It was a "duh" moment. I was staring at an herb garden, trying to figure out which plant, if any, was sage.
This was stuff I should know. A car mechanic is supposed to be able to distinguish between a carburetor and a fuel injector. A copy editor is supposed to be able to spot gerunds. And a food guy is supposed to be able to name that herb.
Usually I employ a time-honored system to find herbs. I go to the produce section of a grocery store, I pick up packages of herbs and I read the labels.
There are a few fresh herbs I can identify when they aren't wearing nametags. Sweet basil, for instance, is easy to recognize. I grow it in my garden and have become acquainted with its distinctive green leaves.
I am getting familiar with oregano, which I also grow, or try to, in my garden. Early in the season it is easy for me to recognize its peppery-tasting green leaves. But later, when the weeds creep in, I can't determine which green leaf is edible and which is yankable.
Tarragon is a complete mystery to me. I have seen it. I have met it. I have eaten it, several times. But you could put it in a lineup along with a handful of other herbs, and I could not make a positive identification.
I am also shaky on sage. I had bought it but never grown it. I had a vague memory of sage being associated with cowboys and horses. It turns out I was thinking of sagebrush, which is a horse of a different color. Moreover, the garden where I was hunting this herb was in the urban East, not the Wild West. The herb garden surrounds the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the 1400 block of West Mount Royal Avenue in Baltimore. The garden was started as a resource for cooks by Sheila Bittner-Schmitt and has been maintained in her memory by Bolton Hill neighbors since she died in 1998.
I walked over to the garden from my house after reading a recipe for a marinade that called for fresh sage, rosemary and basil. I had the basil and rosemary. So I circled the monument in search of sage. I saw parsley. I saw something that might be lavender. I saw a few weeds and pulled them. Then I tried a new tactic. I might not be sure what sage looked like, but I knew what it tasted like. So I ate my way around the garden. After five or six unsuccessful munches, I gave up searching and used dried sage.
A few days later at the farmers' market downtown, I got some fresh sage. I took one of the silvery leaves and taped it to a piece of paper and began memorizing its identifying characteristics.
Napa Valley Red Wine Marinade
Makes about 2 cups
1 cup hearty red wine
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed hot red pepper flakes
1/2 cup olive oil
In a large bowl, whisk together wine, vinegar, rosemary, sage, basil, garlic, salt and red pepper. Gradually whisk in the oil. Pour over 3-pound roast and let stand at room temperature for at least one hour. Remove meat from marinade, cook on barbecue grill over medium-hot fire until instant-read thermometer stuck in thickest part of meat registers between 120 (rare) and 160 degrees (medium-well), approximately 35 to 40 minutes.
-- Adapted from "Barbecue 101" by Rick Rodgers (Broadway, 2001)