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I love the last few crisp days of autumn, when the weather is deceptively sunny and mild. There is no rain in sight, yet. We have gotten the garden ready for winter: gone are all the tomato plants, the peppers and the basils. Only a habenero bush holds out for the last rays of sun, still covered with its fiery orange colored harvest. Bulbs are planted, the new winter vegetables are just seedlings and most everything else feels as though it is holding its breath, bracing itself for the onslaught of winter. Except for the sages. They are in their full glory.
At the entrance to our walkway, we are greeted by a vibrant display of sage plants in full bloom. The dazzling blossoms are on long spires, their color a contrast to the downy, gray-green leaves.
First in line is the Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha) with its purple and white flowers (so rich and velvety that you are tempted to pet them). The graceful arching spires grow up to three feet in length and are long lasting: perfect for dramatic floral arrangements. Its fragrance, although distinctly that of sage, is milder than that of most other varieties. Strictly an ornamental plant, the leaves are not used for cooking.
Tucked in next to Mexican sage is one of my favorites: pineapple page (Salvia elegans). More delicate than its showy cousin, the blossoms on this variety are tiny, ruby slippers on slender, green stalks. These do not have the longevity that would make them a candidate for arrangements, but they make up for this by being edible. They have a tangy, citrus-mint flavor, a welcome contrast to creamy leek and potato soup, for example. Sprinkle them on salads and in tea for a flavorful and eye-catching garnish. The fresh leaves have a distinctly pineapple taste. Try using them with chicken and pork dishes, with cheeses or fruit salad.
Third in the line-up is common sage (Salvia officinalis). Its flowers are blue and grow on short, straight spires. The leaves, soft, silvery green in color, have a finely pebbled texture. This is the sage that is used ,around the world, for cooking. The Italians saute the leaves in butter for a veal sauce. The Germans use it in eel dishes and in sausages. The French use it with pork and in pates. In the Middle East it is used in salads. And of course, the English and the Americans use it with poultry. What would the Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas goose be without the woodsy, slightly minty flavor of sage? It permeates the stuffing and fills the air with an aroma that brings back childhood memories of warm kitchens, bustling activity and a bountiful meal to come.
To bring out the best flavor from the leaves, remember to use it sparingly, as too much will produce an unpleasant musty taste. This is especially true with the dried herb. Unlike most other herbs, the flavor of the sage leaves intensifies as they dry. Drying the herb can be a bit tricky, because its broad fleshy leaves have a tendency to mold. Hanging the herb in a dark, warm, arid place with good ventilation is an effective method for producing crisp, long lasting leaves.
Sage has not always been used in the kitchen, however. For most of its long history it has been a healing herb (supposedly curing everything from snake bites, eye problems, infection, epilepsy, intoxication, memory loss, worms and intestinal problems) or prescribed as an aphrodisiac. As far back as ancient Greek and Roman times, healers advocated sage for a variety of ailments. Charlemagne ordered that it be grown in his royal gardens. Arab physicians in the 10th century went so far as to claim that sage extended life to the point of immortality. Even the genus name of the plant, Salvia, comes from the Latin meaning "to cure." The French seem to agree with this opinion, for their name for the herb is tout bonne, meaning "all is well."
While some of the health claims sound a bit fantastical, sage, like most culinary herbs, contains aromatic oils which have been found to affect the body in healing ways. Sage seems to aid in digestion, which accounts for its being paired with heavy meats or oily fishes; the problem and the cure all in one. For years sage has been used in the preserving of foods. Now it is known that it contains powerful antioxidants which slow spoilage. Sage is also antibacterial in nature It is effective in treating sore throats and is even effective as an antiperspirant. Given all of these attributes, you can understand why herb expert Varro Taylor, Ph.D., wrote: "If one consults enough herbals...every sickness known to humanity will be listed as being cured by sage."
Sage's usefulness goes beyond the confines of the medicine cabinet and the kitchen. Because of its aromatic oils, it is frequently used in making soaps and perfumes. Native Americans utilize sage for spiritual purification ceremonies in the form of smudge sticks. These are branches of white sage (Salvia apiana) which have been cut into lengths about one foot long, bound together and dried. For the ceremony, they are lit and left to smolder, producing a rich, aromatic smoke.
While sage has links to many cultures throughout the world, it is thought to have originated in Syria. From there it spread throughout the northern Mediterranean and then on to the rest of the world via the trade routes. With over 500 species, from colored varieties to dwarfs to non -lowering varieties, sage is grown throughout the world (almost anywhere there is good drainage and full sun). Most of the varieties are perennials, fast growers, require low moisture and are deer resistant, making them a favorite with gardeners and cooks.
Sage is easy to grow, decorative, medicinal, culinary and spiritual. With so many virtues to its name, is it any wonder that Italian medical students in medieval times recited: "Why should a man die who grows sage in his garden?" Eat, drink, be merry and remember the sage!
Pineapple Sage Pound Cake
makes 4 small loafs
Rich and aromatic, with festive flecks of red and green, these little tea cakes make tasty holiday gifts. Be sure to keep some for yourself. Slices hot from the toaster, a bit of butter and honey melting slowly on the crisp surface, paired with a steaming cup of coffee are an ideal way to ease into a Sunday morning.
1 cup butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey (light wild flower or sage flower preferred)
2 Tablespoons chopped pineapple sage leaves ( the small, new leaves have the most pineapple flavor)
3 Tablespoons coarsely chopped pineapple sage flowers*
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
4 Tablespoons well-squeezed, chopped pineapple
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups flour
Cream the butter and the sugar until very light and fluffy. Beat in the honey. Add the eggs one at a time, making sure to beat for one minute after each addition. Beat in the sage leaves, flowers and lemon peel. Stir the dry ingredients together and add to the butter mixture. Fold these together gently, until just blended. Pour into four miniature loaf pans (6 inches by 3 1/4 inches by 2 inches). Bake in a pre-heated 325 degrees F oven for approximately 45 minutes, or until golden brown. (A toothpick inserted in the middle should come out clean.) Cool for 10 minutes on a rack, then turn out of pans and continue to cool.
*the recipe can be made without the flowers, if the plant has stopped flowering and no flowers are available. No adjustments to the recipe are necessary.
Linda Gilbert is a Bay Area freelance journalist, a cooking class instructor, and co-owner of a Sonoma catering company, Broadway Catering and Events.