You’re doing great. You’ve located some wild edible plant species, made a 100% positive identification, and collected a basket full. Now what? It’s time to prepare a feast from these raw heritage foods (but how?). And if you harvested too much food to use today, what’s your plan to preserve the food you have collected? Here are some easy ways to prepare your wild food (in the wild and at home), and a simple way to preserve your bounty of foraged food.
Wash and Eat
If you’re looking for the easiest way to enjoy your wild edible plant harvest, wash off each item with clean water and eat it raw (if that food is safe to eat without cooking). Make sure you use potable water as your wash water. It only makes things worse to take our plants down to the local creek and give them a bath. This raw water is likely to be adding pathogens, rather than removing them. Only use safe drinkable water to wash your greens, berries, shoots, and other raw wild veggies. The purpose of this rinsing is to remove any dust or dirt on the surface, and more importantly, to wash off any surface pathogens that might present due to bug or bird droppings.
Of course, we’ll all avoid the berry that is caked with a crust of white bird crap, but a casual splatter that is diluted by the rain is not so visible (and so we wash the food assuming contamination). Once you’ve laundered your plant foods, pat them dry with a clean cloth or paper towel, and enjoy them raw. These could be leaves, stems, and tender shoots that you have collected for a wild salad. It could be berries that you plan to wolf down by the handful. In either case, enjoy them!
Steam Your Veggies
A simple way to prepare most wild vegetables is to steam them. This not only disinfects the plant parts with heat (killing any bugs that washing missed), it also tenderizes the vegetables. Here’s my favorite way to steam foraged leaves, shoots, and tender roots. Start by pouring a half-inch of water in the bottom of your cookpot. Bring the water to a boil (over your camp stove, campfire, or home cooktop). Add the wild plants and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Turn off the cooktop or stove (or remove the pot from the fire) and allow the plants to steam for 10 minutes. This “low and slow” cooking technique keeps the minerals in the food (rather than leaching them out into the cooking water), and it preserves many of the vitamins (which are often destroyed by high heat cooking methods). This steaming practice is best suited for more tender plant parts, and not recommend for tough or fibrous foods. It’s also the best way to take the “sting” out of stinging nettles without leaching away all of their abundant nutrients.
Break Them Open
Most edible tree nuts are ready to eat – right out of the shell. Sure, they take a little bit of work, but these are your most calorie-dense wild plant foods. They’re well worth the labor. You could grab a hammer and cinderblock from your shed to make a cracking station. Or just use a flat stone as a cracking base and a smaller flat stone as a hammer. Remove any outer husks that are messy (like black walnu
t hulls) and allow the nuts to dry for a few hours or days. Dry nuts are ready to crack, and the resulting nut meat is ready to eat (except for acorns, which need to be soaked – see our Tree Nut article for details).
Make A Soup
For tougher plants, roots, tubers, fibrous shoots, and all other foraged plant foods that don’t make a good salad – you can always turn them into a soup or stew. Fill your pot with the edibles you have collected, cover them with clean water, and bring them to a low boil. Simmer for half an hour and pick out a piece of food to test (ideally, one of the tougher foods). If it’s tender enough to eat, then the more tender plant parts will be done as well. Continue cooking as needed, season, and serve when ready. Some of your ingredients will act as a seasoning on their own (like wild onions), but this also makes a good case to carry salt, pepper, a bouillon cube, and a few of your favorite spices in your mess kit. Soup is great survival food. It warms the belly in cold weather, and it’s easily divided among a group. Soup is also filling, and the broth is loaded with micronutrients. Since the longer cooking time bursts open cell walls, this allows the food to be digested more effectively.
Dry Your Excess
It’s a happy problem, to have more food than you can eat – but it’s still a problem. When a foraging resource is abundant, it’s never a bad idea to grab some extra for preservation. A lot of wild plant foods are only available for a short time, providing food for a brief window and then disappearing until next year. Preservation gives us the key to extending that food resource and enjoying those wild edibles long after their natural season is over.
To this end, drying is one of our oldest tricks for food preservation, and it still works today (on or off the grid). Dried foods naturally have less weight and volume than fresh food (making them easier to transport), but most importantly, dried foods have significantly reduced water content – making them less hospitable to the organisms that cause food spoilage (like bacterial and fungal organisms).
You don’t need an electrically powered space-age dehydrator unit to preserve your foraged food. Just a little dry airflow is all you really need. For food that I will use as tea, I like to hang leaves and even entire plants upside down in the shade. The UV light from direct sunshine can break down some of the volatile oils I’m trying to preserve. Leave them hanging for a few days and store them in a breathable container when the leaves or plant parts become so dry that they are brittle or crumbling (think “dried herbs” that you’d crumble into your food).
As for food that I’ll actually chew up and swallow, I like to dry that food in direct sunlight. The UV rays kill or disable many food spoilage organisms, and it speeds up the drying time. Leaves can be chopped to release their water faster. Roots and fruits can be sliced thin for the same effect. In a disaster, you can use the plastic screens off your home windows as drying racks. In the field, dry your food on clean rocks, grass mats, or wooden racks to dry in the sun.
Dry the food in the sun for a day or several days, until the food doesn’t change appearance anymore. And however you dry your food (in the shade or sun), bring it in during damp weather or night time – then resume drying when the weather dries out. You’ll also want to put it away if you have to leave the area, to prevent animal thieves from taking your hard-earned supplies. Store dried plant foods in breathable containers in a cool, dry, dark place for maximum shelf life.