Garden huckleberry: Every serious fruit gardener should grow this at least once. Everyone who loves a good science experiment should cook with it at least once!!!
What am I talking about? Well, this is a crazy plant. It is a nightshade (as are: tomatoes, potatoes, tomatillo, eggplants, peppers and maybe, most famously belladonna, aka deadly nightshade.) As an annual this is one of the few plants (along with its close cousin the husk tomato or ground cherry) that you can grow and use as a sweet fruit the first season from seed. (Here’s a spoiler: These are not naturally sweet and have almost no flavor raw.)
Now here is where we start getting complicated. Almost immediately! The plant looks like a pepper plant and it was a huge spidermite trap for me. It was constantly on my list of things to spray (Neem oil worked well for me). I would guess if you don’t plan for a spidermite invasion you will probably not get any usable fruit from this plant. Below is a photo of silvered fruit. This is what the spidermites do to the fruit if you don’t spray.
The next issue is judging ripeness. The berries ripen at different times within the same cluster. They turn deep dark black well before they are ripe. Wait until they lose their shine and are a dull black and then wait another several days before you pick them. No joke, they need to be black all the way through the fruit before they are usable. They pretty much look the same from the outside. This is where waiting is important. These are the most ripe to least from left to right.
This is what the uncleaned fruit looks like ripe. Dull black with shriveled stems and leaves.
To get a decent pie filling you need quite a few berries. Luckily they keep well in the fridge. I only grew a few plants the season I grew them. Yes. One season. Maybe I will do it again, maybe not. The reasons to leave this as a one time experience being: the work involved keeping the plants healthy, ripening the berries correctly and then the lifespan of the pie. Although the pie I made initially tasted great (sort of a blueberry taste), after it sat a couple of days the skin on the berries got tough and chewy. It’s also hard to eat these once you’ve seen the weird process (and smell in the green foaming stage) that they go through to be edible.
Be forewarned this is fun and interesting, but ultimately: I have better things to do every year and I imagine you will too.
The recipe I used makes enough for two pies. So I needed 8 cups of berries.
Now for the science experiment! Cooking these weird little berries is probably the most fantastic science experiment you can conduct in the kitchen (outside of the 6th grade vinegar and baking soda volcanoes most of us built!)
So this is what it looks like to start. You get a psychedelic purple colored water. I poured some off to photograph: just to show how crazy the color is that these berries leave behind in their bath water!
Look! Behold! Crazy science dealing with pH! I am stirring in baking soda in this screen grab from a video I took. It’s enough to make you want to halt your experiment right here and head towards the compost pile.
The berries turn from bright purple to bright green, with a slime from the foam up the side of the pan. At this point I was thinking: “WHAT have I gotten myself into?!?! This looks disgusting!” It smelled pretty bad too. Trust the process. It gets better.
So then after 10 minutes of gross green foaming and stirring: I poured off the water and rinsed the berries. Still disgusting looking and disgusting smelling. What’s even better is: now the berries are kind of hard and stiff and…well…’very unappealing’ would be a good descriptor. My thoughts at the moment? “This is going in the garbage. I am totally wasting my garden space and cooking time!” Again, trust the process. It gets better.
So now I’m following the directions. Add lemon juice? Didn’t I just add baking soda? What is the point here? Trust the process.
So: In goes 1/3 cup of water and a 1/2 cup of lemon juice. WHAT? Purple again? Now I am genuinely impressed. I have never before, nor have I ever again, found such a unique cooking experience as this.
By this point the smell is improving as well as the possibility that this might be pie material.
I then added 2 3/4 cups sugar, (you should use lemon rind with this but, I had a lime so: what the hey?) zest of one lemon, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, a teaspoon of vanilla extract, 1 Tbs butter (plus a little more to pat the berry mixture with), 1/2 teaspoon salt, 2 tablespoons cornstarch and two to four pie crusts depending on whether you are making both pies at once.
Pat some butter on the berry mixture before adding the top crust. Pinch the crust (As you can see below my crust pinching skills are somewhat lacking), prick or slit the top and bake at 375 degree oven for 45 minutes or until crust is a light brown.
Yes. I patted it and pricked it and marked it with a b, and put it in the oven for baby and me! (This really impressed my kids by the way!)
From “Uuurggg!” to “Yum!” Definitely worthy of some respect (if only for being a miracle in transformation.)
Pretty darned good for what I was sure was going to be a massive “FAIL!”
The main recipe I used is from Sandhill preservation center. I combined that recipe with some other ideas I found on the web.
This is what I came up with out of what I found. (I combined recipes because I knew my husband would avoid the pie if I put tapioca in it and I didn’t trust the end taste of the pie on just the merits of the berry. It came out well.)
Here’s just the recipe so you can print it up if you like it:
8 Cups Garden huckleberries
1/3 Cup Baking Soda
1/3 Cup Water
1/2 Cup Lemon Juice
2 3/4 Cups Sugar
1/2 tsp Nutmeg
1/2 tsp Salt
1 Tbs Butter (plus a few pats for the top of the mixture)
2 Tbs Cornstarch
2 Pie crusts for each pie (makes 2 pies)
1. Pre-heat oven to 375º F. Clean and rinse Garden Huckleberries and place in a non aluminum pot with room for at least 1 gallon of liquid. Add enough water to just cover the fruit. Bring to a boil. Slowly add 1/3 Cup Baking Soda while continuously stirring. Green foam will appear as you stir.
2. After you are done adding the baking soda: cook for 10 minutes at a low boil. The mixture will continue to foam like crazy.
3. After the 10 minutes are done, drain the solution off and rinse with clean water. (If you are reusing your pot, clean it out too.) The berries will be somewhat hard.
4. Next return the berries to the stove. Add 1/3 Cup water and Lemon juice. The crazy berries will revert from emerald green back to a royal purple color. Cook an additional 35 minutes until the berries are tender.
5. Next add the sugar, salt, vanilla, nutmeg, butter, lemon zest and cornstarch. Cook about five minutes until the mixture thickens.
6. Place pastry in bottom of pie pan. Add half of mixture (The recipe makes enough for two pies. You can cool the other half and freeze it for later if you like.) Dot mixture with butter. Cover with top crust, crimp edges and pierce top crust all over with fork or cut slits to allow steam to escape.
7. Bake for 45 minutes or until crust is light brown. (You can leave out the cornstarch and use the mixture over ice cream or just to eat. It really turns out pretty good.)
There you go! A sure fire way of making edible pie out of these… things. And a fun experiment with the effects of an acid and base on this interesting (if not a little weird and nutty) fruit. Let me know if anyone else decides to try this berry out and what your experience is!