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?
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.
Makes 6 to 8 appetizer servings
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
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)