Preparing wild foods throughout the year requires the same attention to detail as preparing store bought vegetables and other foods. Yes, the plants are from the wild, but that doesn’t mean the dishes you prepare need to be crude, rough and harshly flavored. Just as with any other food you serve and eat, you want it to look good, smell good and taste good, right? Even the most nutritious food isn’t going to be eaten if people don’t enjoy what they are eating.
So, like the cook in a modern kitchen, the bushcraft chef still needs a certain selection of tools to render the food from wild edibles into tasty dishes.
First, though, let’s examine the wild foods we’re talking about. I eat wild foods regularly at home in the city and even more when I’m out on the trail for the day or a week. I eat what is in season, and sometimes, I store foods for later use, usually by drying them.
Edible green leaves are widely available throughout the year and throughout the country. Some are more tender and are good in salads; others must be processed in some way and often cooked. These are made into soups, stews and stir-fries and added to omelets.
Various seeds, such as acorns, walnuts and other nuts, grass seeds, wild buckwheat, lamb’s quarter seed and more, are typically available at the end of the summer and into the fall. These are most often used in stews, bread and pancake batter and, in the case of pine nuts and walnuts, they are sometimes added to dessert items.
Then, there are the fruits, available seasonally from spring into the fall, depending on the type of plant. These are good for sweetening other dishes, for drinks, and for pies and jams.
There are also many useful wild roots, which vary widely in palatability. Some are good raw in salads, although most must be boiled or cooked to be palatable. Some are spicy hot (such as the outer skin of the radish root) and are used as garnishes for other dishes.
So, these are four broad categories of wild foods; think of them as lettuces and spinaches, rice and wheat, strawberries and grapes, and potatoes, radishes and ginger roots. You use all those foods in your kitchen, right?
You obviously use a variety of knives and tools to process those foods before you bring them to the table. The tools required for the processing of wild foods are very similar.
You can never have too many knives, and that is particularly true in the kitchen. Greens need to be cut and shredded; roots need to be sliced; and fruits need to be chopped. Although there are myriad kitchen tools to do these things, you really need one small and one large knife for most of these chores when in camp or on the trail.
In fact, a Swiss Army knife is ideal, because (if you buy the right one) you have two blades and a saw. The blades are good for most greens and slicing. The saw—which is too little to cut a log—will work well when you need to slice and dice roots.
In fact, when you need to grate (for instance, say you want to grate a large root; maybe a burdock root), you can just place the knife perpendicular to the root and stroke back and forth to do your grating.
Sometimes, I carry a common potato peeler in my pack, mostly for peeling the skin off cactus pads. I used to carry it religiously and still do from time to time. However, I find that I can use my large sheath knife for peeling, and it works fine. You’re not really doing a lot of peeling with wild foods, anyway, although it does come in handy.
I make pancakes a lot, and I typically mix wild seed (either processed acorns, wild buckwheat, the seeds of curly dock, lamb’s quarter or other wild grasses). Most of the seeds (except acorns) don’t require much processing. Simply rub them between your hands, whittle lightly and then mix them 50/50 with flour. Then, add water until you get the right texture. Get your skillet hot, and add the batter.
Nothing flips that pancake as well as a regular pancake flipper. You can buy a little stainless-steel flipper and carry it in your pack. Alternatively, you can whittle one from a piece of bark or wood. I prefer to carry one.
A flipper is also great for turning eggs, mixing soup and scooping greens out of the pot without taking out too much water.
I have carried little cheese graters into the woods, and they can be useful for small roots or cheese. There are little ones you can buy and carry in your pack, and they can really be useful. As a substitute, use your knife.
Grinding is used primarily for seeds but could also be used to reduce greens to a pesto-like consistency. You can purchase many kinds of grinders (such as cast-iron, hand-cranked wheat and meat grinders and coffee grinders). In a camp situation, you can do all your grinding on a flat rock using a smaller, fist-sized rock for the grinder.
Not many wild food foragers think about making sprouts with wild seeds, but it can be done—with excellent results in many cases. Anyone who has made sprouts at home knows that you soak seeds in a jar for a day. Then, you lay the jar on its side with a cloth lid and rinse it maybe twice a day until you get sprouts big enough to eat.
You probably wouldn’t carry a jar on the trail, although you can create a sprout container by using a plastic water bottle and a piece of cotton for the lid. It’s easy to do, and the trick will be to find wild seeds in season that actually sprout. I’ve found that members of the mustard family sprout really well, along with seeds such as wild radish, mustard, watercress, etc.
You use various skillets to do your cooking at home. These are also needed while in the woods. I have been laughed at for carrying a small cast iron skillet. Really! There’s nothing like a cast iron
skillet, and you can find one that is small enough for just one or two servings.
You obviously need something to cook on, and if you don’t want to carry cast iron, you can carry an old pie pan. In a pinch, I have used flat and somewhat thin pieces of rock that I found; these were propped up on other rocks with a fire built underneath. Whatever you use as a skillet, make sure to oil it before use.
In addition, don’t forget there are many other ways to cook besides in a skillet or on a rock. You can suspend a fish on a stick above the fire and cook potatoes, roots or corn on the cob in the coals. Cook biscuits by placing the dough on rocks that are on the outer perimeter of the fire.
Of course, you need a pot to cook in while in the woods. However, I would never take a good pot with me. I nearly always carry a #10 can—a large can in which you can cook soup for a party of four or boil water for coffee. Over time, these cans blacken on the outside, and they actually last a long time if you keep them clean. On the other hand, because it’s just an old can, you won’t be upset if it gets damaged.
PLATES, BOWLS AND CUPS
It’s always a good idea to have something to eat out of; a small, metal plate is easily carried into the bush. But guess what? If you don’t have a plate or cup, there are plenty of things in nature that can be used instead. I have quite often used pieces of bark and flat stones for my plate and hollowed-out yucca for my bowl or cup. Bamboo is another great possibility for a “wild” cup.
Every good cook has a favorite breadboard. After all, every bit of your work is being done on a cutting surface of some sort. I like a wooden breadboard made from one solid piece of wood. On the trail, I carry a thin, plastic “breadboard,” and it works fine. However, it’s usually easy to find the top of a cutoff log or a slabbed piece of wood in the back-country, so this item is very easy to create.
A WORD ABOUT WILD GAME
I focused mostly on wild plants in this article and didn’t mention anything about wild game. Most details about how to prepare wild game have been done to death in all the fishing and hunting magazines, as well as all the TV programs and YouTube shows on cleaning game.
But, for the record, a group of four of us once fully cleaned a deer in my backyard, and everyone took home meat that would feed them for months. Although I did use one of my sheath knives for the job (with a blade measuring about 3½ inches), I found that my little Swiss Army knife was the most useful. I used the blade for cutting, but I also found the little scissors on the Swiss Army knife incredibly useful for getting into tight spots and making clean cuts. When you’re out in the wild, don’t leave your Swiss Army knife at home.
Christopher Nyerges is an author and co-founder of the School of Self-reliance. He has led wild food walks for thousands of students since 1974, and written ten different books to go along with thousands of magazine and newspaper articles.