This time of year presents the onslaught of many favorite things: the fragrance of cinnamon and nutmeg fill shops, children get their first break since summer, holiday lights begin to illuminate the streets in the evening and everyone pays attention to my very favorite herb — sage. Sage is the quintessential flavor of Thanksgiving because many staples of the Thanksgiving table include sage. I would like to share with you a few of my favorite ways to use sage for Thanksgiving, but also for the other 364 days. Also, sage is tremendously easy to grow in your summer garden or even in a windowsill through the winter.
Sage is an interesting herb because it changes with the season. In the spring and early summer, sage has a much lighter more peppery flavor than its deep and earthy flavor in November. Once I began incorporating sage into my everyday cooking, I realized it was the flavor missing when I had tried to recreate so many of my favorite Italian restaurant dishes. In Italian cooking, especially in the north, sage is used just as commonly as rosemary. My go-to basic herb mixture for all dishes is sage, thyme and rosemary. The three together have such a balanced flavor that provides a perfect base for any dish. Another favorite combination with sage is lavender. The two make a perfect pair because they are actually both members of the mint family.
Sage or Salvia officinalis comes from the Latin word ‘salveo’ which means to heal. Sage has long been cultivated and prized for its antiseptic qualities (much like cousin lavender). Romans used it for toothpaste and to treat illness. Sage was so prized in Roman society there was actually an elaborate protocol in which it was harvested. Also there is folklore that if a young woman puts 12 sage leaves under her pillow on Christmas Eve, she will see the face of her future husband in her dreams. Perhaps someone can try and let us know…
While you all know sage is the star flavor for your turkey and stuffing there are several other ways to enjoy this iconic herb for Thanksgiving. Very finely minced sage, a few cloves of roasted garlic, and white cheddar cheese are a delicious twist on classic mashed potatoes (I plan to still have a bowl of classic for the purists). Garnishing the potatoes with fried sage leaves and a crumble of bacon is the ultimate indulgence. Adding sage and cranberries to an apple pie create a spectacular and original dessert. Sage and apple are a perfectly suited match. Sage’s earthiness and the tartness of apples complement each other magically.
Perhaps what defines sage as my favorite herb is how easy it is to grow. In fact, it is the only herb I bother to grow over the winter indoors. After multiple attempts resulting in moldy rosemary, brown basil and bone-dry thyme I have now come to the realization my green thumb does not translate to a windowsill. For as terribly as some of my other indoor herbs have gone, sage has always performed like an Olympian. No mold, no yellow leaves, just perfect and delicious sage. Sage likes full sun and for soil to dry between watering. Being a member of the notoriously prolific mint family, sage produces an abundant amount of leaves for the home cook to enjoy. Yet another benefit to having your own supply of sage around Thanksgiving is you will not pay four dollars for a package of two stems of sage. Not only is it expensive, but the grocery stores never have enough around Thanksgiving. A grocery store quarrel over sage does not a happy Thanksgiving make. Preserve your strength for a match of tug-o-war Friday morning at 4 a.m. over a black Friday deal.
I hope I have encouraged you to take a second look at the often dismissed sage. To use it creatively for your friends and family this Thanksgiving and through the rest of the year. Iconic flavor and so easy to grow, it is a perfect and rewarding plant for the home gardener.
Stephen Jones is an OSU Extension Master Gardener volunteer.