In her new book “Recipes From the Herbalist’s Kitchen: Delicious, Nourishing Food for Lifelong Health and Well-Being,” Brittany Wood Nickerson asks readers to consider that food and medicine can be one and the same. With recipes such as crispy sage and roasted garlic risotto and elderflower-mint mojitos, the medicine Nickerson makes can be quite easy to take. “The book really spans the gamut from food recipes to medicine recipes. The idea being that the kitchen is a place where we historically have made not just food, but medicine,” Nickerson says. The Conway resident has been practicing this holistic approach to using herbs for both flavor and health benefits in courses and workshops she teaches in New England and around the Northeast.
Q. How do you approach using herbs differently than a chef or a home cook might?
A. A lot of folks address herbs in one of two ways. Either via tradition — basil with tomato sauce or on mozzarella is a very good example. Then the other piece of it is flavor. It’s easy to think we put basil in our tomato sauce because it tastes good. But actually, if you look back at the traditional use of herbs, there’s just as much evidence to show that herbs are incorporated because of their medicinal properties. All culinary herbs are somewhat antimicrobial and they also all support digestion in some way. Rosemary and sage are really good examples of that. They both contain antioxidants that prevent food from spoiling.
Q. Gardens are producing a lot of basil right now. What are some benefits of using it?
A. Basil has a very sunny and uplifting spirit. Basil is a powerful relaxing herb. But it also stimulates circulation throughout the body including to the brain. It’s what I call a calm focus herb. Usually we need both of those. It helps to ease feelings of indigestion, especially if people experience indigestion from fats or oils because it supports liver function. It helps with the absorption of nutrients. In the book, I talk about using it in different recipes. There’s a roasted tomato recipe with very thinly sliced basil. There’s also a recipe for basil oil, which really takes advantage of those beautiful aromatic oils. Then there’s also recipes for things like basil tea that you can use to help relax and promote mental clarity.
Q. Do you need to use herbs in concentrated doses to get medicinal benefits?
A. The taste that an herb has gives you a pretty clear indication of what its medicine might be. Bitter-tasting foods for example have a direct effect on the digestive system. Mildly spicy or pungent foods also have a direct effect on the digestion. They stimulate circulation and improve the absorption of nutrients. Salty tasting foods, things like spinach or Swiss chard, usually indicate a high mineral content, indicating that they’re very nutritive. The reason for revealing that to the reader is that they should start to trust their intuition a little. Also to say: Hey, to get the medicinal benefit of these herbs, all you have to do is taste them.
Q. What other ways do you like to make use of herbs?
A. You can make herbal teas. You can make herbal syrups which are basically water-based preparations cooked down and then preserved with a sweetener. These have become really popular in recent years as additions to cocktails and homemade sodas. Then in the diet, we can incorporate larger amounts of herbs by making condiments. Condiments offer us the opportunity to premake something and have it in the fridge. Herb salads or chutneys are also great ways to get larger quantities of herbs in the diet. You could make a salad with herbs like a parsley salad or a combination of parsley, cilantro, and dill. If you eat half a cup or a cup of that, you’re getting a medicinal dose.
Q. How do you like people to think about using herbs and food as medicine?
A. We need to think long-term and big picture. We need to think about it in relationship to our lifestyle and our attitudes. One thing that deters people from using herbs and natural remedies instead of drugs is that they take longer to work sometimes. Not always. But if we’re working with long-term health benefits, it might be three months before we really see deep, lasting change. It’s a lesson in patience.Michael Floreak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.