Friday, July 30, 2010

Wild Berry Tartlets

Lace Thornberg, editor of the Washington Trails Association magazine, joined me for a berry-picking hike on Tiger Mountain the other day. (If you're an outdoors enthusiast in the Northwest, you should check out WTA and consider becoming a member.) We had hoped to explore more far-flung woods—the North Fork Quinault rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula was at the top of my list—but summertime plans intervened and Tiger was the best we could do with just a morning at our disposal.

It doesn't look like a great red huckleberry year, and first reports coming in from the early-ripening mountain huckleberries near Spokane are not encouraging either. Was it the strange spring weather? The lack of July rain? Maybe it's just a cyclical thing. In any event, the red hucks on Tiger were pretty small and not in abundance, but we made the best of it. Lace demonstrated her finely honed hiking skills by whipping out the backpacker's berry receptacle of choice—a Nalgene bottle—and dexterously filled it in no time.

Red huckleberries (Vaccinium parvifolium) are the first of our many huckleberry species to fruit in the summer, generally preceding their darker cousins by a few weeks. Though found sporadically in the interior as far east as Idaho, they're at their best in the lowland mixed forests of the North Pacific Coast, from Central California up through British Columbia. The west-slope Cascade foothills are good habitat, and the rain forests of the Olympics are loaded with them. The berries are bright fire-engine red and a little more tart than most mountain huckleberries. They look especially good in a fruit salad.

We also found trailing blackberries, the native blackberry of the Pacific Northwest.

After picking and grazing through a series of bushes up and down the trail we headed back toward the parking lot, running into a black bear along the way that was engaged in the same pursuit. The bear eyed us for a moment, then ambled on into the patch, unconcerned.

Lace and I agreed that a tart would be a good choice for the berries. As I've mentioned here before, my baking skills are somewhat suspect so I tend to look for easy recipes. Lo and behold a recipe from Martha Stuart Kids for a simple, unfussy tart dough that can be formed in a muffin tin—right in my wheelhouse! I halved the recipe, since two dozen tarts seemed like overkill, and then set about to make a sweet cheese filling to offset the tartness of the berries.

Tart Dough

1/2 cup flour
3 tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut up
2 tbsp confectioner sugar
2 tbsp cold water

Combine flour, sugar, and butter in a food processor and pulse until grainy. Add the water a tablespoon at a time to food processor while running. Pulse until dough forms. I used my hands at the end to finish combining what the Cuisinart missed. Roll into a cylinder, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 30 minutes minimum or up to a day.

Sweet Cheese

1 8-oz package cream cheese, cut into 8 pieces.
6 tbsp sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 1/2 tbsp flour
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
lemon zest of half a small lemon

Combine cream cheese and sugar in food processor. Whir until smooth. Add flour, egg, vanilla, and lemon zest and whir again until creamy.

Berry Topping

1 cup wild berries
2 tbsp sugar
2 tsp corn starch

Briefly cook berries with sugar and corn starch until juices are syrupy.

For the final tarts I took my dough out of the refrigerator and sliced it into a dozen disks. Each disk I flattened into a 3-inch diameter round on a lightly floured surface before pressing into a muffin tin and forming into a cup. Each little tart—tartlet, if I may be so bold—then got a dollop of sweet cheese filling before being topped with a spoonful of the cooked red huckleberries and a few fresh blackberries. I baked the tartlets for around 20 minutes at 400 degrees.

They were met with approval.


Ciao Chow Linda said...

I've always enjoyed eating those wild berries whenever I'm in Europe and I wish they grew around here. Lucky you live in a place where you can find them.The tartlets were a great idea.

3rivers said...

They say they have Huckleberries here in the south but I have not seen them besides you are likely to find snakes with them. Of all the huckleberries I've picked, from Priest Lake to Sisters in Oregon, the best were the grape sized dark purple ones we got, every other year, near Mt. St. Helens, when it was a mountain.

I am going try your tartlets using blueberries and homemade creamcheese and honey.

Anonymous said...

The berries do seem a bit slow this year, probably from our long cool spring... However, I just spent a week in North Idaho in the Priest Lake area and was able to pick about a half gallon of huckleberries at lake level. While I'd hesitate to say they were "abundant", I did see a lot of green berries, and even a few bushes still in flower.
There should be much better prospects in the next couple of weeks.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

VERY cute picture of your daughter!

Rock Farmer said...

Strange - This year, the red huckleberries on Bainbridge Island are some of the biggest I've seen - Maybe our microclimate is just different enough? They're not weighing the branches down in numbers, but I've found more than a few almost blueberry-sized huckleberries in the last couple of weeks.

mila said...

I love fruit tarts but have never tried to make them. Thrilled to start.

Your pictures are beautiful. Im always surprised by the delicious bounty right in our backyard. With your blog and (they did an episode on which greens --previously looked at as weeds-- are edible), my food world is expanding. Very exciting. Thank you.

Langdon Cook said...

Ciao Chow Linda - You might look for wild blueberries in your hood. Domestic varieties were bred from those East Coast Vacciniums long ago.

3rivers - I like those purple mountain hucks too! Vaccinium membranaceum, the thin-leaf huckleberry, is the one you find on the roadside stand and farmers market, and probably the one you remember from Mt. St. Helens. It's still around, post-blast.

Cloxdog - Priest Lake is a place I need to spend more time at. Do much mushrooming around there?

Hank - She takes after her mother!

Rebecca - Another excuse to hop a ferry to Bainbridge... Those microclimates have a funny sense of humor, yes? Be happy with your bounty because a professional forager I talked to said he was having a miserable year with red hucks.

Mila - Tarts are not my everyday fare. I was skeptical until my daughter took the first bite, then relieved as she pronounced it worthy. The sweet cheese balances the tartness of the berries well. Glad you're enjoying the adventure in wild foods.

Anonymous said...

LC - No, I haven't done much mushrooming myself as I lack the knowledge to be comfortable doing so... but I have eaten and bought Morels from the locals in the spring. I've also seen Matsutake being harvested during the fall.

Albert A Rasch said...


I havn't visited in quite some time, and I am glad to see that everything looks as delicious as ever!

Those tarts do look yummy!

Best regards,
Catching Rats, Human Rats!

Anonymous said...

The perfect hiking experience...

Jenny said...

I was so excited by this post that I went out for some native blackberries and whatever else I could find! Along my drive I found a few fantastic spots of thimbleberries, too. Instead of corn starch, I just used some salal berries to thicken it up. Delicious!

Malcolm said...

Hi! Wild huckleberry crop in most of the northwestern US, especially in the northern Rockies (Idaho, w. Montana, e. Oregon, ne Washington, w Wyoming)is down from our bumper crops of the past two years. Primary reason is the low snowpack. The berries grow primarily on the current years growth on the bush. With lack of snow, the tips get hit badly with spring frosts, and don't grow as well or at all. We had some hard frosts in early to mid May this year. The reduced soil moisture from low snowpack is also a factor... however, the cool wet spring did help with moisture, but made the berries about 3 weeks late, like two years ago. Unfortunately, the very hot weather for about 3 weeks in July into early August often "fries" the developing berries. All those things combined probably contribute to the lower wild huckleberry crop this year. If you want to forcast a great crop, 2009 was perfect: heavy snow pack, some spring moisture, moderate summer temps. Of course, there are always microsites with great berries in any weather combination... if you know where to look. But 2009 was the best year since 1994... wish we had that one again!

John in Bellingham said...

Interesting. Up in Whatcom county we're having a great red huckleberry season, at least in some areas. Also, I was in far north Idaho (NE of Priest Lake but the same general region) last weekend and we did quite well with the blue hucks, although not nearly as well as the outrageous abundance from 2009. As Malcom pointed out, they are running late and the ripe ones were a couple thousand feet below where we found them at the same time last year.

As far as mushrooming is concerned, in the same area last year I found the largest fruiting of porcini (as well as at least 15 other varieties of mushroom) I've ever seen next to a lake at ~5000 ft. This year, my trip didn't line up with their fruiting schedule and it was too early/dry - not much fungal life on display anywhere in the 2000-5000' range. Should be good in another couple weeks though as they have been receiving regular showers and thunderstorms over the last week or two. I just wish it didn't take 9 hours to drive over there.