What is sage?
Crispy sage leaves in a nut brown butter sauce adds a flavour kick and texture to a simple pasta dish. Soffritto, the foundation of many Italian dishes and a favourite throughout the Mediterranean, is fried sage, shallots, garlic, leek and other herbs. Sage is an essential flavour in the classic dish saltimbocca – veal marinated in wine and topped with prosciutto and crispy sage.
Native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean, sage can be found growing on the hillsides and shores in these regions. It is a popular herb that is used in seasonings for meat and poultry.
Sage was used extensively by the Romans to help with digestion after their lavish banquets, and in the Middle Ages it was used for its supposed healing properties. Chinese medical practitioners prized this herb, and in the 17th century, Dutch merchants discovered that the Chinese would trade three trunks of tea for one trunk of sage.
In Australia, sage is used in a number of dishes including in a traditional stuffing for chicken or turkey or as a crisp topping for a simple grilled piece of fish.
In Australia, fresh sage is not sold by variety. There are a number of different types of sage species, but common sage (also known as garden and kitchen sage) is the one that is most often used in cooking. Common sage is aromatic and has a slightly bitter and peppery flavour. The leaves are green to silvery grey, elongated and slightly pointy. The leaves change from green to a grey colour as they mature.
Pineapple sage (Salvia rutilans) has long leaves with a rough texture and the plant is much taller than common sage. This variety of sage has a strong pineapple smell. Red sage (Salvia officinalis var. purpurea) is another variety that is sometimes used in cooking. It is a smaller plant than common sage and has plum-coloured leaves.
Sage is also available in dry and ground forms. Dried sage has a stronger flavour than fresh sage leaves.
Why sage is good to eat
- Sage contains vitamins A (important for growth and development and the maintenance of your immune system), C (needed for the growth and repair of tissues in the body) and K (important for helping your blood to clot).
- It also contains minerals such as potassium (which helps to regulate blood pressure), manganese (involved in the regulation of brain and nerve function), calcium and magnesium (involved in the regulation of muscle, heart and nerve function and keeping bones strong).
- Sage contains dietary fibre, which is important for a healthy bowel.
- Energy – 100 g of sage supplies 1,317 kJ.
How are they grown and harvested?
Sage plants that are used for cooking are perennials and grow best in a sunny, warm position. The plants grow well from seeds but they grow slowly and take up to 18 months to mature. Sage grown from cuttings obtained from other sage plants can be harvested within about three months. The plant can grow between 60 and 90 cm tall and 90cm wide. It produces lavender flowers, although some varieties develop white or pink flowers.
Sage plants can be harvested by simply cutting off the leaves with scissors or pinching them off with your fingers. For the best flavour, pick the young, tender leaves before the plant starts flowering. The plant starts to become woody after about three years, so it needs to be replaced.
Sage also grows well in containers, although if grown indoors the plant needs strong direct light.
Choose sage with fresh-looking, relatively small leaves. Avoid bunches of sage that are wilted or those with black patches and other visible damage on the leaves.
How to store and keep sage
Store fresh sage in a sealed plastic bag in the crisper section of your fridge. It will keep for up to three days when stored this way.
You can dry fresh sage by hanging the bunch upside down to dry. When the bunch is dry, strip the leaves and store them in an airtight container.
How to use
- Add flavour to green beans – fry pancetta or bacon in butter until it colours, add shredded fresh sage leaves and toss in cooked green beans, then mix and serve topped with crispy cooked whole sage leaves.
- Serve a simple pasta dish – cook fresh sage leaves in butter until they become crisp and the butter has turned nut brown, add a squeeze of lemon juice, then add cooked gnocchi, stir until coated and serve with grated parmesan and a green leaf salad.
- Make a sage stuffing – fry garlic with chopped sage and sliced leeks and mix with fresh breadcrumbs, chopped pistachio nuts, currants and a beaten egg, then stuff into the cavity of a chicken (or coat pork cutlets) and roast until golden brown before serving with roast vegetables.
- Try an easy mushroom side dish – fry garlic and chopped onion followed by sliced mushrooms, a splash of red wine, freshly shredded sage and season with salt and pepper.
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Better Health Channel
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