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Sage advice

(article, Deborah Madison)

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I’m always a bit surprised when people talk about how they preserve their basil for the winter, making frozen cubes of pesto to drop into soups or pastas. I admit, I do dry my basil and also my marjoram before they succumb to the first freeze. But despite having them around to use, I lose my taste for these two summery, highly aromatic herbs. 

Instead, the minute the mercury falls and the weather turns, my sage plants come into view. They should — I have at least six monstrous plants. They proliferate, and I keep transplanting the babies, and they thrive.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Deborah's sage."]

I find sage to be the quintessential winter herb. Its soft grey leaves are intensely aromatic, but not in a lighthearted, summery way, like basil or mint or marjoram — all members of the mint family, the same botanical family as sage. Instead, there is something dark, forceful, and resinous about sage. 

It’s almost not very likeable when you crush a mature sage leaf and inhale. But it works beautifully with winter vegetables, bringing the sweetness of squash down to earth and the neutrality of potatoes or white beans up a notch or two. As for meats, sage is famously good with roast chicken and with pork, again boosting neutrality and tempering sweetness.

Because of its resinous quality, sage keeps its punch when dried (and hopefully not turned into a powder). But the plant retains its leaves throughout the winter, and if your winter isn’t harsh, they remain plump. If it’s really cold, they seem to shrivel, but they’re still robust in the kitchen. So if you have a plant, use it.

Many aromatic herbs are best added at the end of a recipe — even just before serving. This is especially true of those herbs that have delicate, soft leaves, like basil or chervil. But sage is one herb you can introduce at the beginning of a recipe as well as at the end. I usually do both. 

I often start a winter-squash soup with onions, garlic, and chopped sage leaves, then end it with a garnish of sage leaves fried in olive oil until they’re dark green and crisp. Or I simmer white beans with a few sage leaves, then add more leaves at the end. Onions, too, are tempered by being roasted with sage leaves.

They can, in the company of rosemary and juniper berries, season a butter to slide under the skin of a roast turkey or chicken. I especially like them mixed with breadcrumbs crisped in olive oil or ghee. Once you have these, you can use them to add texture and interest and flavor to a pasta, or to a winter-squash or white-bean purée. Or, similarly, I might finish a winter vegetable or bean soup with sage-scented breadcrumbs (see below). 

Sage leaves can also be made into a tea, covered with near-boiling water and allowed to steep until the flavor is released. 

Do note that culinary sage, from the mint family, is not the same as sagebrush, a member of the sunflower family. The latter (in its many forms) is a strong-flavored, bitter artemisia, and not to be confused with the culinary herb. Also, there are many varieties of sage, or salvia, including one that produces what we know as chia seeds and others that produce beautiful blooms. But it’s Salvia officinalis that you want to use in your kitchen.

Sage-Scented Breadcrumbs

Yield: about 1½ cups

1½ cups fresh breadcrumbs
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil or melted ghee
3 tablespoons chopped sage leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Toss the breadcrumbs with the oil and sage to moisten the crumbs. Put them in a skillet and cook slowly over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until crisp and golden, about 10 minutes. When done, season them with salt and pepper, then allow to cool. 

Use immediately, or store in an airtight container for a week or so.

reference-image, l