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Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Back to headlines
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Sage, a staple of the Pilgrims, has been an American favorite ever since


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Sage is an essential ingredient in Italian cooking


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Herbed Buttermilk Biscuits

Photo by John A. Rizzo, reprinted with permission from "The Thanksgiving Table" by Diane Morgan; Chronicle Books, 2001

Rita Venturino, who has a cooking school in Richland, says sage was used in the early cuisines of several European countries.
Heidi Murrin/Tribune-Review

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  • By Karin Welzel
    Wednesday, November 10, 2004

    It's medicinal. It's traditional.

    It's the curative of the ancient Egyptians and Romans, the darling of modern American Thanksgiving tables.

    For ages, kitchen wisdom has been associated with salvia officinalis, which we know as the herb sage. A member of the mint family and a native of the northern Mediterranean shores, sage is an essential ingredient in Italian cooking. It commonly flavors pork, veal -- osso buco, for example -- and chicken. Sage brings character to internationally celebrated soups, such as minestrone and fagioli. It teams with butter to highlight pasta, adorns antipasti platters, and decorates cheese pizzas.

    "You'll also find it was used early in the cuisines of Spain, Greece, Germany and France," says Rita Venturino, director of Rita Venturino's Italian Table cooking school in Richland. There are more than 80 species and 750 varieties of the herb, which imparts a slightly bitter, woodsy, mintlike flavor that complements fatty meats. Sage also acts as a digestive for such fatty dishes.

    Its whole leaves -- also often described as having a "pine" flavor -- are popular served sauteed or battered and deep-fried. The word "sage" comes from the Italian word salvia and the Latin word salvere, which mean "good health" and "salvation," respectively.

    Garden sage grows profusely on northern Italian hillsides, Venturino says. A perennial, it's easy to grow outside in Western Pennsylvania during the warm months; a sunny windowsill is all that's needed for it to thrive in the winter, she adds.

    Sage likely made its way to America when the Pilgrims arrived on the eastern shores in the early 1600s, says Diane Morgan, author of "The Thanksgiving Table: Recipes and Ideas to Create Your Own Holiday Tradition" (Chronicle Books, $18.95 paperback).

    "Its medicinal properties were sort of an underlying reason for its popularity (among the English)," she says in a telephone interview from her home in Portland, Ore. "It was associated with wisdom. That's how they thought of sage, as bringing clarity."

    Although there is nothing specific to prove that sage was used at the first Thanksgiving, she says, "it's likely that it was, because sage was an important part of English cooking, used in forcemeats, stuffings, sausage and savory puddings." Forcemeat is meat or fish that is chopped up and seasoned, usually for stuffing.

    "The foods served at the first Thanksgiving -- the menu included goose, turkey, duck and venison -- are ones that go well with sage," Morgan says. "(The Pilgrims) were already incorporating traditional English cooking with the ingredients they found in the New World. And it makes sense that they would have brought seeds (to grow herbs) and spices from their homeland."

    Basic culinary herbs in use by the English "goodwives" about the time of the arrival of the Mayflower included sage, mint, parsley, marjoram, tansy, pennyroyal, rosemary and chamomile, writes Madeline Wajda of Willow Pond Farm, a family herb farm in Fairfield, Pa., just west of Gettysburg, in an article for the Web site of The Master Gardeners, "Rooted cuttings were most likely stuck into root vegetables to help them survive the 66-day trip," she writes in "Herbs for Thanksgiving."

    Only four women survived the trip to the New World and the Pilgrims' first winter in America. Wajda writes, "(They) prepared simple dishes seasoned with European and native herbs. A recipe for Oyster Corn Bread Dressing called for 'Onyons cut fine and of Parsley, Sage, Time, Savory.'"

    The Pilgrims' culinary influence has given sage a long history in the regional, small-town cooking of New England, Morgan says. "In my book, I have this old recipe from my editor, Bill LeBlond, for a really classic New England dressing that was made by his mother and grandmother."

    LeBlond grew up in New England, where at Thanksgiving, "a substantial meat-and-potatoes diet yielded a savory meat stuffing to accompany the holiday bird," Morgan says. Fresh sage, thyme and parsley are the base flavorings of the dish, which features ground beef, pork or sausage, potato and packaged herb-seasoned stuffing mix.

    "(The recipe) is not something that would jump off the pages," Morgan says,"but it's a classic-style dressing that's very different from what we think of with bread stuffing. It's based on mashed potatoes."

    Home cooks should use sage according to the meaning of its name -- wisely and judiciously. A little goes a long way, and fresh is best.

    "Many cooks make the mistake of buying dried sage and keeping it around for months," Venturino says. "It has a very short shelf life. Use it quickly, or it will become bitter and smell musty, even in a matter of a day.

    "Better yet, buy fresh sage and freeze the leaves," she says. To do so, lay clean and dried whole sage leaves on pieces of aluminum foil and brush them with olive oil. Place the foil in the freezer. When the sage is frozen, store the foil in freezer bags or containers and peel off the leaves as needed.

    "This way," Venturino says, "the sage stays soft."

    Most supermarkets stock fresh sage leaves in boxes -- or you can buy whole plants -- in the produce section. If fresh is unavailable, buy the dried form the same way you would use it in cooking -- in minimal quantities, Venturino says.

    "How do you know that dried sage is fresh? Shop where there is quick turnover or from a reputable dealer, such as Penzey's or Whole Foods," she says. "And only buy as much as you are going to need in a short amount of time."

    Sage usage

    In a 2003 survey of Americans conducted by Equation Research for McCormick, the world's largest spice producer, respondents named sage -- specifically salvia officinalis, common garden or "green" sage -- among the top 10 flavors essential for the holidays.

    Sage was named Herb of the Year in 2001 by the International Herb Association. McCormick says that Southeastern Europe has been the principal producer of sage; in the United States, sage grown in Dalmatia, the Adriatic region of Croatia, is considered superior.

    The most popular dried variety is rubbed sage, which is slightly ground to a fluffy, cottonlike consistency. The dried version also is available whole and ground.

    Sage complements meats -- particularly pork and poultry -- but also lends itself well to a range of vegetable, fish and cheese dishes. It marries well with onion.

    The Chinese use sage in teas; American Indians employ it for medicinal purposes. The herb also has aromatic and decorative properties.

    Sage combines well with rosemary and thyme, especially with roast poultry. Its flavor is not diminished during a long cooking time, which makes it suitable for soups or stews made during cold weather.

    Sage, bacon and cream make a good sauce for pasta. Sage-flavored butter is a good topping for mashed or baked potatoes.

    Other suggested uses:

  • Spread slivered fresh leaves underneath the skin of turkey before roasting or tuck them into slits made in a pork roast.

  • Saute with garlic and butter and toss with hot pasta and grated Parmesan cheese.

  • Stir minced sage into warm applesauce and serve with grilled pork chops.

  • Lace cooked beans with fresh sage for soup or as a side dish.

    Herbs and flavors that work well with sage include thyme, rosemary, bergamot, geranium, ginger, lavender, orange and peppermint.

    Sources:;;; The Washington Post;

  • Karin Welzel can be reached at or (412) 320-7992.

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