My sage bush can look thoroughly miserable by midwinter. After waves of frost the leaves curl up, wizened grey, sad. By mid-April they are back to their happy “sage-green” best again, with new growth, tons more flavour and the first purple flowers.
Sage grows well in an Irish climate, and is said to be anti-inflammatory (keeping the arthritis at bay), an insect repellent, a great infusion for sore throats, a teeth whitener (try rubbing a few leaves on your teeth), and good for digestion.
But what to cook with this wonder herb? In Ireland in Ye Olden Days we became a bit stuck-in-the-rut about using sage. It was a key ingredient in sausagemeat. Or in (vegetarian) Glamorgan sausages.
Or for sage and onion stuffing – particularly for a “fatty” bird such as goose, and possibly with mashed potato instead of breadcrumbs in the stuffing mix. But that was about it.
We should take a leaf out of Italian cuisine, where sage is often a big star. Classics include:
- Salvia fritta or fried sage leaves – try frying them in a light tempura batter of flour and beer, or a seasoned flour and eggs mix
- Sage and brown butter sauce – a very simple sauce, poured over the pasta or gnocchi or whatever it’s going with
- Saltimbocca alla Romana – flattened veal or, if you prefer, chicken breast (butterflied out to be extra thin, then put between two sheets of clingfilm and bashed with a rolling pin to become ultra-ultra thin), given a fresh sage leaf or two, wrapped in prosciutto and fried on both sides
And as we finally approach barbie season in Ireland, try throwing leftover sage stems (or full sprigs if you can afford to) onto the hot charcoals to infuse the meat or veg as it cooks.
Here are three more dishes to bring out the best in fresh sage…
1. Sage pesto
Why should pesto always be made with basil? Why not with mint or rocket (arugula) or wild garlic leaves?
As the only herb in a pesto, fresh sage can be “a bit of a thug”: too bitter, intense and earthy. So “calm it down” by blending in some soft herbs -“cooler” herbs such as parsley, chives or even mint.
Take a fistful of sage leaves, remove any tough stalks, add about the same amount of your “calming” soft herbs, and nuts (walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts), garlic, freshly grated Parmesan or another strong hard cheese such as Pecorino, and a pinch of sea salt and black pepper.
Mix and mash everything together in a pestle and mortar, add a generous glug of extra virgin olive oil or rapeseed oil. Mix again, taste. Season with more salt and pepper if required, or a squirt of fresh lemon juice.
This pesto goes really well with pasta dishes such as tortellini, or with pork or lamb chops. Or on toasted crostini or bruschetta, or on a bread roll, topped with goat’s cheese and roasted red peppers, served lukewarm or cold.
2. Caramelised onions with sage
So you’re doing a bake or roast in the oven? Time to chuck in a baking tray of onions too. I do this all the time now. It’s addictive, it’s simple and quick, it saves money.
Halve or quarter each onion, but leave the outer skin on: this layer will probably turn out too tough to eat and is likely to burn too much or get leathery, but it protects the rest of onion as it cooks and you can peel it off and discard it afterwards.
Put the onions on your baking tray, lightly coated in ordinary olive oil or rapeseed oil, just enough so they won’t stick. Let them bake away until they start to caramelise and have softened up considerably.
Take them out. As they begin to cool, you can now peel and discard that tough, burnt outer skin.
I usually put the onions straight into a glass jar or a plastic storage container (of the Chinese takeaway variety). While the onions are still warm, add the sage leaves – roughly torn or sliced – plus freshly ground black pepper or whole black and pink peppercorns and extra virgin olive oil. Allow the flavours to infuse.
Once cool, put the container in the fridge, where the onions will keep for a good week. Serve cold or slightly warmed up as tapas or antipasti – or throw them into soups or stews that call for a cooked onion.
3. A salad garnish
While sage leaves would be a bit harsh for most salads, sage flowers are as pretty as many a “proper” flower (as it were) – and they make a lovely garnish.
I’ve been experimenting with the flowers. Their tips are almost as deep blue as borage flowers, yet they dry excellently. In fact, try adding the dried sage flowers to a dry sage (leaf) mix, to give it that little purple touch.
And I didn’t mention Prince once.