Herb Profile: Sage

By Talia Tinari

It’s this time of year, when the light is changing, the air in the early morning is cool and soft, and the noonday sun not so penetrating, that I crave the tastes of autumn; crisp apples, cider, cinnamon, and savory spices, especially sage.

The tomato vines are brown skeletons of the lush plants they were a couple of months ago. They will be dug up and winter crops will be planted in their place. In the meantime, I will harvest sage from my plot in Santa Monica Community gardens and cook as many recipes as possible.

Common Sage (salvia officinalis), from the Latin meaning ‘to heal’ is a member of the Lamiacea family of plants or the mint family. They are herbaceous, perennial, flowering plants. Mint, basil, rosemary and oregano are all members of the Lamiacea family. But sage, to me at least, seems to stand out less in this class of very fragrant herbs. It imparts the herbaceous savory element present in foods like sausage and bread stuffing. When you’re preparing peppermint (menthe piperita), or basil (ocimum basilicum), the aroma is so obviously mint or basil. But sage is subtle in its musky savory-ness.

The leaves of the sage plant are oblong, grayish-green with a light ‘fuzz’ and contain phenolic compounds such as cineole (eucalyptol), and camphor, giving the plant its scent. The essential oils contained in its leaves are antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial.

Sage is native to Mediterranean countries and the ancient Greeks and Romans used it medicinally. Modern clinical studies have shown that sage improves memory and mental function, has glucose lowering effects in diabetes, slows metastasis of cancer cells, helps in reducing obesity, and eases symptoms of menopause.

In many cultures, from the ancient Greeks and Romans to Native Americans, sage is burned as a ritual for spiritual cleansing and to positively balance energy. With all of its medicinal properties, it’s not a far leap to believe that it would remedy metaphysical imbalances.

Uncooked sage can be used to make a tea, but as a culinary herb it is much better cooked than eaten raw. The simplest way to prepare it is frying. Wash and dry the leaves, pinching them off from the woody branch. Heat ¼ cup of very good extra virgin olive oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, drop in the leaves for a few seconds or until they are crisp. Drain the leaves on paper towels and sprinkle them with sea salt.

Butternut squash, harvested in autumn, pairs well with sage, especially in that favorite fall dish, butternut squash ravioli in sage butter sauce. This is an easy way to combine the two flavors. Pre-made butternut squash ravioli can be purchased in the grocery store (try Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods). While the ravioli is cooking, heat a few tablespoons of butter and as soon as it starts to brown, drop in the sage and remove from the heat. Toss the sage butter over the ravioli, add Parmesan cheese and, if you like, a bit of lemon zest.

My favorite recipe for butternut squash soup is an adaptation of Thomas Keller’s version and can be found on the New York Times Cooking website www.cooking.nytimes.com.

In this recipe, the sage is placed inside the halved butternut squash while it’s roasting. The squash roasts cut side down, the moisture of the pumpkin creates steam, cooking the sage and imparting its essential oils, flavors and aromatics. The sage is discarded but no matter, it’s left its mark.

Non-vegetarians will find that sage is excellent paired with sausage. Crisp the sage in olive oil as above, squeeze Italian sausage (hot or sweet depending on your taste), from its casing, sauté until no longer pink, remove meat with a slotted spoon into a bowl. Drain all of the drippings, save for a couple of tablespoons. Add about a cup of dry white wine, deglazing the pan and reducing the wine by a third. Return the sausage and sage to the pan. Toss on your favorite pasta and enjoy!