Sage Advice

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The other day I received a large, lovely bouquet, not of flowers but of sage, which is much nicer in my opinion. The gift was from my good friend (and—lucky me—next-door neighbor) Anne, who happened to be thinning out her herb garden and had more sage than she knew what to do with. I was only too happy to take some off her hands.

If you think of sage at all, it is probably in fall—its woodsy flavor is essential in classic Thanksgiving bread stuffing, or, if you’re cooking all’Italiana, in pumpkin risotto. But that doesn’t mean you should forget about it for the rest of the year. Sage has too much going for it. It’s meaty; it’s rich and assertive. It has substance. And it goes great with summer ingredients.

Here are a few of my favorite ways to enjoy sage right now:

* Planked salmon: Brush salmon fillets or steaks lightly with oil and season with salt and pepper. Arrange whole sage leaves on top of the salmon and grill on alder or maple wood planks.

* Grilled shrimp: Thread skewers with whole shrimp (peeled or unpeeled), lemon wedges, and whole sage leaves and grill over wood coals.

* Pork chops or chicken: Place whole branches of sage alongside coals when grilling pork chops, chicken breasts, or whole butterflied chicken. The branches infuse the meat with an appealing (but not too strong) smoky sage flavor.

* Corn on the cob: Make a compound butter by mixing softened butter with finely minced sage leaves, finely grated lemon zest, and garlic. Spread on hot grilled corn on the cob.

* Tomato bread pudding: Roast halved cherry or plum tomatoes until collapsed and slightly shriveled but still juicy. Toss with cubes of sturdy Italian bread and a generous quantity of finely chopped sage. Arrange in a baking dish and moisten with a custard of eggs, milk, and shredded fontina or Asiago cheese. Bake until puffed and golden.

* Saltimbocca: Sprinkle thin slices of pounded veal or chicken breast with salt and pepper. Place a whole sage leaf and slice of prosciutto di Parma on each slice. Pan-fry in a little butter. Deglaze the pan with a splash of wine and pour sauce over the slices of meat.

* Pasta with salmon, peas, and sage: Sauté cubes of salmon in a little butter or oil with spring onion or shallot, finely shredded sage leaves, and peas. Add a splash of cream at the end of cooking. Season with salt and pepper and toss with hot cooked farfalle (bow-tie pasta). (See the full recipe in The Glorious Pasta of Italy.)

* Seasoned salt: Combine 2 tbsp finely minced sage leaves with 3 tbsp coarse sea salt. Add 1/2 to 1 tsp freshly ground pepper (coarse grind) and mix. Spread on a small rimmed baking sheet to dry for a few hours. Use the salt to season soups, as well as oven-roasted vegetables, and grilled meat or fish.

* Batter and fry individual leaves the way you would zucchini blossoms. Fried sage leaves make an excellent early summer antipasto, served when evenings are still cool. They are especially good served hot out of the frying pan, with very thin, buttery slices of prosciutto and a chilled glass of Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo.

What’s your favorite way to cook with sage?

Makes 6 to 8 appetizer servings

Fried Sage Leaves

I first enjoyed this "stuzzichino" (snack) at Ristorante Plistia, in the National Park of Abruzzo. The battered and fried leaves look lacy and delicate, but they are actually quite rich so you only need a few per person. If you have leftover batter (which you likely will, as it takes only a small amount to coat the sage leaves), use it to fry zucchini or zucchini blossoms. Fried sage leaves are best served hot, so pass them around as soon as you are done frying them.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
  • 1 cup sparkling water
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • Sunflower or vegetable oil for frying
  • 24 large, unblemished sage leaves, with stems still attached

Instructions

Combine the flour and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk in the water, taking care to stir vigorously to avoid lumps. Add the egg and whisk until incorporated. Set aside.

Pour oil into a frying pan to a depth of 1/2-inch and heat over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot (check by dropping a small bead of batter into the oil; it should sizzle and immediately float to the surface) begin frying the sage leaves in batches: Hold a leaf by its stem and dip it into the batter. Gently drop it into the oil. Add as many dipped leaves as will fit comfortably in the frying pan without crowding. Fry until light golden, about 2 minutes. Use a fork or tongs to gently turn the leaves and fry on the other side for about 2 minutes longer. Use a skimmer or slotted spoon to transfer the fried sage leaves to a paper towel-lined plate. Continue to batter and fry the sage leaves until you have fried them all. Season lightly with salt and serve hot.

(Copyright 2012 Domenica Marchetti)

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15 Responses to Sage Advice

  1. Gian Banchero June 8, 2012 at 10:49 am #

    Thank you for the fried sage leaf recipe, I’ve been looking for the process without success since having tasted them in Italy… Gioia, gioia!!!

    • Domenica June 8, 2012 at 6:58 pm #

      Oh good! Hope they are as good as the ones in Italy, Gian. Check Elisa’s comment below; she uses beer instead of sparkling water in the batter. I’m going to have to try that.

  2. AdriBarr June 8, 2012 at 11:48 am #

    Poor neglected sage. We do not hear nearly enough about it. Thanks, Domenica for righting that wrong with your veritable sage compendium. What a bounty of ideas! Your description of sage as meaty is so right. Assertive, of course, but meaty really conveys the peculiar properties of this under used herb. Thanks also for the Fried Sage Leaves recipe and most especially for the wine recommendation. I read about the wine, and it does indeed sound like the perfect pairing. And my favorite way to use sage? That’s tough, but maybe with brown butter over gnocchi or a nice pasta. I’ll go with that.

    • Domenica June 8, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

      Good choice, Adri. And I’m glad you mentioned the brown butter and sage to go with gnocchi or pasta. That’s a classic. So simple and so so good!

  3. elisa June 8, 2012 at 4:23 pm #

    I love fried sage leaves, but I use beer instead of sparkling water to make the batter puff up. Also I use sage and cream cheese when I cook polenta, makes a wonderful creamy dish. The photo is beautiful, makes me want to pick up the bouquet from the photo!.

    • Domenica June 8, 2012 at 7:01 pm #

      Thanks Elisa. Love the idea of putting cream cheese in polenta. I’ll bet it’s fabulous, especially with sage. I will have to try your beer batter. I’m sure it makes a fantastic fritto misto…

  4. Rebecca June 8, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

    What a useful post! Thank you for this. I also fry sage leaves, but do it without any batter. I just drop dry sage leaves into hot oil for about 10 seconds, then scoop them out and drain. They’re crunchy and fragrant and ready to use as a garnish. They’re terrific with roasted asparagus.

    • Domenica June 8, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

      OK–fried sage leaves and roasted asparagus sounds out of this world. It’s a combination I hadn’t thought of, but I can’t wait to try it. Thanks!

  5. Laney June 8, 2012 at 4:41 pm #

    After enjoying fried sage leaves in Italy a few years ago, I returned home and planted a couple of plants in garden with wonderful intentions of enjoying fried sage leaves with my glass of prosecco. Fast forward to today, the sage has grown like a weed and the only thing I’ve used it for is to garnish my Thanksgiving turkey. So thank you for all of these great sage ideas, but especially for the fried sage leaves – the prosecco is already chilled….

    • Domenica June 8, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

      Herbs have a way of taking over, don’t they Laney. I just pulled out a ton of mint. I felt a little guilty, except I know it will be back in a matter of weeks. Cheers and happy cooking with sage.

  6. Frank June 10, 2012 at 9:52 pm #

    I’m a big fan of sage and so happy we just planted four in the herb garden! When they’re full grown they should be formidable. I love sage sautéed in butter and pour over homemade ravioli…. And they’re fantastic with pork chops, too! I haven’t tried them fried, but I bet I’d love them.

  7. ciaochowlinda June 11, 2012 at 9:25 pm #

    I don’t know why I don’t use sage more but you’ve certainly laid out lots of great ideas. I do make that herbed salt at the end of the season, using other herbs in the mix too and give it out as gifts. The fried sage leaves are something I used to do when I lived in Rome, especially as an accompaniment with pork chops. I need to allocate more space in my garden for sage after reading this.

  8. susan of food blogga June 13, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

    You’re so right, Domenica. I typically associate sage with hearty winter foods like stews and rich meat dinners. But why not pair it with shrimp? Parsley and cilantro could use a break in my kitchen.

  9. elisa June 18, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    Yesterday I made cornmeal cookies with sage and honey, deliziosi!!!!!!

  10. Fr Peter Nassetta July 24, 2012 at 11:10 pm #

    Finally got around to trying this last night! I have a huge sage plant and I think I will be treating myself to a snack with the leftover batter and reusing the oil each night this week! Thanks! And I love making brown butter and sage and putting it on simple baked or grilled chicken with a sprinkle of parm :)

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