In the spring of 2003, the hubster and I planted two native huckleberry plants in our front yard. I remember it so clearly because the plants were a belated wedding gift from a coworker, who took us to a native plant nursery and walked us around one wet and cold weekend morning, helping us decipher the magic behind what appeared to be a whole lot of sad little twigs in plastic pots. Really, we had NO clue. We’d bought a house at the same time we got married, and while the house itself was fresh and new (newly remodeled, anyway) – the yard was a mess of dirt and weeds and chain link fence. We were starting from scratch.
So, our incredibly nice (and knowledgeable!) coworker took us around and helped us pick out a number of shrubs and plants to get things started – among them, two little huckleberries, which I might never have noticed otherwise. I always associated huckleberry bushes with high alpine areas – not gardens – and especially with Montana, where you can get huckleberry-flavored everything. And from backpacking, when I know that a large animal in a field of huckleberry bushes is going to be the type of animal I very much want to avoid. Nice bear, good bear, don’t mind me, just keep eating those berries!
Man, if my scanner was working I would totally show y’all a photo of a grizzly, up close and personal, in Glacier National Park. Stupid broken scanner. And stupid broken printer. It’s been a tough month for electronic gear in our house.
If you live outside of the northwestern US, you may not be familiar with huckleberries. They are similar to blueberries, but smaller, a little more tart, and a bazillion times more flavorful. They aren’t commercially farmed like blueberries, in part because they generally favor high elevations and slopes, and also because they have to be hand picked. Although I personally find the picking to be easier and more satisfying than most berries – huckleberries grow in large clusters, so that you can hold a bowl underneath each cluster and simply run your fingers over it to detach the berries from the branch. You can find more huckleberry info here.
The first couple years our huckleberry plants grew, but didn’t produce much in the way of fruit. I have to admit, I sort of forgot about them for a while. A few years ago I moved one plant because it wasn’t getting enough sun, so I really forgot about them. Until last year, when the plant still in a sunny spot seemed to have grown a foot overnight, and suddenly had bunches and bunches of fruit screaming out to be picked! I harvested several pints worth and froze most of them, which turned out to be perfect for fighting the mid-winter blues.
This year I noticed early in the season that the berries were forming, and wow(!) an even bigger crop than last year. This was definitely the year for berries, and pretty much nothing else (at least in our garden). So from the one huckleberry plant, which was barely a one gallon size when planted seven years ago, and is now approximately 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide, I’ve already harvested at least 6 pints of berries – with more out there staring me down!
My favorite thing so far is to toss them into pancakes, but these shortbread bars are a close second. Super quick to whip up, with ingredients you’ll always have on hand – in fact I made two batches in short order, because I undercooked the first batch (and then discovered the hubster ate every last bite anyway). The edges were perfect, and so tasty that I got up early and baked a second batch before 8am, just to, you know, verify that a correctly baked batch was equally tasty. Which it was. All of it.
Huckleberry Shortbread Bars
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 egg, separated
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- pinch salt
- 1 teaspoon water
- 1/2 cup huckleberries
- sugar for sprinkling, optional
Preheat oven to 35o degrees. Line an 8×8 inch pan with foil and spray with baking spray. In a food processor, combine sugar, flour, salt, vanilla and butter, process until combined. Add egg yolk and pulse until mixture comes together in large crumbs. Pour into prepared pan and press into an even layer. Mix the reserved egg white with a teaspoon water, beating well. Brush over the top of the shortbread layer. Spread huckleberries over shortbread layer. Sprinkle with sugar, if desired. Bake about 25 minutes, until top is lightly browned all over. Cool and cut into 16 squares. Store in an airtight container at room temperature up to 5 days, or freeze in an airtight container up to 3 months.