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Mass. gardener shares easy tricks of adding flavor

July 20, 2014

NEWBURYPORT, Mass. (AP) — It all started with children’s books.

Nearly 50 years ago, Betsy Williams had just moved to Andover with her husband and their three small children. Because her husband, Ned, had to take the family’s only car to work every day, she was always looking for new things to do around the house.

While reading Beatrix Potter’s stories to her children, she was inspired to start a garden.

“Mrs. Rabbit was a single mom with four children that she had to support, because Mr. Rabbit had ended up in a pie,” Williams said. “She grew and harvested rabbit tobacco, and every Saturday, she was off to the rabbits farmers market to sell her bunches of rabbit tobacco, which left the four children home alone.”

The daughter and sister of librarians, Williams put her research skills to work and soon discovered that rabbit tobacco was a nickname for lavender in England. Williams was also intrigued by the chamomile tea that Mrs. Rabbit used to get her son to sleep in “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.”

At the time, chamomile wasn’t a well-known herb in the United States and she wasn’t sure what it was, Williams said.

“Between the chamomile and the lavender, I fell in love, and I’ve been a very happy camper ever since,” she said. “That started a whole career of it.”

Now, Williams is an author, gardener, florist and founding member of the International Herb Association who teaches others all about herbs, including how to grow them and how to use them to make condiments such as vinegars, mustards, jellies, butters and even nuts. She was also the longtime owner of a retail store in Andover, The Proper Season.

The Proper Season is where Williams’ alter ego — or, as she describes her, “very close friend” — Mrs. Thrift was born.

Looking for a way to boost sales in the “dismal” period following the Christmas season, Williams came up with an idea.

“A couple of years after we opened, I took all the leftover Christmas greens and made a big display with a huge bowl full of fragrant but already dried evergreens,” she said. “I called it ‘Mrs. Thrift’s Christmas Potpourri,’ and that’s how it all started.”

Soon, Williams began thinking of the other things that Mrs. Thrift could do, from cooking and gardening to repurposing items that might otherwise be thrown away. She also liked that the word “thrift” has two meanings that both apply to her mission: frugality and vigorous growth.

“In horticulture, a thrifty plant is a plant that is growing at its very best,” she said. “A thrifty plant is doing exactly what it should be doing. It’s in the peak of health.”

Mrs. Thrift was recently scheduled to make an appearance at the GAR Memorial Library in West Newbury, where Williams was expected to give a free talk about simple ways to use herbs in the kitchen “to give everyday, average meals a burst of flavor they didn’t have before.”

Guests were expected to learn how to preserve, dry and freeze fresh herbs for winter cooking and holiday gift giving. They also were to receive recipe sheets to bring home.

“There will be a few things for people to taste just so they can get an idea,” Williams said ahead of the event. “The difference in flavor and, therefore, personal enjoyment is amazing to some people.”

The following week, Williams was expected to lead a hands-on class for Newburyport Adult & Community Education on “Herbs for the Summer Kitchen.” Participants were expected to sample each recipe demonstrated and then make their own herb vinegars and butters.

Here, Williams shares two of her favorite recipes using herbs: mint pesto and rosemary walnuts.

Mint pesto:

11/2 cups of English curly mint, spearmint or apple mint. Leaf only.

1/2 cup parsley, either curly or flat

1/2 cup freshly grated sheep’s milk Romano cheese, Parmesan cheese or Asiago cheese

1/4 cup California walnuts

2 large cloves of garlic, peeled

1/2 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

In a blender or food processor, combine the mint, parsley, garlic, cheese and nuts. Process to mix.

With the machine running, slowly add the olive oil. Continue to process until a smooth paste is formed. If necessary, add more oil until the desired consistency is reached.

Taste. Add salt and freshly ground pepper if needed.

Pack into two 4-ounce canning jars or a small freezer container, using a rubber spatula to scrape out. Store in the freezer or refrigerator until needed.

Rosemary walnuts:

1 pound walnut halves and pieces

2 tablespoons herb butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons herb salt

1 teaspoon smoky Spanish paprika

3-4 tablespoons dried rosemary

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

On top of the stove, heat the oil and butter in a heavy roasting pan. Add the nuts to the pan, and stir.

Scatter the rosemary, salt and paprika over the nuts. Stir again.

Spread the nuts into a single layer. Put the pan into the oven, and roast the nuts for 20-25 minutes. Shake the pan and stir the nuts every few minutes to prevent burning.

When golden brown and toasted, spread the walnuts on paper towels to drain and cool. Taste, and add more salt and rosemary if necessary.

Pack in zip-close bags, and store in the freezer until needed.

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