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How to use sage for tea, appetizers or turkey stuffing

A few weeks ago, a local colleague told me no one likes sorrel or sage. The comment was in response to a menu I’d been working on that included sorrel soup and sage rice. It gave me pause, and I am relieved that last week’s Seasonal Pantry about sorrel did not elicit any hate mail.

Now I turn to sage, an herb that has long been associated with fall and its signal holiday, Thanksgiving. Sage pairs beautifully with fall foods, especially winter squashes and turkey.

Perhaps surprisingly, sage belongs to the mint family, which includes basil, lavender, lemon balm, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, summer savory and thyme. There are hundreds of varieties of sage, some edible, some not. Common sage, sometimes called culinary sage, is the variety you’ll find at farmers markets and grocery stores. If you want to plant it, this is the one you want, unless you want decorative instead of edible sage.

Orchard Farms has beautiful bunches of common sage at our local farmers markets now. The leaves are big, perfect for frying and for wrapping around a turkey meatball for a neat little appetizer. The flavor is bright and true.

Fried sage leaves are delicious and easy to make. Use them as a garnish for dishes that include sage, scatter them over white bean soup or toast slathered with crème fraîche or simply nibble a few as an afternoon snack.

Fried Sage Leaves

Olive oil

Medium to large sage leaves

Pour just enough olive oil into a small heavy sauté pan to cover the bottom of the pan with a thin film. Set over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add the sage leaves and cook for about 20 seconds, during which time the leaves will shrink and become crunchy. Turn and cook about 10 seconds longer.

Transfer to absorbent paper to cool.

Use right away or store in a closed container in the refrigerator for a day or two.

Sage tea is an ancient elixir, believed to have physically calming and mentally invigorating impacts. It is also delicious and refreshing.

Sage Tea

Makes 4 cups

½ ounce (about 45 to 50 large leaves) fresh sage leaves, chopped

Zest of 1 lemon

Honey or sugar, optional

Lemon wedges, optional

Put the sage leaves and lemon into a jar or teapot, add 4 cups boiling water, cover and steep for 30 minutes. Strain into a clean jar or pitcher and enjoy chilled. If you prefer it sweetened, stir in about half a teaspoon of honey or sugar; for more tartness, squeeze in lemon juice.

You can enjoy sage tea hot or chilled.

Here is a simple fall nibble, perfect with a cup of sage tea or a glass of sparkling wine. The walnut and sage mixture is also delicious tossed with hot pasta or hot rice or served atop creamy polenta. A spoonful on top of an omelet is lovely, too.

Crostini with Walnuts and Sage

Serves 3 to 4

½ cup shelled walnuts, lightly toasted and chopped

¼ cup freshly grated Vella Mezzo Seco

3 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley

1 tablespoon minced fresh sage leaves

Black pepper in a mill

Kosher salt

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

12 baguette slices, lightly toasted

12 fried sage leaves (see recipe, above)

Put the shelled walnuts in a small bowl; add the cheese, parsley and sage and season generously with black pepper. Toss lightly and season with salt. Stir in the 3 tablespoons of olive oil; if the mixture seems too thick, add a little more olive oil. Taste and correct for salt.

Spread the mixture over each crostini, top with a fried sage leaf and enjoy.

When used as a stuffing for poultry, polenta swells so it becomes almost souffle-like. As it swells, it absorbs the delicious juices of the bird. It is wonderful any time and extraordinary on the holiday table.

Polenta Stuffing for Poultry

Makes enough for 8 game hens, 2 to 3 chickens or 1 small turkey

2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as needed

1 cup coarse-ground polenta

1 tablespoon butter

Black pepper in a mill

Olive oil

3 ounces pancetta, diced

3 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley

2 tablespoons fresh sage leaves

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

Kosher salt

Black pepper in a mill

Olive oil

3 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted (see Note below)

Sage sprigs, for garnish

Fill a medium saucepan with 4 cups water, add the kosher salt and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Using a whisk, stir the water vigorously in one direction to create a vortex in the center; slowly pour the polenta into this vortex, stirring all the while. Reduce the heat to medium and continue to stir until the polenta thickens; if you find lumps, use a wooden spoon to press them against the side of the pot.

Continue to stir the polenta until it is very thick and pulls away from the sides of the pot. Taste to be sure the grains of corn are tender; it will take anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the age and size of the polenta.

During the last 5 minutes of cooking, stir in the butter. Season with several turns of pepper and remove from the heat.

Rinse the inside of a sheet pan or similar pan with water and pour it out but don’t dry it; water should cling to it. Pour the polenta into the pan and shake the pan to distribute it evenly.

Brush a sheet of wax or parchment paper lightly with olive oil and set it, oiled side down, on top of the hot polenta. Let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. Cover the pan with aluminum foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate at least two hours and as long as overnight.

To make the stuffing, cut the polenta into ½-inch cubes and put the cubes into a medium mixing bowl.

Pour a little olive oil into a small sauté pan set over medium heat, add the pancetta and cook until it loses its raw color, about 5 to 6 minutes. Do not let it brown. Let the pancetta cool and add it to the bowl, along with the parsley, sage and thyme. Season generously with salt and several turns of black pepper and toss gently. Add the pine nuts, if using, and toss again.

To use as a stuffing, prepare the bird as you normally would: season its main cavity with salt and pepper and add the stuffing, packing it in fairly loosely so it has room to swell.

Cook as you would any stuffed bird, let cool for 15 to 20 minutes, scoop the stuffing into a serving bowl and carve the chicken or turkey. If serving game hens, set each one on an individual plate, add accompaniments and enjoy.

Note: Beware of pine nuts from China, which can cause what is known as “pine mouth syndrome,” a persistent bitter taste in the mouth that can last for weeks or even months after eating them. Try to find pine nuts from Italy or the United States.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date. Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com

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