Herbing it up: Sage

How did the Simon and Garfunkel song in the soundtrack of “The Graduate” go? “Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme…”

Last week, I waxed about Italian flat parsley and why it and its curly first cousin ought to be in your kitchen garden. Rosemary, too, needs a prominent pot you can bring indoors before fall’s first frost, I said in a subsequent blog post.

This week, the salute goes to the remaining two herbs memorialized in the words and music of Paul Simon – sage and thyme.

Humble sage – it’s the herb that’s impossible to kill if you get it off to a decent start. Even after the first frost, when the squash has been stripped and the basil made into pesto, sage hangs around as a reminder that no turkey dressing is complete without it.

I’ve picked leaves – frozen leaves – off my sage plant when nothing but a brown butter and sage sauce is necessary to set off a last-minute bowl of gnocchi or butternut squash ravioli.

Better to pick it while it is fresh and later dry it, or you can do what Bottom Line publication Best-Ever Kitchen Secrets suggests:

Cut leaves in small enough pieces to fit into an ice cube tray compartment. Add a little water to each compartment. Freeze. Once completely frozen, transfer cubes to a resealable, plastic freezer bag and label. One ice cube yields about a teaspoon of sage. Drop the cube into a small strainer and run hot tap water over it. Now it’s almost as good as what you pick fresh from the plant.

Here’s my hint about sage in the freezer. Don’t store sage or any other aromatic herb near cookies, cakes or anything containing butter, unless you want that fragrance and flavor imparted into everything on the same shelf. Best to take the resealable bag and place it into a lidded Tupperware container – or even into a leftover cottage cheese container. The point is, fragrant herbs need double insulation from baked goods.

Sage is married to pork and just about every sausage recipe I know. It’s the hunter’s herb of autumn. I think this earthy and fragrant seasoning is under-appreciated, but it is easily grown in our climate.

Take a division from a home garden if you can. That could mean bending back an outer branch by weighing down the stem with a rock. Eventually the offshoot can take root. By next spring it will be easy to cut off that section with a sharp spade. Sometimes babies root on their own, not far from the mother plant. Now is the time to find them.

Or you can do a traditional root stem cutting. Go to a garden book for instructions on propagation.

Sage, like most herbs, needs well-drained, sandy soil. It grows best in sun, but will tolerate light shade.

I don’t think there’s an appreciable difference in varieties sold at the nursery. Look for S. officinalis. A more beautiful variety, pineapple sage, is an annual that is not as well suited for culinary purposes. There’s also tri-color sage, but, it too, is more ornamental and less flavorful.

Or you can start sage by seed, right now, indoors. Germination is slow. It could take up to three weeks for first shoots to appear. Transplant it once you have a sturdy three-inch start.

No kitchen garden is complete without this hardy, grey-green taste of fall whose leathery leaves are a reminder that a little goes a long way.

Here’s my version of a Mario Batali classic brown butter (“noisette”) and sage sauce. I use it on squash-filled ravioli or any hearty pasta that accompanies game or pork. Batali doesn’t use the garlic. I do. It’s good either way.

Rub a clove of garlic around a cold, 10-12 inch sauté pan. Toss what remains of the garlic, because you want a slight, not overpowering, garlic flavor in this sauce. Brown about 4 tablespoons of butter until it begins to bubble slightly, then remove pan from heat. Immediately add 8 to 10 torn sage leaves. They’ll sizzle. Take a half lemon and give it a healthy squeeze on the crumbled sage leaves. Add drained pasta. Top with half a cup of grated parmesan. If you want a thinner sauce, add a few tablespoons of salted pasta water.

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