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Published: Tuesday, 11/11/2003

Sage: Year-round spice is a holiday favorite

BY KATHIE SMITH
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

In the world of herb gardens, a sage plant can bring fame and flavor to a Thanksgiving dinner.

I can't raise the tree that yields cinnamon bark, nor can I grow ginger root. But I sure can cultivate the perennial herb sage.

I can also snip off stems and use the fresh leaves in recipes. Or I can turn the leafy stems upside-down, tie them in bunches, and hang them from the ceiling in the garage or basement to dry. After three weeks, these sprigs of wilted crisp green yield aroma and flavor for year-round grilling. Best of all, when you crush sage by rubbing it between the palms of your hands (and remove the stiff stems and nubs), the soft fluff that remains is aromatic seasoning. It should be stored in an airtight jar ready to use for turkey and bread dressing. I also use it in oyster dressing.

Such is the stuff of Thanksgiving dinner.

Sage, one of the world's most popular herbs, is especially coveted at this time of year. Turkey and herb-seasoned stuffing is an American Thanksgiving classic.

This velvety pale green herb is said to be the most widely used herb in the United States. Sage comes from an evergreen shrub, Salvia officinalis, of the mint family. The leaves burst with oil that is sage. The leaves change from sage green to grayish black and back to sage green in different seasons.

Sage has been cultivated since ancient times. It originated in the Mediterranean region. Today, it's grown mainly in Turkey, Albania, and the United States.

There is also a variety known as pineapple sage, notes Georgeann Brown, editor of The Herbal Market: Recipes from Maumee Valley Herb Society ($15.95). “Basic sage is used in savory dishes,” says the culinary expert. “Pineapple sage is not as hardy or as strong. It has a fruity flavor and is used in sweet dishes such as tea bread, cookies, or teas.” Recipes for both are included in the herb society's cookbook (see article on Page 2).

Small bunches of sage are available year-round at many markets, but if you grow your own, you are never without it. However, you'll have to wait until spring to plant sage.

When buying, choose fresh sage by its aroma and color, advises the Food Lover's Companion. Refrigerate sage wrapped in a paper towel and sealed in a plastic bag for up to four days.

Sourdough Bread Stuffing with Walnuts and Sage, a recipe from California chef Rob Stevens of The Inn at Tres Pinos in Tres Pinos, Calif., adds a savory twist to the classic. Breadcrumbs are replaced with tangy sourdough bread. Traditional flavors of onions, celery, and garlic are mixed with a medley of fresh sage and walnuts.

Fresh sage can also be used in mashed potatoes. For 6 cups hot mashed potatoes: Cook 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage, 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh garlic, and a pinch of nutmeg in 1/2 cup melted butter in a small saucepan for a minute. Then stir this mixture into hot mashed potatoes. It serves 6 to 8.

If you are adventurous enough to grill a turkey (9 to 13 pounds), grilling over charcoal imparts a smoke-infused flavor. A slow-roasted turkey cooked over indirect coals can be beautifully browned. Use Sage Garlic Baste to baste every 20 minutes. Indirect heat slowly cooks the bird without causing flare-ups that darken the skin too quickly. Or you can cook the turkey in the oven using the sage garlic baste toward the end of the roasting.

With leftover turkey, make Turkey and Wild Rice Soup with fresh leek, cubed butternut squash, and a wild and white rice blend. Fresh sage is used to season the soup.

Sage is not limited to seasoning turkey and stuffing.

Baked Pumpkins Stuffed with Sausage and Sage seasoned with fresh sage is a picturesque recipe from Holiday Pumpkins by Georgeanne Brennan and Jennifer Barry (Ten Speed Press, $14.95). The most difficult part of the recipe may be finding the right size miniature pumpkins, says Blade recipe tester Sharla Cook. You can also use small pumpkin halves or quarters.

As for dried sage, some people may find it pungent and overpowering, especially if too much is used. When adding dried sage to stuffing, start with small amounts until the desired flavor is reached.

Note that if you use preseasoned bread cubes, use less fresh sage than if you use unseasoned bread cubes. Also, some brands of preseasoned bread cubes are highly salted, as is some chicken broth brands. Adjust seasoning as desired or use unsalted products to taste.

Sage complements pork, goose, and duck. It goes well with carbohydrates such as bread stuffings, dumplings, and savory scones, advises The Spice and Herb Bible: A Cook's Guide by Ian Hemphill (Robert Rose, $22.95). Pea, bean, and vegetable soups can be flavored with sage. Stews and roasted meats benefit from sage.

A trendy garnish making the rounds in cookbooks this season is deep-fried sage leaves. Bringing Italy Home by Ursula Ferrigno (Mitchell Beazley, $29.95) includes a recipe for fried stuffed sage leaves topped with anchovies.

Whether you opt for fresh or dried, store-bought or home-grown, sage brings flavor and aroma not only to holiday foods; year-round it's a classic.

Next week: Nutmeg.

For more stories on food, see www.toledoblade.com/food



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