Speculate - that's all our new neighbors could do. Not about the stock market, but huckleberries. What sort of crop could they expect this year? What will you do with yours? That was 36 years ago, when my family moved to Missoula. After listening to all the talk, we knew we had to find out why a mere berry could cause such excitement.
"Head for the hills and look for small bushes with purple dots," advised a helpful neighbor. So, buckets in hand and our two young sons in tow, we traipsed up a mountainside on a hot July afternoon. Soon we found our El Dorado, a patch of bushes with dark berries glimmering like jewels in the dappled sunshine and seemingly floating on air.
We popped a few into our mouths, and instantly we understood the fuss - each modest berry carried a fabulous punch of spicy tartness and complex, luscious flavor that tasted of the wild.
Harvesting these gems, however, turned out to be a challenge. Each bush carried only a few berries which had to be plucked one by one. Plunk, plunk - the hollow sound of berries hitting the plastic bottoms of our small buckets continued for a discouragingly long time.
"I've got the bottom covered!" became a triumphant cry, even though it meant only about a half cup of fruit. We also found that picking berries with young children is a self-defeating endeavor. Their pails stay quite empty, but their hands and faces quickly turn deep purple.
Huckleberries embody the essence of life in western Montana. Their height of glory is July and August, when berries and humans alike revel in the warm sunny days and cool nights. Like all true western Montanans, huckleberries love the mountains. The plants won't even grow below 3,500 feet. And like mountain folks, they resist domestication, preferring to live wild and free.
Mountain huckleberries belong in the genus Vaccinium, along with the cultivated blueberry. But the huckleberry's sharp tang and pungent aroma sets it apart. Actually, several closely related species live together in our mountains, some with shiny purple fruit and others resembling blueberries. In other regions of the United States, you can find what are also called huckleberries. But as far as Montanans are concerned, ours are the only true ones.
Hmong families from Laos have taken up the harvesting of huckleberries and sell them at our farmers markets. Now all we need to do on a sunny July or August morning is drive across town and choose which bag of gleaming purple berries looks freshest and most inviting, then head home to bake.
I make these muffins throughout our huckleberry season, and I always freeze a generous amount of the berries to use during the winter. These muffins are tender and light and loaded with that unique huckleberry taste. You can mix the dry and liquid ingredients separately the night before (refrigerate the liquids). In the morning, simply toss the berries with the flour mixture and fold in the liquid.
13/4 cups all-purpose flour (dip dry measure into flour container, fill to overflowing, and sweep off excess with a narrow spatula)
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
11/2 cups fresh huckleberries or frozen (not thawed)
Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Coat a 12-cup standard-size muffin pan with cooking spray.
Whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together in a large bowl. Add the butter and cut it in with a pastry blender or two knives until the mixture resembles coarse meal.
In a small bowl whisk together the buttermilk, egg, and vanilla to combine well. Add the berries to the dry ingredients and toss them in gently with your hands. Add the liquid and fold everything together gently with a rubber spatula just to moisten the dry ingredients. The batter will be very thick. Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups.
Bake 15 to 28 minutes, until the muffins are a light golden brown and spring back when gently pressed. Do not overbake. Cool in the pans for 5 minutes, then loosen muffins by running the tip of a paring knife all around their edges. Invert the muffin pan onto a baking sheet, wait a few seconds, and carefully lift off the pan. If any muffins stick, dislodge them with the paring knife. Turn the muffins right side up, put them into a napkin-lined basket, and serve as soon as you can with butter.
Makes 12 muffins.
These are my idea of the perfect scone - buttery and tender and loaded with wild huckleberries. You can mix all the dry ingredients together the night before and add the huckleberries and cream just before shaping and baking.
11/2 cups fresh or frozen huckleberries
2 cups all-purpose flour (dip dry measure into flour container, fill to overflowing, and sweep off excess with a narrow spatula)
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup (1 stick) very cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup + 1 tablespoon heavy or whipping cream
Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 425°. Line a large heavy baking sheet with cooking parchment or silicone baking pan liner. If baking sheet is thin, stack two together and line the top one.
Pick over the huckleberries and discard any stems.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, 1/2 cup sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and lemon zest. Add the butter and work it into the flour rapidly with your fingertips, pinching the pieces to flatten them into flakes. Add the fresh or frozen huckleberries and toss to coat with the dry ingredients. Pour in 1 cup of the cream and fold into the berry mixture with a rubber spatula until just combined. The dough will look lumpy.
Dust your work surface with flour and scrape the dough onto it. Press dough together and knead gently just until it holds together. Shape the dough into a disk measuring 7 inches in diameter and about 1 inch thick. Brush top of dough with the remaining 1 tablespoon cream and sprinkle with the 1 tablespoon sugar. With a sharp knife, cut the dough into 8 wedges. With a wide metal spatula, transfer scones to the prepared sheet, spacing them about 2 inches apart.
Bake 18 to 23 minutes, until tops and bottoms of the scones are golden brown. Cool 10 minutes before serving.
Makes 8 scones.
Greg Patent is a food writer and columnist for the Missoulian and Missoula.com magazine. He also co-hosts a weekly show about food with Jon Jackson on KUFM, Sundays at 11:10 a.m. His new cookbook, "A Baker's Odyssey," has been nominated for a 2008 James Beard Award. Visit Greg's Web site at www.gregpatent.com. You can write him at email@example.com.
Linda Thompson is a photographer for the Missoulian. She can be reached at (406) 523-5270 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.