Ways to use the power of sage in the kitchen

The four sage bushes are over knee-high and sprawling, but with just a little pruning, they play an architectural role in my herb garden. Their permanent shapes are anchors, their gray-green foliage a contrast with the bright greens of tarragon, parsley and dill. I allow them to bloom, their long spikes a blue note in midsummer bouquets and a favorite nectar source for bees.

Traditionally, sage is a powerful plant. Both its common name and the Latin salvia have the same root as salvation, salutary and salve; in classical times, a garden with sage was a guarantee of good health. A cup of tea brewed from its leaves might relieve specific ailments such as anxiety and poor digestion, or just a case of the blahs. I can attest that water steeped with it and tossed on the hot rocks of a sauna is a mellowing presence.

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In the kitchen, the use of sage has been strangely limited to stuffing a turkey or making sausage (something I’m sure you do all the time). But if you have a sage plant you might find it creeping into your pasta repertoire. The trendy combination of squash or pumpkin ravioli with brown butter, balsamic vinegar, walnuts and sage is reason enough to grow it. For a simpler dish, just drop sage leaves into simmering butter or olive oil until they turn a bit crisp, then scatter on pasta and sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. A few chopped leaves also elevate a good old creamy fettuccine Alfredo.

If you’ve ever tried sage-flavored cheddar, you know how good that is. Better yet, tuck whole sage leaves into a grilled cheese sandwich, between the cheese and the bread. Or stuff sprigs of it under the loosened skin of a chicken you’re roasting to season the meat. Add it to roast vegetables too, especially potatoes.

Sage might seem a bit too robust in texture and taste to be a salad herb, but try it with the stouter leaves of romaine lettuce, radicchio and Belgian endive, along with apples and Gruyere.

My husband loves sage, too, but grows his differently, starting it from seed each year and setting it out as transplants, in straight rows. His stay smaller and less woody, with leaves that are more lush, soft and tender, with better flavor. By comparison, my bushes look like something you’d grab to steady yourself while scrambling up a rocky Greek cliff. But here’s the wonderful part: They’re usable almost all year. I don’t even bother to dry the leaves, which linger on the bush all winter long, pungent even in a shriveled state. They put out fresh young leaves as soon as the weather moderates in spring.

Now is a great time to pick up a few little plants at a nursery. There are probably some left, overlooked by those who glance at them and just see turkey.

Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”

 
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