Cooking With Sage

“Salve!” is one of the most common ways to greet someone in Italy – more or less the equivalent to “Hi!” in the United States.

The Italian word for sage, salvia, derives from the Latin salus, which means “health,” “safety,” or “well-being”—explaining why, in Italy, when someone sneezes, you say “Salute!” Sage was sought, studied and used for medicinal purposes long before it was used in the kitchen.

Today, this exceptional herb is known to be an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. It is beneficial in relieving sore throats (if you gargle with an infusion of it or drink it as a tea); and, if you rub some of its leaves on your teeth, it is said to whiten them. It’s also a great natural insect repellent. Sage helps the digestion and the absorption of fatty food; it’s a tonic and a stimulant. In ancient times and especially during the Roman Empire, sage was considered to be a “miracle herb” that could not only save you from a snake bite, but give you longevity as well.

The varieties of sage used as a spice originated in Asia Minor and quickly spread all over the Mediterranean. Since the Middle Ages, sage has been grown in Central Europe; today, there are at least 500 varieties of this genus all over the world. Some sage plants are just ornamental; some are hallucinogenic (Salvia divinorum). The flowers of this perennial herb are blue, like those of rosemary. It has gray-green suede-like leaves on slightly woody stems that can grow up to 2 feet high.

Sage is a great plant to have in your garden and a great spice for your kitchen. A member of the mint family, culinary sage is highly aromatic and is best used fresh. The leaves have a lemony, slightly bitter fragrance, reminiscent of rosemary. But dried sage is also perfectly fine to use when fresh isn’t available. To dry the leaves, just hang the sprigs upside-down in a dry place away from sunlight.    

North Americans most commonly associate sage with the spice used for turkey or pork stuffings. In Italy, sage is used generously in dishes such as saltimbocca (saltimbocca alla romana), and with any grilled or roasted pork meats and sausages, in general. Sage is excellent with gnocchi (Gnocchi or agnolotti burro e salvia), risotti (Risotto con la zucca), pasta and bean soups (Pasta e fagioli), focaccia, marinades and aromatic oils. It also blends well with mild cheeses; try a little sage on a grilled cheese sandwich made with smoked mozzarella or fontina cheese on whole wheat bread. To add a wonderful aroma to your favorite grilled dishes, try tossing the stems or leaves on the hot charcoals while cooking.