Veggie of the Week - Sage
sponsored by Coleman Farms
We usually associate sage (Salvia officinalis) with Autumnal cooking, and particularly with the holidays at the end of this month and next. The reason for this association probably lies in sage's affinity for fat: it's commonly used to season sausage, marks a variety of English cheese, and turns up in more or less oily pasta sauces, bruschette, and so on. Sage works well with fat because its sharp somewhat astringent flavor lightens the oiliness, much the way black pepper or vinegar does, while the oil itself is an excellent vehicle for the almost floral bouquet of the herb.
Neither of these associations needs be strictly observed, though. Sage is available from late Spring - in fact, probably more available earlier in the year, given current seasonal demand - and has culinary uses outside the realm of the rich. Sage tea, which is about as lean as it can get, has uses in traditional medicine and is a light refreshing drink, somewhat like Lapasang Souchong. Sage might also be used with some vegetables - boiled potatoes, for example, carrots, squash or beets. A baked sweet potato might be quartered and lightly sprinkled with crushed sage and black pepper, putting it squarely amongst the vegetables, instead of being a borderline dessert.
Salvia officinalis exists in a variety of cultivars, which will exhibit some differences in flavor and aroma. Other species of Sage are available and can sometimes be found at the Farmers' Markets, Pinapple Sage and Apple or Peach Sage, in particular, whose properties are quite different from those of officinalis and can be put to good use in infusions as well as flavoring vegetables and other mild dishes.
Finally, a non-culinary use. Sage, (though strictly speaking not the exogenous officinalis hereabouts, but probably leucantha or leucophylla, as well as the sagey Artemesias, known as 'sagebrush') seems to have an important place in certain purification rituals, where it's tossed on hot coals to slowly burn, emitting clouds of pungent smoke - a simple natural incense, lightening air (and spirits) much as it lightens rich food.
Image courtesy of Universität Greifswald