Sage: Use goes far beyond stuffing

Herb can deliver Southwestern touch and a surprise punch

November 22, 2006|By Regina Schrambling | Regina Schrambling,Los Angeles Times

Sage may be the stuffing staple at Thanksgiving, but it talks to many more ingredients than you might imagine.

A vegetarian stew of leeks, beans, winter squash and cremini mushrooms, for instance, tastes as if every element belongs with every other to begin with, but sage is the aromatic tie that binds them with a new intensity.

Sage, poblano chiles and tomatoes are another superb combination, especially over a fish such as petrale or rex sole. The mild flesh is elevated, not overwhelmed, by the sauce. The same three ingredients also can enliven something as pedestrian as canned hominy, another guilty favorite from long ago.

Sage can make nearly anything taste like the Southwest, though, whether it is an omelet filled with sharp white cheddar, a quesadilla stuffed with mild green chiles and Monterey Jack, or just flaky biscuits.

I almost always have sage in my refrigerator, probably more steadily than parsley, because it delivers such a surprise punch to everyday food.

There is nothing better in a potato or sweet-potato gratin, or with baked and pureed buttercup squash or slowly braised onions as a side dish, in grits or on focaccia or flatbread, especially with Taleggio cheese or just mozzarella.

The crucial consideration is the freshness factor. Only recently have the farthest reaches of America even had access to the herb in the produce aisle, not just in those musty (and sometimes buggy) jars and tins in the spice racks at the supermarket.

When I first started writing about food in 1983, specifying rubbed sage over merely dried sage was the "gourmet" touch in a recipe (rubbed is fluffier and infinitesimally more sagey).

It says everything that the Silver Palate Cookbook, the 1980s groundbreaker that seems so contemporary a quarter-century later, unapologetically called for dried sage in its turkey stuffing. (At least it was a step up from Bell's poultry seasoning.)

Today any supermarket worth its arugula carries fresh sage year-round. Farmers' markets have upped the ante, too, with different choices beyond the usual common variety, which has slender, delicate leaves.

You may come across broad-leaf sage, which is great for frying, for instance, or pineapple sage, with its almost fruity aroma (and borderline-sweet flavor). And gardeners, of course, can go wild cultivating myriad varieties.

The fragrance is the most obvious clue that sage is in the huge mint family. Salvia, its botanical name, is derived from the Latin word for "health," and countless herbal compilations list medicinal uses for it. But its greatest restorative power is in the kitchen.

A few whole leaves added to the butter used for sauteing fish will make the simplest of sauces. Mix the chopped leaves with capers and butter and you get a pungent topping for grilled or sauteed fish, veal, chicken or turkey. Whole leaves tucked into a boned trout before grilling will perfume the flesh from the inside out.

Sage butter is one of those too-easy-to-be true condiments. Just finely chop up a small bunch of the herb and blend it into a stick of softened, unsalted butter, add a little salt and a hint of cayenne, roll the butter into a log to slice and melt over grilled tuna, swordfish or steak, or roasted monkfish or broiled mahi-mahi.

If you fry them, sage leaves are also excellent as both a garnish and as a snack. Dredge them first in a beaten egg, then in panko or chickpea flour and deep-fry them in sizzling peanut oil. Eaten alone, they are as irresistible as movie popcorn.

Dried sage is always measured out miserly because it can be so overwhelming. But when you use fresh sage, you can use it almost with abandon. A quarter-cup in a batch of corn bread is not too much. The flavor is lively. And that fragrance can take you anywhere.

Regina Schrambling wrote this story for the Los Angeles Times.

Cheddar-Sage Corn Bread

Serves 9 to 12

1 cup coarse yellow cornmeal

1/2 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

3/4 cup buttermilk

3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil (divided use)

2 large eggs

1 1/2 cups grated sharp white cheddar

1 cup fresh corn kernels, raw or frozen and thawed

1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped

1/4 cup chopped fresh sage

butter (optional)

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Combine the cornmeal, flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a mixing bowl. Combine the buttermilk and 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large measuring cup or small bowl. Add the eggs and beat until just mixed. Pour over the dry ingredients and mix well.

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