For Brittany Wood Nickerson, revering nature and using herbs to be healthy was a part of her life from a very early age. But she didn’t know how to combine the two until later in life.
Wood Nickerson is the founder of Thyme Herbal in Conway, and its primary instructor for a three-year herbal apprenticeship program that uses her farm as its classroom, headquarters and source for herbs. She’s also an author, health educator, wife and cook — a busy life for the mother of a toddler and a baby on the way.
In her daily life and in her teaching, which she also does at the University of Massachusetts, she combines her knowledge of nutrition and a passion for using food as medicine with her training in western, Ayurvedic and Chinese herbal medicine. Her latest cookbook, “Recipes from the Herbalist’s Kitchen: Delicious, Nourishing Food for Lifelong Health and Well-Being,” is a beautifully written book on how to use herbs both for health and to enhance daily meals with flavor. It offers lessons in how to use herbs we can grow ourselves to nourish and heal us, to enliven and energize our lives. In fact, the chapters are aptly named: Empower, Awaken, Nourish, Invigorate, Comfort, Challenge, Transform, Adapt and Share.
Roxann: When did your passion for cooking and herbs begin?
Brittany: My first memories of really being interested in cooking are when I was in elementary school. I couldn’t wait to finish my homework after school so that I could go into the kitchen and help my mother cook dinner. She was only too happy to let me help. I had chopping chores, stirring chores, whatever needed doing that she didn’t want to do or that she thought I could do. I became very comfortable in the kitchen space and I learned how to cook the dishes she made exactly the way she made them.
But eventually, I just didn’t spend so much time in the kitchen. I did other things as a kid, but I always loved being outside. It was after I got to college, University of California at Berkeley, and lived in a co-op dorm with 150 other people that I learned to cook for them as one of my contributions. Then, I also worked my way through college in the restaurant industry. I’m a self-taught cook. I never went to culinary school.
RW: And herbs?
BWN: Well, back to when I was a kid. I grew up in Leverett. When I was 12, my mother saw this herb class that was being offered and said “I think you’d like this. Why don’t you do it?” I loved it. Here I was, this 12-year-old in a class with housewives and college students learning about herbs and how to use them for health and cooking. It started there.
Later, I was very lucky to have a great mentor. Her name is Jean Bergstrom, and at the time she was the mother of my younger brother’s friend. Jean has a degree in environmental education and was the first person to teach me now to identify plants in the wild. She’s now a practitioner of plant spirit medicine.
RW: How would you describe your style of cooking?
BWN: It wasn’t until I graduated from college that I put all my energy into herbal medicine. It was then that the two came together as I began to cook medicinally using herbs and spices that worked with the food and the season. What I learned that was important was how to combine them with grains, nuts, vegetables, fruits and meat.
I try to emphasize not just what makes it taste good, but how the cooking and eating make you feel in the larger sense. How does the food look, how do the ingredients smell as you’re cooking? Eating healthy food isn’t so much about self-control or deprivation as it’s about how it makes you feel. An example might be using salt. Salt, in moderation, aids in your digestion and the absorption of nutrients in the other ingredients. You don’t have to deprive yourself of it, but use it responsibly for your particular situation.
RW: Is that how the cookbook came about?
BWN: Not exactly. I’d been doing Thyme Herbal as a business teaching herbalism since 2008. Someone, probably a student, said, “You should do a cookbook.”
I resisted at first. I thought, “I’m an herbalist. I don’t want to do a cookbook.” But I did it, and it’s become a great companion to my herbal classes.
RW: So do people take your classes to become herbalists or to learn how to cook with herbs?
BWN: It’s a mix. Some people take the classes to fulfill a career goal of becoming an herbalist and using them for medicine. Others are cooking aspirants who want to learn how to use them in their cooking, either professionally or personally.
RW: For someone who wants to begin using more herbs and spices in their food, what would you suggest they start with?
BWN: Start with the herbs that are most common to you — parsley, basil or cilantro — then branch out. Don’t just use parsley as a garnish on the side, but make a very parsley-forward recipe that uses it as an essential ingredient in a dish.
Basil is another one. It doesn’t have to be something you use just in Italian cooking. Find other ways to use it or other dishes that it goes with. The cookbook has recipes for basil-lavender tea, basil oil (and) a curry with basil.
RW: So which is best: dried or fresh herbs?
BWN: Both. You use them in different ways. Dried herbs are sautéed in the dish in the beginning to give it flavor, and they can stand up to the heat. Fresh herbs are added at the end to give a dish that extra pop as you’re digging into it. I recommend having the whole spectrum of dried herbs on hand in the pantry. And I recommend having fresh herbs — parsley, basil, cilantro — and the citrus fruits on hand in the refrigerator at all times to add flavor and brightness to a dish.
RW: How do you best store herbs in the refrigerator?
BWN: They’re best stored dry in a plastic bag. If they’re wet, then spin or pat them dry and put a paper towel in the bag with them. Another trick I offer in the book is not to wash highly aromatic herbs like basil, thyme or oregano, unless they’re very dirty. It washes off the natural oils that are essential to their flavor.
RW: What are we cooking and eating today?
BWN: Given that we’re heading into fall, I went back and forth between the shepherd’s pie, which is my mother’s favorite, and something with one of the fall root crops. I landed on the baked sweet potato with sesame-peanut aioli, also a family and friend favorite. It can be a side dish or a finger food with the aioli as a dip.
Baked Sweet Potato with Sesame-Peanut Aioli
Sweet potato ingredients:
4 medium sweet potatoes
1 T olive oil
1 T fresh thyme or 2 tsp. dried thyme
Freshly ground pepper
2 egg yolks
¼ cup toasted sesame oil
½ cup sesame oil
2 T chopped roasted peanuts
1 small garlic clove, very finely minced (about ¼ tsp.)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Slice the unpeeled sweet potatoes into rectangular pieces about ½-inch square and 3 inches long. Toss in a mixing bowl with the oil and thyme, and season them generously with salt and pepper.
Place on a baking sheet to roast for about 45 minutes, stirring every 10 to 15 minutes until they are tender, but crisp and caramelized on the edges.
While the sweet potatoes are cooking, prepare the aioli. Put the yolks in a bowl and add just one drop of cold water. Combine the two types of sesame oil in a measuring cup with a pouring spout. With a whisk, beat the yolk rapidly and then slowly.
Begin to add the oil in a steady, thin stream. As you add the oil, the aioli will begin to form a mayonnaise-like texture.
Next, stir the chopped peanuts into the aioli, along with the salt. Let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes so the garlic flavor has a chance to infuse.
Serve the sweet potato wedges with the aioli drizzled over them or with the aioli as a dip. Makes four servings.
In the “Look Who’s Cooking” monthly column, Roxann interviews and shares the recipes of people from around Franklin County who may be well-known in their professional or political lives, but not necessarily for their lives as passionate cooks, bakers or all-around foodies. Send ideas for Look Who’s Cooking to firstname.lastname@example.org.