A sage leaf a day

The Mediterranean herb is prized for its assertive flavor and is especially liked as a flavoring for sausages, poultry and meat.

311_sage (photo credit: Ed Haun/Detroit Free Press)
(photo credit: Ed Haun/Detroit Free Press)
The Middle Eastern maxim “one who grows sage in his garden distances disease from his home” parallels the American “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Eliahu Putievsky, author of Spices (in Hebrew), highlighted this saying to illustrate the importance of sage in Arab folk medicine.
Native to the Mediterranean, sage is grown also in Eastern Europe and in the US, Some say its names in Western languages are derived from a Latin word that means salvation or saving, further evidence of its importance in herbal medicine.
In the kitchen, sage is prized for its assertive flavor and is especially liked in Italy and Greece as a flavoring for sausages, poultry and meat. Judith Benn Hurley, author of The Good Herb (Morrow), notes that sage’s robust taste of pine, camphor and citrus, which comes from the combination of volatile oils it contains, makes it popular for cutting the fatty taste of such foods as duck, liver, cheese dishes and meat pies. She also uses fresh sage with vegetables, like cooked butternut squash and sweet potatoes, and dried sage to flavor whole-wheat bread.
Hurley recommends plain green sage as much better for cooking than purple and golden sage, which make pretty garnishes “but contain too much camphor to use in cooking and can ruin a recipe.” She advises pairing sage with onion, garlic, shallot or leeks, “since its strong flavor steps on less assertive herbs.”
In France I learned that sage is added to the pan for making the celebrated Provencal dish chicken with 40 cloves of garlic. I find that chicken roasted with potatoes also benefits from the addition of fresh sage. When I make chicken or turkey schnitzel, I mix dried sage into the flour used for coating the meat, which provides the schnitzel with a pleasing flavor accent.
I especially enjoy Italian ways with sage, like the famous saltimbocca, a veal dish so loved that the name means “jump in your mouth.” (See the chicken saltimbocca recipe below.) Italians also like sage with beans. Mary Ann Esposito, author of Ciao Italia: Bringing Italy Home (St. Martin’s Press), use sage to flavor beans with pasta; she sautes chopped fresh sage with onions in olive oil and heats the savory mixture with cooked cannelini beans and fettuccine, then serves the dish with grated pecorino cheese. As an antipasto she recommends crisp batter-fried sage leaves. In Italy cooks simmer green beans and other vegetables in tomato sauces seasoned with sage and garlic.
My favorite way of using sage was inspired by a dish I savored at a fine seafood restaurant in Rome – seafood-stuffed ravioli with a fresh sage butter sauce. Ever since then I have loved fresh sage leaves paired with butter, like in the sage brown butter below, which is a luscious last-minute embellishment for pasta.
Fresh sage leaves give a burst of flavor to every bite of this chicken adaptation of the Italian classic, which is made with veal and prosciutto. It’s very pretty, because you see the sage leaves through the thin slices of smoked chicken. I like rice and a green vegetable as accompaniments.
700 gr. boneless chicken breasts, skin removed
24 to 28 fresh sage leaves
4 to 6 thin slices smoked chicken
4 Tbsp. olive oil
about 1⁄4 cup all-purpose flour
1⁄4 cup dry white wine
1⁄4 cup Marsala or port
3⁄4 cup chicken broth
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh sage
Freshly ground pepper
Pound chicken breasts between sheets of waxed paper to thickness of slightly over 6 mm. Put 6 or 7 fresh sage leaves on less smooth side of each pounded chicken breast. For each chicken breast, cover leaves with a thin slice smoked chicken, and pound lightly to make it adhere. Refrigerate 10 minutes.
Divide oil between two heavy large skillets over medium-high heat. Dredge chicken in flour and shake off excess.
Saute chicken about 2 minutes per side or until its color changes throughout; use the point of a paring knife to check. Remove chicken. Cover and keep warm.
Divide white wine and Marsala between skillets and boil, scraping brown bits, 1 minute. Combine in 1 skillet. Add broth and boil until reduced to 1⁄3 cup. Add chopped sage.
Simmer 1 minute. Add pepper to taste; salt may not be needed. Pour sauce over chicken and serve.
Makes 4 servings.
Simmering vegetables in sage tomato sauce is another Italian favorite. You can also use this sauce with other vegetables such as cauliflower or eggplant. In Tuscany green beans in this sauce are a popular preparation, according to Luigi Carnacina and Luigi Veronelli, authors of La Cucina Rustica Regionale. Following the customary Italian technique, I combine the sage leaves with garlic, onion and unheated olive oil and warm them together so they slowly flavor the oil. The squash pieces cook directly in the sauce, the old-fashioned way, which allows them to absorb more flavor from the sauce. If you prefer that they cook more quickly and retain a brighter green hue, boil the squash pieces in water for 2 or 3 minutes until crisp-tender, and then heat them briefly in the sauce.
2 to 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 small or medium onion, chopped
3 or 4 garlic cloves, halved or coarsely chopped
8 to 10 fresh sage leaves
700 gr. ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (see Note below), or one 800-gr. and one 400-gr. can tomatoes, drained and chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup water
700 gr. summer squash (kishuim) or zucchini, cut in medium-wide 5- to 7.5-cm. long sticks
Combine oil, onion, garlic and whole sage leaves in a large skillet or saute pan over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring often, for 7 minutes or until the onion turns light golden. Add tomatoes, squash pieces, water, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes or until squash is tender. Uncover during the last 5 minutes if sauce is too thin. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Note: To peel and seed tomatoes: Cut cores from tomatoes, turn tomatoes over and slit skin in an X-shaped cut. Put tomatoes in a pan of enough boiling water to cover them and boil 15 seconds. Remove them with a slotted spoon and put them in a bowl of cold water. After a few seconds, remove them and pull off skins with aid of a paring knife. Cut each tomato in half. Hold it cut side down over a bowl and squeeze to remove seeds.

Brown butter flavored with sage is a traditional and very simple sauce for fresh ravioli but you can use it for purchased ravioli or other stuffed pasta, or on medleys of pasta and vegetables. I also like it on cooked vegetables, cooked dried beans and rice. Add the sage butter to the pasta or vegetables after draining them well. Serve the pasta with grated Parmesan cheese.
80 gr. (6 Tbsp.) butter, cut in pieces, room temperature
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh sage leaves
salt and freshly ground pepper
Heat butter in a small heavy saucepan over medium heat until butter browns lightly and has a nutty aroma. Pour into a small bowl and stir in sage and salt and pepper to taste.
Makes enough for 2 or 3 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Faye Levy’s International Chicken Cookbook.