Monday, October 12, 2015

Sage: The Alpha Dog (Herb Series)

The smell of fresh sage pulls me far away from the here and now, to a pub in foggy Dartmoor. Inside, flames crackle in a fireplace. The air is dense and smoky, redolent of ale and fried chips. Mr. Sage sits at the bar, an elegant, yet rugged chap, all decked out in his Sunday best--suspenders, corduroy suit, tweed hat, a gold pocket watch ticking ominously in his pocket. His grim, poker face softens after he tosses back a shot of whisky. He reaches for another. As he leans closer to the bar, he gives off the faint smell of camphor. Maybe he has rubbed medicinal ointment on his chest --or is he trying to repel the other patrons? Indeed, he keeps to himself. But after a few more shots, he blossoms into a loud, mesmerizing storyteller. Yes, he has seen it all--sirens and mermaids and even Kate Middleton's underpants. 

Fresh sage has a bright, layered aroma--wild and woodsy, with a lemony hit, chased by menthol.The leaves are fuzzy, dense, and chewy. It's like biting into a green velvet pillow. First, there's a rush of eucalyptus followed by a bitterness that lingers on the tongue. You'll want to eat Cheese-Its to banish this caustic taste. But this only happens if you eat it raw. The cooking process transforms this bitter boy into a smooth-talking gent.

Sage has a large social circle: bay, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and parsley. He's a member of the mint family, so, he's not a loner at all; but he can be domineering and pushy (just ask thyme). 

Aside from his reputation as a cold-weather cooking herb, sage has been traditionally associated with wisdom, anti-aging, and removing negative energies. Sometimes people burn smudge sticks when they move to a new home or to refresh an old one. I actually tried this one time and set off the smoke alarm. 

Sage's motto is: "My way or the highway."
He's not kidding. This Alpha dog should be controlled or his innate bitterness could overwhelm a recipe. Draw firm, clear boundaries with this herb (in other words, it's wise to follow the recipe).

Used judiciously, sage pairs wonderfully with turkey, chicken, duck, pork, beef stew, potatoes, bread, dried beans, onions, prosciutto, bacon, biscuits, stuffing, and tomatoes. Slow-cooked dishes will not weaken sage's strong flavor. Italians toss sage into cannellini beans and use it to make pesto. The Brits embrace sage, even for breakfast (sage was known as a preservative, so maybe that's why it can be found in sausage).

Sage butter is a beneficial pairing, as the herb aids in fat digestion.

Fried Sage Chips

Fried Sage Chips

What You Need:

A bunch of fresh sage
olive oil
sea salt

Pour olive oil into a pan and heat. Drop sage leaves into the oil and brown slightly.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer chips onto a paper towel. Sprinkle with salt.

from The Forest Feast by Erin Gleeson


Linguini with Brown Butter Sage, Mushrooms, and Walnuts

What You Need:
Fresh sage leaves
fresh pasta
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1/2 sliced red bell pepper
1 minced garlic pod (or garlic powder to taste)
unsalted butter (I used 4 T)
1/4 cup chopped white onion
1/4 cup walnuts
Salt and Pepper
Sprinkle of paprika
Fresh Parmesan cheese, grated (if desired)

Boil pasta according to directions.
Melt butter in a skillet and add fresh sage leaves. Don't burn. Sautee for a minute or two and remove to a platter. Add onions, mushrooms, and pepper. Sautee until onions are translucent and the mushrooms (and peppers) are slightly browned. Season with salt, pepper, paprika. Add garlic and cook 45 seconds. Remove pan from heat. Mix pasta and browned vegetables. Top with sauteed sage. Sprinkle with walnuts. Sprinkle with ribbons of Parmesan cheese.
It's hard to ruin this dish. And it lends itself to all kinds of ingredients.
The sauteed sage adds a meaty flavor to this vegetarian dish.


Roasted Butternut Squash with Sage, Garlic, 
and Pumpkin Seeds

Sage adds savory, masculine notes to sweet-natured butternut squash.

Roasted Butternut Squash with Sage, Garlic, and Pumpkin Seeds

What You Need:
4 cups cubed butternut squash
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tablespoons fresh sage, chopped
1/4 cup salted pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup olive oil
2 Tablespoons maple syrup
Salt and Pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Into a large bowl, mix oil and syrup. Add squash, garlic, sage, and pumpkin seeds. Toss until squash is well coated. Place squash mixture on a baking pan. Bake 20 minutes or until squash is slightly browned. Check every 10 minutes and flip squash with a spatula.
Remove from oven and serve. 


How to Make Sage-Infused Olive Oil 

Sage-Infused Olive Oil
Fresh sage leaves -- washed and air-dried
sterilized bottle with stopper 
olive oil

Sterilize a bottle and stopper. Make sure your work surface (and hands) are super clean. Also, you'll need to allow all moisture in the clean bottle to evaporate before you begin the infusion process. Bacteria will grow in water, so make sure your bottle and washed herbs are dry. 
Place fresh, DRY sage leaves on a flat, hard surface. Smack leaves with a knife or other kitchen tool to release flavor. Push leaves into the bottle. Heat olive oil in a pan.  Remove from heat. Pour oil into the bottle. (You can also dry your herbs in sunlight or heating in a 225 degree F oven.) Cap the bottle and place in the refrigerator (to be extra safe, I refrigerate all infused oils). Gently shake the bottle every day. 

Note: Once you add fresh herbs to olive oil, the food safety clock is ticking. Botulism is an anaerobic bacteria, and it can grow in olive oil. (The problem usually crops up with homemade garlic oil. Still, err on the side of safety, always.) Discard refrigerated oil after 1 week if you've used fresh sage.
Before making any infused oil, here's a crash course in food safety facts.
Epicurious has a great article about infused oils.

To store fresh sage, just pop it into a plastic bag and refrigerate. You can freeze it (discard after a month or two). Fresh leaves can be dried by hanging bundles upside down, or spread the leaves on a flat, herb screen.
Yes, this domineering herb will take over your garden or your Thanksgiving dinner. But when sage is cooked, a kind of alchemy happens. The bitter, menthol taste vanishes. Depending on the food and method of cooking, sage creates balance in a dish. It lends a cozy heartiness to sweet-but-savory foods, such as squash and onions. In stews, a single sage leaf gives depth. Deep fried sage tastes slightly meaty but in a good way. 

The taste is different with each recipe. So, if you're reluctant to use this herb, give it another chance. Sage will turn your meal into a story, one that has a happy ending.

The Herb Series:

Learn more about sage:
The Scoop on Sage (HGTV)
Medical News Today
Sage varieties plus garden ideas on BHG
Cultivation, tips, and recipes by Mother Earth Living


  1. What a beautiful post and you certainly nailed down the definition of sage. Truthfully I've always been a bit afraid of it for fear I'll use to much...I think you've helped me overcome those fears now.
    Merci beaucoup,

  2. Sage isn't one I use much of. I need to experiment more with it, thanks for the inspiration and information!

  3. My ears perked up when you said the recipe is hard to ruin. I have to say that when I started using fresh herbs I think it raise the level of my dishes.

  4. I love your herb series Michael Lee, thanks for all the great tips and the witty words~

  5. What a fun/entertaining post. Sage is one of the reasons I quit making turkey and chicken dressing from scratch years ago - some said I used to much and some said not enough. :-)

  6. gardenthymewithdiana.comOctober 12, 2015 at 7:00 PM

    Sage is earthy and reminds me of an old timer.
    Thanks for the herb series, please continue. I'm more in love with herbs as I read your descriptions.

  7. Great information on sage. Thanks for all the tips.

  8. I love your herb series, Michael Lee, and this one on sage started with a chuckle. I enjoyed picturing Mr. Sage in the pub, evening discussing Kate Middleton's underpants. You're too funny, and yet so knowledgeable, too. Thank you for brightening my day, my friend. xo