Let's celebrate the state fruit of Idaho - the huckleberry. These purple pearls of slightly tart sweetness are gifts from God for those lucky enough to pick and enjoy them. You can find true pickers and native Idahoans by using a bit of detective work. First, look for a distinct dark red color stain on the thumb, first and middle finger of a true huckleberry hound's hand for evidence of recent picking. Expert pickers will only show a stain on one hand while rookies might sport two mitts of the red dye. Sadly, I'm a two-handed picker - a disgrace to my family and friends.
When one discovers evidence but desires proof of a person's true berry picking prowess simply ask, "Where do you pick huckleberries around here?" If the response is, "Not really sure, I hear Montana has big berries," you have probably found a seasoned picker with a secret berry sanctuary in Idaho. Get to know this person well, act ignorant and inquisitive about the elusive huckleberry and she might become the Obi Wan Kenobi to your Huckleberry Han Solo.
I once asked a coworker if they "rake or handpick?" My reward was a five-night lesson on the ethics and etiquette of huckleberry picking as I was offered a map of my Sensei's third best picking patch. I felt like a local. This was 15 years ago and I'm still learning.
For the less motivated, huckleberries can be found in late July through August at every farmer's market, most street corners and in a few cars with trunks open parked on the side of the road advertising "Fresh Huckleberries," for $40 a gallon on cardboard boxes held down by rocks and dirt.
If a bite of huckleberry is enough to satisfy for the year, huckleberry festivals might be the answer. My favorite is the Huckleberry Festival in Trout Creek, Mont., with all you can eat huge pancakes filled with berries, eggs, sausage and Tang all prepared by the Trout Creek Fire Department. Also at the festival is everything huckleberry, crafts, dancing, a parade, 5K run and culminating in the crowning of Miss Huckleberry - now that's a party!
In Idaho, Wallace knows how to honor the huckleberry. Visit the Huckfest for traditional huckleberry pancakes and three days of family fun including a bike ride and 5K run. This year I visited the Schweitzer Mountain huckleberry festival with my family and hiked to the top of the mountain after breakfast. Other festivals in Idaho include Lewiston, Donnelly, McCall, Elk River, Rexburg and Priest Lake. It is not a coincidence that each huckleberry event is paired with exercise. The berries are delicious, nutritious and healthy; a great dose of vitamin C and B. The pancake portion of each event requires moderation or exercise but the delicious berry of North Idaho surrounded with batter and griddle-fried is worth a few extra pounds. I can eat hucks' everyday. If you have more berries than you can eat, I offer two of my favorite family recipes, one for your fresh berries and one to preserve the berries with a little zest.
Wild Game Feast Huckleberry Bread Pudding with Wild Turkey Zabaglione Sauce
(Adapted from Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen)
3 large eggs
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 t vanilla extract
1 1/4 t nutmeg
1 1/4 t ground cinnamon
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 cups milk
1 cup huckleberries (I use two cups when making this for my family because I love them.)
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans
5 cups stale French bread
Beat eggs on high speed for three minutes with an electric mixer or six minutes by hand with a whisk. Add the sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon and butter and beat on high until well blended. Beat in the milk and stir in 3/4 cup (retain 1/4 cup berries for garnish) of the huckleberries and the pecans.
Remove crust from bread and cut into 1/4 cubes. Add bread cubes to egg mixture and gently mix. Let stand for 45 minutes stirring gently every 15 minutes. Fill eight large greased ramekins with bread cube mixture - should be very full. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place ramekins into a Bain Marie (water bath) and place in oven then immediately lower oven temperature to 300 degrees and bake for 40 minutes. Increase oven temperature to 425 degrees and bake until pudding is brown and fluffy about 15-20 minutes more.
While pudding is baking prepare:
Wild Turkey Zabaglione Sauce
(This sauce is NOT FOR CHILDREN)
8 fluid ounces Wild Turkey Bourbon (add half bourbon and half water for a less potent sauce).
7 ounces sugar
10 each egg yokes
Combine all ingredients and whisk together. Whisk mixture over a simmering water bath until mixture lightens in color and becomes thick and foamy.
Place a large dollop of Zabaglione sauce on the bottom of a plate. Remove pudding from ramekin and place on dollop, crispy side up. Top with two tablespoons of caramel sauce zigzagged across the plate and garnish with huckleberries.
Huckleberry Pepper Jam (My own recipe)
6 cups huckleberries
1 cup water
6 cup sugar
2 t lemon zest
2 T vinegar
3 cayenne or jalapeno peppers, finely diced (remove seeds and ribs to reduce the heat of the peppers if you wish. I prefer my jam spicy and leave the seeds and ribs in.)
1 pkg. powdered pectin
Cook huckleberries with water until they start to boil. Add sugar and boil hard for two minutes. Poor sweetened berries into a food processor or blender and pulse for 5 seconds. Return to the pot, add lemon zest, diced peppers and boil hard for one minute. Remove from heat and pour into 8 1/2 pint sterilized jars. Process the jam per instructions on the pectin box. My jelly took two days to set up - be patient. If yours does not setup after two days, poor jam back into a pot, add more pectin re-boil and reprocess.
Bill Rutherford is a psychotherapist, public speaker, elementary school counselor, adjunct college psychology instructor and executive chef, and owner of Rutherford Education Group. Please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out www.foodforthoughtcda.com.