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Heavy-handed recipes don't match delicate huckleberries.

Byline: Kim Davaz For The Register-Guard

Huckleberry Cookbook

By Alex and Stephanie Hester

(Three Forks, $14.95 hardcover)

When picking berries, there is a point when the sound the berries make as they land in the container changes. That happens when there are enough berries covering the bottom that the new berries land on them rather than container. For huckleberries, the plink-plink sound takes a very, very long time to become plop-plop. That's because huckleberries are very small and relatively hard for a berry. It takes a lot of picking and a whole lot of berries to cover the bottom of a little pail.

Alex and Stephanie Hester, authors of "Huckleberry Cookbook," live in Montana, where I first became familiar with the tiny wild berries. This is a little cookbook, as befits a little ingredient.

If you've never seen a huckleberry, think of the littlest berries found in a pint of blueberries. That's about the size of a wild huckleberry.

The introduction says that blueberries may be used in place of huckleberries. The color and look of the berries is almost the same, but the flavor will be a bit different and the size of the berries considerably different. Think of substituting blackberries for raspberries or marionberries. They are all delicious and have many of the same qualities, but they do not taste the same.

The recipe pictured on the cover is a recipe for Huckleberry Blueberry Cobbler from "Desserts." Something seems to have been lost in the editing. The biscuity topping doesn't contain either salt or sugar, but a lot of nutmeg, making a topping that was both bitter and bland. It was awful. Inedible, really.

In addition, the directions say to drop it in --cup dollops onto the berry mixture. The recipe makes exactly two dollops. So two blobs of topping on two cups of berries (which will cook down) is supposed to serve 6 to 8? I don't think so. Not unless five of them don't like huckleberries or blueberries.

The recipe does say this is particularly delicious served with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. No amount of ice cream or whipped cream could save that topping. You'd be better off making Huckleberry Crisp, whose topping does include sugar.

Here five cups of huckleberries serves 6 to 8, so a small amount should serve as a taste. You'll want to have lots of ice cream with this recipe, too.

I'd make this in a 9-inch square pan set on a baking sheet to catch drips rather than the 13-by-9-inch pan, which spreads the berries so thin (only about '-inch deep) they might just disappear into the topping.

Most successful are recipes where huckleberries are used to their best advantage: to dress a cheesecake, fill a cake, top ice cream.

The berries shine in the recipes in "Breakfast and Brunch," which is just what you'd expect.

Other recipes seem a stretch, using huckleberries because you can, not because they go well there. A pure of huckleberries, huckleberry jam and cream swirled through cold potato leek soup? Pretty, but odd.

In the recipe for Pan-Fried Trout with Huckleberry Lemon Sauce, the coating for the trout fillets is so heavily seasoned with cayenne, garlic, dry mustard and black pepper, it would overwhelm the delicate fish. The spicy coating would work on a heartier fish, perhaps salmon, or as a dredging for fried chicken or potatoes.

Because the berries are so precious, especially if you took the time to pick them yourself, skip the coulis that calls for sieving the berries. Too much will go to waste. Make compote (a spiced cooked mixture), glaze or jam instead.

The late Kim Williams was often on National Public Radio in the 1970s and 1980s talking about foraging for food in Missoula, Mont. She made huckleberry jam and put it up in the littlest baby food jars to give as presents. Take it from someone who has picked huckleberries: that is indeed a generous gift.

A list of huckleberry festivals at the end includes three in Oregon: the Blue Mountain Huckleberry Festival held in North Powder in July, the Huckleberry Festival in Bingen in September and the undated Mount Hood Huckleberry Festival and Barlow Trail Days in Welches.

Huckleberry Compote from "Staples" is a fine topping for ice cream or to accompany a pork roast. The spicing is too strong for my taste. You want to taste the berries, not just the spices. I would use - teaspoon each of the spices and increase them from there. Cloves can get quite nasty if used more than sparingly.

Huckleberry Compote

2'cups huckleberries

1/3cup sugar

1/3cup water

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon cloves

1 teaspoon nutmeg

In a heavy saucepan combine 1' cups berries, sugar, water and spices. Simmer over medium heat until berries burst, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Add remaining 1 cup berries. Continue stirring and cook until mixture coats a spoon, about 10 minutes. Serve warm.

Makes about 2 cups.

Kim Davaz of Eugene writes a biweekly cookbook review column.
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Title Annotation:Reviews Cookbooks
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 9, 2008
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