From China, once, the Tea-plant coming, Met with the Sage upon his way. Friend — said the latter — whither roaming? For Europe, where for me they pay A generous price — quoth Tea — I’m bound. And I — said Sage — to China’s market go; Where I am held in reverence profound For beverage or for medicine, you know. In Europe no good fortune waits on me; A worthless herb, not comparable to thee, But quite too common there — to shine. I to your home am sent and you to mine.
excerpt from ‘The Tea Plant and Sage’ by Tomas Yriate (1750-1791)
In his book “Back to Eden” Jethro Kloss, a famous herbal doctor from the early 20th century, wrote, “It has been said American people would do well if they would use sage instead of tea and coffee. The Chinese make fun of the American people because they buy the expensive tea for their drink and pay a big price for it, while the Chinese buy sage from America for a small price and drink that for their tea, which is a most wonderful remedy.”
Modern research has found sage to be an excellent memory enhancer along with its many other health benefits. But, as a chef, when Labor Day comes and we see the pumpkins beginning to appear on the farm stands, I think of the savory smell of sage. The earthy aroma blends so well with squash, pumpkin and mushrooms. Many of us only use it for the stuffing on Thanksgiving, but it has many other culinary uses — and is the essence of fall. Here are some ideas to enjoy this aromatic herb:
Bring 1 cup of water to a boil and add about a dozen fresh sage leaves. Remove the pan from the heat and let the sage steep for 5 minutes. Strain it into a cup and add a squeeze of lemon and a teaspoon of honey.
FARFALLE WITH ROASTED BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND SAGE PESTO
Begin by making the pesto. Add to a food processor 1/2 cup coarsely chopped sage leaves, 1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley, 1/2 cup walnuts, 1 teaspoon minced garlic and 4 chopped scallions. Pulse this mixture briefly and gradually add 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil. Add 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese and process until smooth.
Peel a butternut squash with a carrot peeler or paring knife. Cut it into strips lengthwise and remove the seeds. Cut the strips into 1-inch pieces. Place them in a bowl and add 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 teaspoons coarse salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon minced garlic and 1/4 cup chopped fresh sage. Toss this mixture together and spread out on a sheet pan. Roast at 400 degrees for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring 3 quarts of water to a boil and add 1 box of farfalle. When it is cooked al dente, strain, saving a little pasta water.
Place a large sauté pan on the stove and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. When hot, add 12 sage leaves, let them cook for 2 minutes and remove to a paper towel-lined plate.
Add the roasted squash, the cooked pasta and 1/2 cup walnuts to the hot pan and sauté briefly. Add 1/4 cup of the pasta water along with 1/2 cup of the sage pesto. Toss the mixture together. Coarsely chop the reserved leaves and top the mixture with grated Parmesan cheese and the sage leaves.
Purchase 1 fresh eggplant and cut the ends off. Slice it lengthwise into quarter-inch slices. Place these on a rack and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon coarse salt. Let the eggplant sit about 15 minutes, turn and sprinkle the other side with another tablespoon of coarse salt.
While that is resting, make a simple marinara sauce. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to a saucepan, place it on medium heat and add 1 cup chopped onion and 1 tablespoon minced garlic. When the onion is soft, add a large can of crushed tomatoes. Season with 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon pepper and 1 teaspoon sugar. Do not add basil or oregano as they will interfere with the flavor of sage. Let this sauce simmer for 30 minutes.
Rinse the eggplant under cold water and dry with paper towels. Trim the leaves off 4 stems of kale, rinse, place on a plate and cover with plastic film. Cook on high in a microwave oven for 1 minute.
To assemble the saltimbocca, place a slice of eggplant on a cutting board and top it with some of the cooked kale, a piece of prosciutto ham and a slice of fresh mozzarella. Put 3 sage leaves on top of the mozzarella and top it with another slice of eggplant to form an eggplant “sandwich.” Dip this sandwich in flour, then in a beaten egg and finally in panko bread crumbs. Season with salt and pepper and repeat with the other slices.
At service time, heat a large sauté pan and add 1/4 cup olive oil. When hot, add the eggplant saltimbocca and sauté until golden brown on each side. To serve, put a ladle of marinara sauce on a plate and the eggplant on top. Garnish with fresh sage leaves.
MUSHROOMS, SAGE AND PASTA
Purchase 4 ounces of oyster mushrooms, 4 ounces of shiitake mushrooms and 8 ounces of baby bella mushrooms. Trim the stems and slice.
Melt 1 stick unsalted butter in a large sauté pan. When it foams, add 12 fresh sage leaves. Let them cook until the butter begins to brown and remove the pan from the heat. Take the sage leaves out with tongs and place them on a paper towel-lined plate.
Put the pan back on the heat and add 1/2 cup chopped shallots and 1 tablespoon minced garlic. After 2 minutes add the sliced mushrooms. Cook until the mushrooms render their liquid, about 15 minutes. Add 1 cup heavy cream, 1 teaspoon coarse salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Chop the reserved sage leaves and add them to the mixture.
Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil and add 1 package of spinach-flavored pasta. When al dente, drain and combine with the mushroom and sage mixture. Serve with grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years.