Sunday, May 15, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: Idaho Part II - Huckleberry? Fine!

If the potato is Idaho's most famous export, the huckleberry is its most precious. Huckleberries abound in the Northwest - from Washington to Montana, with Idaho sandwiched right in between. They don't abound anywhere else.

Official Name: State of Idaho
State Nicknames:
The Gem State
Admission to the US: July 3, 1890 (#43)
Capital: Boise (largest city)
Other Important Cities: Nampa (2nd largest), Pocatello (3rd largest), Coeur D'Alene (6th largest)
Region: West, Northwest; Mountain (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Salmon, Pinyon Nut
Bordered by:
Washington & Oregon (west), British Columbia (Canada) (north), Montana & Wyoming (east), Utah & Nevada (south)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: huckleberry (fruit), potato (vegetable), cutthroat trout (fish)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: potatoes, potatoes and more potatoes; also huckleberries, chokecherries and blueberries, moose, salmon & trout; pioneer foods, Basque chorizo

I asked Rachel over at Coconut & Lime if she knew of any local source for huckleberry products - berries, jams, jellies, anything. She let me know that Atwater's in Belvedere Square occasionally sells it, but when I looked they didn't have any - as she said, occasionally. So I had to go the mail order route.

After much hemming, hawing and searching locally to make absolutely sure I could not find it at all around town, I finally settled on the Tastes of Idaho website, where I ordered two huckleberry products. One was a small - 4 oz - packet of dried huckleberries sweetened with sugar from Gold Mountain out of Orofino, Idaho. The other was an 8 oz jar of huckleberry jam, (relatively) much easier to find. The brand I ordered was from Wild Mountain Berries in Riggins, Idaho. I had never had dried nor jammed huckleberries before, and the taste is a bit analogous to blueberries. Since what I ordered came pre-sweetened, I will have to take their word for it, but huckleberries tend to be a little more tart and a little bit smaller (that I can see) than the closely-related blueberry.

Huckleberries are so difficult to find anywhere east of the Continental Divide, and can get very pricey - the dried ones were $7 and the jam was $8, plus another $13 shipping and handling made this project even pricier than those shrimp I bought a few weeks ago. Unless I up n' move to Boise or get them on the black market, I probably will have to use blueberries the next time I do the following recipe.

The recipe: Huckleberry Muffins, Two Ways

This recipe comes from humorist Patrick F. McManus. In his Whatchagot Stew: A Memoir of an Idaho Childhood, with Recipes and Commentaries, he and co-author/sister Patricia McManus Gass related stories of a childhood in the northern Idaho town of Sandpoint. Like the following huckleberry muffin recipe, most of the recipes in McManus' memoir are not his own:

Many of the recipes belonged to my grandmother, a cook much sought after in the logging camps of northern Idaho, where the loggers were more concerned with the quality of the food in the camp than the quantity of dollars in their pay envelopes. Gram was a superb cook. The aroma of her baking alone could activate one's salivary glands at six hundred yards. When the wind was right, she could empty all the hoboes from a freight train and bring them streaming to our house for a handout. [McManus et al 1989: xvi]
Because I had neither fresh nor frozen huckleberries, I had to make do with the pricey gourmet huckleberries shipped to me via the USPS. So instead of twelve huckleberry muffins, I made six with dried huckleberries and six with dollops of huckleberry jam in the middle.

For this recipe I used:

* Huckleberries (natch - I used about half of the 4 oz pack of dried huckleberries for six muffins, and about half of the 8 oz jar of jam for the other six. Again, those of us "Back East" will have to settle with blueberries, which are much easier and much cheaper to find. Huckleberries, if you must order them online, run about $40 to $50 for 3 lbs fresh. I am not about to spend that much on any one ingredient, especially before shipping and handling, unless I can steam it in Old Bay and beer and pick it with about 7 or 8 of my friends)
* 2 sticks butter, one to go in the muffins and the other for the sugar topping
* sugar, one to go in the muffins and the other 3/4 for the sugar topping
* 2 eggs
* sifted flour (a little under 2 cups - got it)
* baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg and ground cloves (got 'em all)
* buttermilk (I actually had some in the fridge)
* orange rind (for the sugar topping)

First, cream the eggs, butter and sugar together. Cream them well. This is important, because it will give you fluffy and luscious muffins.

Once done, mix the dry ingredients and the buttermilk into the creamed butter, alternating (I did dry - buttermilk - dry - buttermilk - dry).

Here's where I deviated from McManus & his Gram. I divided the batter into two.

Into one half, I poured my dried huckleberries.

The other I spooned into muffin cups, filling about halfway, and then spooning a healthy teaspoon of huckleberry jam into each one.

I then finished by filling each with more batter.

The muffins were done 20 minutes and 375°F later, but McManus suggests a special sugary topping for the muffins. Mix orange rind, sugar and hot melted butter together until blended, and then dip each warm muffin into the mixture.

What you have is a luscious muffin topped with a super sweet and buttery sugar mixture. The muffins were delicious, though I was less than successful at baking six muffins each with a nice dollop of jam in the middle. Instead, I got six muffins each with a nice dollop of jam at the bottom. So the jam muffins did not turn out like I had hoped, though it was not a wash: I simply took the jam at the bottom of the muffin cup and spread it back on the muffin. The dried huckleberry muffins turned out more like I had envisioned them, and even though the berries did, again, migrate towards the bottom, at least it looked like a berry muffin.

In the future, apart from the whole blueberry vs huckleberry thing, I am leaving out the sugar topping. The reason is simple: as delicious as it is, I am left walking around for the next hour in a sugar coma. And I really don't want diabetes. But it's a lovely muffin.

We are done with Idaho, and next we head to the last region of that country that I haven't really gotten to yet in this State-by-State series: the Midwest. That's just how it worked out alphabetically. And I'm sticking around there for a while (again, alphabetically). The first stop is Illinois, the largest Midwestern state, and it has a whole lot of food to write about.


McManus, Patrick F., and Patricia "The Troll" McManus Gass. Whatchagot Stew: A Memoir of an Idaho Childhood, With Recipes and Commentaries. Henry Holt & Company, New York, 1989.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Idaho" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Idaho".