, vinegar, honey, chocolate and drink mixes, which are sold in more than 300 retail locations and online (www.gbrfoods.com).
According to McIlvenna, citrus brings out the flavors in huckleberries, and she uses lemon and lime juice in several of her recipes. Wildbeary’s huckleberry lemonade is one of the company’s most popular products, and McIlvenna shipped a case of the drink mix to one of the presidential inaugural balls in Washington, D.C. last January.
An annual tradition
Joyce Daley of Spokane Valley understands the huckleberry’s allure. “I am originally from the East Coast, so I grew up on blueberries, but once I used the huckleberries in muffins, I haven’t had blueberries in the house. The flavor, once they have been cooked, is sweeter and yet tarter than the blueberries,” she wrote in an e-mail message.
While camping at Priest Lake five years ago, Daley found a prime picking spot and has returned every year to the same place. She picks about two gallons of berries in a weekend and freezes them in sandwich bags in two cup measurements, which she finds to be just the right amount for muffins or pancakes.
While Daley admits picking huckleberries is hard work, she thinks “they are worth it, when you consider fruit stands will sell them for $35 or more for a one gallon bag.”
Preserving nature’s bounty
In 1994, researchers at the University of Idaho began working on ways to produce huckleberries domestically. Dan Barney who heads the program at the Sandpoint Research and Extension Center explained that up until about World War II commercial huckleberry harvesting was a primary source of income for some families in North Idaho.
However, the demand for huckleberries exceeds the supply. “Supplies from wild stands are dwindling due to loss of forest habitat, and forest and fire management policies,” Barney said.
Barney and his colleagues aim to protect existing wild stands of huckleberries for recreational and tribal use, as well as for small-scale commercial pickers. They also hope to eventually produce huckleberries from managed forests to meet the demands of large scale processors. “Huckleberries have a mystique of the wild, similar to a wolf or grizzly bear – something that can’t be tamed,” he said. “That’s not true. We’ve done that here quite nicely.” Barney says that although his research has been successful, they are probably five years away from domesticating huckleberries for commercial use.
Here are some huckleberry recipes to try at home.
Huckleberry Peppered Pork Roast
From Kris McIlvenna, Wildbeary Huckleberry Products
1 boneless pork loin or butt roast, about 5 pounds
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/3 cup coarsely ground black pepper
1 cup huckleberry vinegar (available at Rosauers)
Trim as much fat from pork as possible. Place roast on rack in shallow roasting pan. Insert meat thermometer. Place roast in 400 degree oven. Mix butter, pepper and huckleberry vinegar together. Baste every 15 minutes for the first hour.
When sauce begins to adhere to roast (about 35-40 minutes), reduce oven heat to 250 degrees and baste every 20 minutes for about 6 hours, or until meat thermometer registers 170 degrees. Add up to 3/4 cup vinegar if sauce gets too greasy during basting period. A thick, peppery crust will form on outside of the roast.
Yield: 8-10 servings
Pan-Seared Salmon with Huckleberry, Lemon and Basil Sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
4 (6-ounce) salmon fillets
1/3 cup of water
1 cup fresh huckleberries
1 tablespoon sugar
1 lemon, juiced
¼ cup fresh basil, finely chopped
Heat skillet over high heat. Add olive oil. Salt and pepper both sides of salmon fillets. When pan is hot add fillets, skin side down. Sear for approximately 4 minutes per side.
Remove from pan and let rest.
Reduce heat to medium. In the same pan used for the fish, add water and huckleberries. Simmer until tender. Add sugar and simmer two to three more minutes. Lastly, add lemon juice and basil. Remove from heat and let stand a few minutes. Drizzle sauce over salmon fillets.
Yield: 4 servings
Huckleberry Cream Pie
From Joyce Daley, Spokane Valley, who says “for the huckleberry lover, this will be heaven.”
For the cream filling:
1 cup heavy cream
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the huckleberry topping:
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup water
3 cups huckleberries
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
Combine filling ingredients, beating until smooth, and spread in a baked pie shell of choice (graham cracker or regular crust).
Combine sugar, cornstarch and salt in a 1-quart saucepan. Blend in water and 1 cup of berries. Bring to boil and cook, stirring until mixture thickens. Stir in butter and lemon juice. Cool, add remaining 2 cups of berries. Once cooled, spread over cream filling and chill before serving.
Yield: 8 servings
From “The Huckleberry Cookbook,” by Alex and Stephanie Hester, who write, “Bursting with rich flavor, this is a great dish for Sunday brunch.” It can be prepared up to 24 hours in advance.
2 ½ cups huckleberries
1 cup huckleberry preserves
2 ½ cups milk
6 teaspoons unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon almond extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon ginger
6 large croissants cut in half lengthwise
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 cup toasted almonds
Spray or butter and flour a 9-inch by 13-inch baking pan. In a heavy saucepan combine huckleberries and preserves. Heat on low until well mixed, about 10 minutes. Set aside.
Combine eggs, milk, butter, syrup, almond extract and spices in a blender and blend until frothy. Set aside.
Layer 6 croissant halves in prepared dish. Evenly distribute cream cheese cubes over the croissants. Pour huckleberry mixture over the cream cheese. Top with another layer of croissants. Pour egg mixture evenly over croissants. Using a spoon or spatula, gently press on croissants to moisten. Cover and refrigerate. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place on center rack of oven and bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until top is golden brown and egg mixture is set. Remove and let stand for 10 minutes. Top with almonds.
Yield: 8-12 servings
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