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‘The Herbalist’s Kitchen’ is chock full of recipes and tips on using herbs for good health

  • Oregano at the home of Brittany Wood Nickerson in Conway. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Brittany Wood Nickerson, author of "Recipes from the Herbalist's Kitchen: Delicious, Nourishing Food for Lifelong Health and Well-Being", talks about her book at her home in Conway, July 6. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nickerson brews herbal tea from lavender, sage and spearmint. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Freshly picked lavender, sage and spearmint are ready to be brewed to make herbal tea. Nickerson’s cookbook also contains recipes for meals like braised beef shanks with gremolata and sautéed blueberries with lavender. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Herbal tea made from lavender, sage and spearmint rests on a stove at the home of Brittany Wood Nickerson, author of "Recipes from the Herbalist's Kitchen: Delicious, Nourishing Food for Lifelong Health and Well-Being", in Conway, July 6. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Herbal tea made from lavender, sage and spearmint rests on a stove at the home of Brittany Wood Nickerson, author of "Recipes from the Herbalist's Kitchen: Delicious, Nourishing Food for Lifelong Health and Well-Being", in Conway, July 6. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Spanakopita from Brittany Wood Nickerson's new cookbook the Herbalist’s Kitchen.  Alexandra Grablewski and Keller and Keller Photography, used with permission from Storey Publishing—Contributed photo

  • Excerpted from Recipes from the Herbalist’s Kitchen © by Brittany Wood Nickerson, photography © by Alexandra Grablewski and Keller and Keller Photography, used with permission from Storey Publishing—Contributed photo

  • Lemonade from the Herbalist’s Kitchen Alexandra Grablewski and Keller and Keller Photography, used with permission from Storey Publishing—Contributed photo

  • Alexandra Grablewski and Keller and Keller Photography, used with permission from Storey Publishing—Contributed photo

  • Alexandra Grablewski and Keller and Keller Photography, used with permission from Storey Publishing—Contributed photo

  • Brittany Wood Nickerson, author of "Recipes from the Herbalist's Kitchen: Delicious, Nourishing Food for Lifelong Health and Well-Being", picks oregano at her home in Conway, July 6. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Alexandra Grablewski and Keller and Keller Photography, used with permission from Storey Publishing—Contributed photo

  • Blueberry dessert Alexandra Grablewski and Keller and Keller Photography, used with permission from Storey Publishing—Contributed photo

  • Brittany Wood Nickerson, author of "Recipes from the Herbalist's Kitchen: Delicious, Nourishing Food for Lifelong Health and Well-Being", picks sage at her home in Conway, July 6. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Brittany Wood Nickerson, author of "Recipes from the Herbalist's Kitchen: Delicious, Nourishing Food for Lifelong Health and Well-Being", picks mint at her home in Conway, July 6. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sage at the home of Brittany Wood Nickerson in Conway. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Brittany Wood Nickerson, author of "Recipes from the Herbalist's Kitchen: Delicious, Nourishing Food for Lifelong Health and Well-Being," picks lavender from her herb garden in Conway. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Brittany Wood Nickerson, author of "Recipes from the Herbalist's Kitchen: Delicious, Nourishing Food for Lifelong Health and Well-Being", walks through a garden while collecting herbs at her home in Conway, July 6. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lavender at the home of Brittany Wood Nickerson in Conway. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Brittany Wood Nickerson, author of "Recipes from the Herbalist's Kitchen: Delicious, Nourishing Food for Lifelong Health and Well-Being", talks about her book at her home in Conway, July 6. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Friday, July 14, 2017

Some people like to eat their weeds. Herbalist, Brittany Wood Nickerson, 32, is one of those people.

Wandering through her backyard garden in Conway the other day, the sunlight was beaming on her blonde wispy hair as she plucked lavender from the ground. This is an herb, she said, that can go well in salad dressing.

“Can you hear the bees?. They are in heaven,” she said as she walked almost knee deep into a patch of mint.

This herb garden surrounding her is wild, a field among rolling hills, down a country road. The 3-acre property is tucked in the foothills of the Berkshires, and it is Nickerson’s laboratory to experiment with the healing properties of plants.

This medicinal power is what inspired her new cookbook, “Recipes from The Herbalist’s Kitchen,” a culmination of a life-long love affair with culinary herbs. It is a 303-page volume that is packed with stunning illustrations and tips about how to cook for health. It took her more than a year to write the 110 original recipes inside and at least another year to edit.

Many of the recipes are simple, like hibiscus ice cubes to flavor water on a hot day or a spanakopita with greens. It covers a range of hearty meals, like braised beef shanks with gremolata and desserts like sautéed blueberries with lavender essence and whipped cream.

Imbedded throughout the book are bits of culinary and medicinal wisdom.

For instance, you can make pesto from any fresh herb, not just basil. Cilantro can ease nausea and improve digestion, but it can also balance your blood sugar. Dill weed is an easy cure for bad breath.

Nickerson also goes over some unexpected ways to use common herbs, like infusing them in lemonade or into a honey. The book, she says, is like a mini course on cooking with medicinal plants.

“The premise is that the kitchen is not only where you make your food, it’s where you make your medicine,” she said.

In Nickerson’s kitchen, just feet away from the garden, there are dozens of jars lining the shelves filled with dried herbs. There is garlic, a potent anti-oxidant, which is also known to fight cancer and parsley, a rich source of iron, which can help fight anemia. Then there is cilantro to help with digestion and relieve gas and lavender, an aromatic herb that eases anxiety and depression.

“Plants can have this power that is so profound,” she said.

Nickerson’s been teaching herbalism classes here through her home business, Thyme Herbal, for several years, but this is her first published cookbook.

“It’s really exciting to me to have this out in the world now — now everyone can have this.”

Deep roots

Nickerson’s passion for plants took root in her family’s backyard in Leverett. This love grew when she went to college at University of California, Berkley, and took an ethnobotany course. She says she couldn’t get enough, so she took classes at an herbal medicine school, the Living Awareness Institute, in California.

“When I first started learning about herbs, I thought ‘Wow, this is magical,’ ” she said.

She launched Thyme Herbal shortly after graduating. For the next few years, she taught classes out of her home in the Bay area before moving back to western Massachusetts in 2009.

She shares her love of plants with her husband, Casey Steinberg, 40, co-owner of Old Friends Farm in Amherst. While she tends to her herb garden, he runs an organic vegetable and cut flower farm.

They are already priming their 6-month-old daughter, Ida, for a plant-based diet. Sometimes she nibbles on dill weed. This is a European folk remedy for colic, says Nickerson, but luckily Ida isn’t colicy, she just likes chewing on weeds like her mother.

“Babies will put everything in their mouths,” Nickerson said. “So I am starting her young.”

The book came together when Nickerson was pregnant and if you look closely, you might see a growing belly in some of the photos of her tending to the garden since the photography was done over a year-long period.

“I got increasingly pregnant in the photos,” she said.

Idyllic space

Most of images that aren’t of plated food, show Nickerson in that garden. It is a space where she still spends much of her time, these days with her daughter at her hip.

There is a mulch path, and the borders are roughly marked by a few evergreens and a purple shed. The air is humid and sweet.

Quite a few of the herbs are weeds that just appeared here one day, like the tiny dandelion flowers.

“I call them ‘the volunteers,” she says. “...Dandelion is a weed that is in everyone’s garden. I might not weed it strategically, either as a teaching tool, because I want to show it to my students, or because I want to use it.”

A huge sliding glass door opens to the airy kitchen that she uses as a classroom. The space feels warm because of all the earth tones, but it is also blanketed in sun. There is a worn couch and a chalkboard where she presents lessons. Stacks of herbalism books fill a bookshelf.

This space was once an old barn, an outbuilding from the main house on top of a hill.

Nickerson has come a long way since the first course she taught through Thyme Herbal. On day one of her first “The Art of Home Herbalism” course, she had just three students; these days the 18-slot classes are full and have waiting lists, she says.

Her book is based on many of the lessons from these courses.

She profiles 12 common herbs and the five flavor categories they fit in, describing what at-home cooks can learn about their food based on the taste.

Sour tasting foods have, for example, a tightening effect on mucus membranes. Salty tasting foods, like spinach and Swiss chard, are naturally rich in minerals.

“I talk about how we can use our sense of taste to intuit and deduct what the medical properties of what a food may be and what an herb may be.”

On a recent afternoon, she squats in her garden and takes fists full of oregano from the ground for a summery tea. She’ll mix it with lavender, a bitter, but uplifting herb, she says.

“Teaching about the flavors is an act of empowerment.”

Following are two recipes Nickerson agreed to share from her cookbook. For more information about “The Herbalist’s Kitchen” or Thyme Herbal, visit https://www.thymeherbal.com.

Lisa Spear can be reached at Lspear@gazettenet.com.

There will be a book signing and talk on “The Herbalist's Kitchen” on Friday, July 21 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. outside Hungry Ghost Bread at 62 State Street in Northampton. 

Spanakopita with Fresh Herbs and Wild Greens

Serves 8

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups chopped onion, leeks, scallions, or a combination

2 pounds greens, chopped into bite-size pieces

Salt

4 eggs, beaten

2 cups cottage cheese or ricotta cheese

1½ cups crumbled feta cheese (about ½ pound)

1 head garlic cloves peeled and chopped

½ cup chopped fresh basil

½ cup chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano

Freshly ground black pepper

¾ cup (1½ sticks) butter, melted

1 (1-pound) package frozen phyllo dough, defrosted

Ground paprika, dried chives, dill seeds, fennel seeds, or sesame seeds (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees

2. Warm the oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the greens in several layers, salting lightly as you go. I use a large soup pot because 2 pounds of greens is a lot, and it usually fills the whole pot. Put the lid on and cook over medium-low heat, stirring every 2 to 3 minutes, until the greens have cooked down to about one-quarter of their original volume.

Put the greens in a colander to drain and set aside to cool. I like to set the colander over a pan and collect the drippings; they are flavorful and nutritious and can be used like broth in your cooking.

3. Combine the eggs with the cottage cheese, feta, garlic, basil, parsley and oregano, and season generously with pepper. Once the greens have drained and cooled, stir them into the mixture.

4. With a pastry brush, grease the inside of a

9- by 13-inch baking dish with some of the melted butter. Lay a sheet of phyllo dough in the dish so that only half of it covers the bottom of the pan, with the extra hanging over one of the long ends of the pan.

Brush the half of the sheet that’s in the pan with melted butter. Lay another sheet on top, again with only half the sheet covering the bottom of the pan, setting it exactly on top of the first sheet, and brush with butter.

Continue this process until you have laid out and buttered 8 sheets, then repeat with another 8 sheets, only with the extra spilling out over the opposite side of the pan.

5. Add the filling, spreading it out evenly to the edges of the pan. Fold the pieces of phyllo dough over the top, alternating between sides, brushing each layer with butter. Layer any remaining phyllo dough on top, folding each piece to fit the pan and brushing with butter between each layer. Continue layering the phyllo dough until you run out of space in the pan, phyllo dough, or butter. Dust the top with paprika, dried chives, and dill, fennel or sesame seeds, if desired.

6. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the filling is bubbling and the top is golden brown.

Cut into pieces and serve hot (although it is also yummy cold).

Cilantro Lemonade

Makes about 3 cups

1 bunch cilantro (about 2 cups packed)

¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (from 1-2 lemons)

2 tablespoons raw honey

¼ teaspoon salt

2 cups water

Combine the cilantro with the lemon juice, honey, salt, and water in a blender and purée for 3 minutes. The drink will be a rich green color with a beautiful white foam on top. I enjoy drinking the lemonade as it is, with the cilantro pulp, but you can strain it through a sieve or tea strainer before serving, if you like. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Sautéed Blueberries withLavender Essence and Whipped Cream

Serves 4

When it comes to fresh fruit, less is usually more. This is almost like a blueberry soup — a simple and honest celebration of the berry. The berries are gently warmed, just to coax out the juices, and subtly complemented with aromatic lavender and creamy butter. The best part is watching the whipped cream dissolve softly into the beautiful purple berries, making marbled patterns in varying shades of blue and purple. This makes a great afternoon snack, breakfast or dessert.

1 tablespoon fresh or dried lavender flowers

¼ cup boiling water

3 cups fresh blueberries

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2-4 tablespoons raw honey

1 cup heavy cream

1. Put the lavender flowers in a teapot or jar and pour the boiling water over them. Cover with a lid and let steep for 10 minutes, then strain into a saucepan.

2. Add the blueberries, butter and honey to taste to the lavender infusion. Heat over medium heat until the berries soften and release their juices, 5 to 6 minutes.

3. While the berries are cooking, whip the cream until it forms soft peaks. Serve the berries hot, in bowls, with generous dollops of the whipped cream.

Thyme Herbal Classes

Thyme Herbal offers private consultations and several courses throughout the year. These typically include:

The Art of Herbalism

Students learn how to work with herbs in Brittany Wood Nickerson’s garden and kitchen classroom. It is also offered online through instructional videos, audio recordings and readings.

Herbalism In Practice

The class is a deeper dive into developing a practice a herbalism.

Other classes offered, include Advanced Herbalism Apprenticeship and The Art of Home Herbalism.

For a full listing of classes and fees, visit https://www.thymeherbal.com/classes/.

Thyme Herbal’s classroom and gardens are located at 264 S. Shirkshire Road in Conway.

For more information, email office@thymeherbal.com or call 489-3326.