Sage is one of my very favorite herbs, so special because of its beauty and its intoxicating aroma. I love the way fresh sage adds an element that can only be described as "savory" to so many of my favorite dishes, from frittatas to roast pork to white bean puree. (Also: sometimes I can't stop singing the lyrics to "Scarborough Fair" when I'm in the garden: Are you going to Scarborough Fair?/Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme/Remember me to one who lives there/For once she was a true love of mine.)
A Brief History
Sage is native to Southern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. According to scholars at Georgetown University, the herb was first used medicinally (rather than for culinary purposes) and was an important part of the pharmacopeia of ancient Greece and Rome, used to treat everything from insomnia to venereal disease. Ancient Arab physicians even thought that sage could make one immortal. Historians at the Cloisters Museum note that Medieval Europeans continued to use sage in their medicinal practices; indeed, sage was linked with good health and longevity, as evidenced by this fascinating poem from the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitan ("A Salerntian Regimen of Health") from the 12th or 13th century:
Why should a man die in whose garden grows sage?
Against the power of death there is not medicine in our gardens
But sage calms the nerves, takes away hand
Tremors, and helps cure fever.
Sage, castoreum, lavender, primrose,
Nasturtium, and athanasia cure paralytic parts of the body.
O sage the savior, of nature the conciliator!
The Oxford Companion to Food notes that by the 16th century, the use of sage had extended considerably from pharmacists' shelves to kitchens throughout Europe.
Sage's scientific genus name, Salvia, comes from the Latin salvare, meaning "to heal" or "to save," a reference to the herb's long use in medicine.
Sage cheese is made by adding the juice of sage leaves (or the chopped up leaves themselves) to the cheese curd, most famously in Sage Derby cheese from England.
The best sage is said to come from the Dalmatian coast.
Our first gardener-in-chief Thomas Jefferson grew sage at his Monticello estate from at least 1794.
Sage is in the mint (Lamiaceae) family, which includes most of our favorite culinary herbs, including basil, thyme, rosemary, oregano and lavender. Salvia officinalis is the scientific name for common sage (aka "garden sage"), the type of sage that you are most likely to see at your local market. But the Salvia family is a super interesting one. It includes:
An hallucinogenic (Salvia divornum), known by its genus name, "salvia." Salvia is native to Oaxaca, Mexico, where it is used spiritual and healing rituals. The active psychotropic ingredient in the plant is similar to LSD. (And just in case you haven't gotten enough of Miley Cyrus - I know I haven't! - Google "Miley Cyrus smoking salvia" for a giggle.)
Chia, the seeds of a type of sage (Salvia hispanica), rich in omega-3 fatty acids, protein and calcium. It's believed to have been cultivated by Pre-Columbian Aztecs, and was possibly as important a crop as maize. The Mexican state of Chiapas is named after it. (As is the classic 80s ch-ch-chia pet.)
White sage (Salvia apiana), used in "smudging" rituals (where a bundle of dried sage, sometimes mixed with other plants, is burned to promote spiritual cleansing), and also sacred to some Native American groups.
Clary sage (Salvia sclarea), used in perfumery, herbal medicine and as a flavoring for wines and liqueurs.
Culinary sage is a perennial (it grows back from year to year); referred to in one of my botany books as a "shrublet," the plant tends to form shrubby mounds if left to its own devices, and can grow quite large. Salvia officianalis has lovely edible purple-blue, bee-attracting flowers borne on large stalks.
In most places, sage is in season from late spring right through to the very first frost. If you live somewhere with mild winters, sage may survive year-round.
Sage's environmental impact is limited. Fortunately, the herb doesn't appear in the Environmental Working Group's Guide to Pesticides in Produce, and insect pests tend to leave pungent herbs like sage alone. If you are concerned, however, talk to your local sage farmer about his/her growing practices. (*And check out our Real Food Rule of Thumb, below.)
Culinary sage comes in a wide and beautiful array of colors and sizes. Most commonly you'll find sage with silvery-greenish colored leaves, but you can also find green-and-yellow variegated sage, purple sage and green-and-white variegated sage. Some cultivars produce enormous leaves, up to four to five inches in length, while others produce more petite leaves. Sage leaves have a kind of piney, sweet, intensely fragrant aroma.
What to look for
Look for sage leaves that are perky, with no yellowing (unless the yellow variegated variety!), brown/black spots or wilting. Sage leaves should smell fragrant - if they are not, take a pass.
Nutrition and Effects on the Body
You probably won't ingest enough sage to reap the rewards of its nutritional value, but just as an FYI, just two teaspoons of fresh sage has a ton of Vitamin K, and also contains a bit of Vitamins B6 and A, along with smidge of calcium and iron. The herb is also loaded with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory substances. Several studies have shown that sage can also boost memory and cognitive function.
Garden sage contains thujone, a neurotoxin that can be very harmful in large doses - but you'd have to consume an exceedingly high amount of sage for a long period of time for any damage to occur. (Incidentally, thujone is also found in wormwood, one of the original ingredients in the alcoholic beverage absinthe. Thujone was originally thought to be the cause of the negative effects of drinking absinthe, leading to the drink's ban in many countries in the early part of the 20th century. These findings are now up for scientific debate.)
What to Do with It
Sage is primarily used as a flavoring for fatty meats, sausages, beans and vegetables. The herb is rarely, if ever, used raw, because its aroma and flavor is best released when cooked (plus the herb is a little bit too pungent to be consumed raw). However - you don't want to temper its flavor too much, so add fresh sage at the end of cooking.
Sage pairs excellently with pork and other rich meats, like game birds. It's commonly used to flavor pork sausages - traditional breakfast sausage is flavored with the herb, as are a number of traditional English sausages. In the US and Britain, it is also commonly used as a flavoring for bread stuffing, especially for turkey, chicken and game birds. Sage is also quite common in Italian cuisine, where it is paired with pork, chicken, potatoes and white beans. (One of my favorite dishes made with sage is saltimbocca, a Roman specialty usually made with thinly pounded veal cutlets topped with prosciutto and whole sage leaves, then pan-fried. Loosely translated from Italian, saltimbocca means "jumps in the mouth," and it's totally true.) The herb also pairs deliciously with apples and pears in a savory (rather than sweet) setting. And try chopping up a few leaves of sage to add to the next egg dish you make - from scrambled eggs to omelets, it's a culinary match made in heaven.
Sage can be stored for several days, wrapped in a damp paper towel and placed in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. Or, cut a bit off of the stem ends of a bunch of sage and place in a shallow cup of water on your counter.
Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation
It is super easy to dry your own sage for those winter months when fresh sage is unavailable. I like to take a loose bunch of sage (too tight and you run the risk of mold forming - you want good air circulation) and hang it upside-down in a dry area of my kitchen. Once the sage has thoroughly dried (this can take up to several weeks depending on the humidity in your area), it can be sealed in a glass jar for up to a year. You can also make your own "rubbed sage" - which is basically just whole, dried sage leaves that have been crumbled (as opposed to ground sage, which has a much finer texture).
Green Beans with Fried Sage and Prosciutto
The last of the green beans are almost upon on us, but fortunately they pair perfectly with the sage that is still running rampant in my garden. Tossed in with a little prosciutto, you have a perfect culinary trifecta of beans, sage and pork.
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
10 small sage leaves, stems removed
2-3 slices prosciutto, finely chopped
1 small shallot, finely chopped
1 lb. green, yellow wax or runner beans, trimmed
2 tablespoons water
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Juice of ½ lemon
1. Add the butter and extra virgin olive oil to a medium sauté pan set over medium-high heat. When the butter foam starts to subside, add the whole sage leaves. Fry until crispy, 1-2 minutes, gently turning from time to time. (Do not let the sage brown - it does not taste yummy!) Remove to a paper-towel lined plate.
2. Add the chopped prosciutto and shallots to the pan. Sauté, stirring frequently, until the shallots have softened, 3-4 minutes.
3. Add the beans, a pinch of salt and a grinding of black pepper. Sauté for 2-3 minutes, then add the water, cover the pan and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer for 8-10 minutes (this will depend on the size of your beans) for crisp-tender beans, a little longer for soft beans (this is the way I like them!). If the majority of the water hasn't simmered away by the end of the cooking time, remove the lid and turn the heat up to medium until most of the liquid bubbles away.
4. Place the beans on a serving platter, squeeze lemon juice over top and scatter with the fried sage leaves. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Serves 4 as a side dish.
(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)
This post was first published in September 2013.