By Cheri Scolari
My earliest memories of the herb sage are, alas, not very positive ones. I remember peering into an old Crown Colony tin in my mother’s spice drawer and wondering what that nasty rubbed sage stuff was. It was a brownish green mass, almost furry looking, with a rather overpowering pungent odor. I eventually learned that sage was the essential ingredient in our Thanksgiving stuffing, so I accepted its presence in our kitchen and gave it no further thought until years later when I had a kitchen of my own and started to experiment in the culinary realm. I ditched the rubbed sage awhile back and planted a little sage seedling from the Sickles Garden Center. This prolific plant grew like a weed, through scorching summer heat waves and monsoon rains, seemingly unaffected by the weather. When my sage was buried by huge drifts of snow last winter, I pretty much wrote it off, along with the rest of my herb garden, thinking I would just start over again this spring. But lo and behold, the first green shoots to pop out after the snow melted away were those of the determined salvia officinalis, the botanical name for the herb, sage. Now, by the end of the summer, I have a mammoth sage bush, bursting with fragrant, velvety silver-green leaves, and I am adding this distinctive herb to all kinds of dishes, from breakfast omelets to cocktails and dinner.
I am not the first one, apparently, to appreciate the merits of this useful plant. Sage has been considered historically as a cherished herb and was even associated with long life in the 18th century. As a medicinal plant it has anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties and can be used as a compress to promote the healing of wounds. It has been used as a mouthwash and a natural gargle for tonsillitis and laryngitis. Sage extracts are known to relax smooth muscles (found in internal organs) and sage tea is often used to combat stress or digestive ills. The volatile oils present in sage are said to affect the female system in a way similar to estrogen and may help relieve menopausal symptoms but are not advised for pregnant women.
Most Americans, however, enjoy sage as a cooking herb. With its intense, distinctive and slightly bitter taste, sage pairs well with fatty dishes such as duck, pork, sausages, and butter-based sauces. It is the defining ingredient in most stuffing and is also quite nice with tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, onions and beans. Just last night, I browned some chopped sage in butter and added thick slices of zucchini, baby bella mushrooms and tomatoes, and a dash of freshly ground pepper and sea salt. We had some red Himalayan rice and fresh salmon alongside, but the sage added the interest and dimension to the meal. I kept going back for vegetables!
One of my cookbooks with quick, reliable recipes is Fresco, Modern Tuscan Cooking For All Seasons, by Marion and Vincent Scotto, featuring dishes from the restaurant of the same name in New York City. The Bistecca Fiorentina is a simple way to cook up a T-bone on the grill while we still have our barbeques fired up. Heat up your grill until the coals are very hot. Season your steaks with salt and pepper. Place a small whole bunch of sage on the grill and a 1 ½ lb. steak on top of the bunch. Grill for 2-3 minutes on one side. When you turn the steak, the sage will adhere to the meat. Grill for 2-3 minutes on the other side. Leave the sage in place when you serve. Place the steak on a plate and drizzle with olive oil. Another one of my favorite sage recipes in the Fresco cookbook is Pappardelle with Summer Corn and Fresh Tomatoes. You simply toss your cooked pappardelle pasta with garlic and red chili flakes sautéed in olive oil. Then add fresh Jersey corn kernels, chopped Jersey tomatoes, freshly chopped sage leaves, and top with some grated Parmesan. What could be easier or taste more like a New Jersey summer? And speaking of summer, try a sage leaf in your lemonade, lemon tea, or lemon based cocktail – that’s another surprising combination for the end of summer. My absolute favorite pairing is sage and butter, especially browned butter. A classic version of this delicious duo is Fettuccine with Brown Butter and Sage. From there you can build on the recipe, adding cubes of butternut squash, slices of prosciutto, or perhaps some boar sausage.
If your sage plant grows anything like mine, you’ll have enough herbs to cook and experiment with throughout the entire winter. To harvest the leaves, be sure to pick the branches early in the day, before the sun has dried out the essential oils. Hang the picked bundles in a warm place to dry. When the leaves are brittle enough, crumble and store them in a clean, airtight bottle. If you keep them in a dry, dark place you can use your dried sage for months. Sage seems to thrive in almost any condition so there’s a good chance that your lovely fragrant sage plant will survive the winter and once again be front and center stage in your culinary productions.
Enjoy Cheri the Cheesemonger!