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updated: 10/31/2012 10:04 AM

Off the beaten aisle: How to use fresh sage

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  • Fried sage loves fat, making it perfect partners for butter and parmesan in this hearty penne dish.

      Fried sage loves fat, making it perfect partners for butter and parmesan in this hearty penne dish.
    Associated Press

 
By J.M. Hirsch
Associated Press

It's hard to not love an ingredient that loves fat.

And that's exactly what sage does -- it partners perfectly with foods rich in oils and fats. That's why it is so common in hearty fall and winter holiday foods.

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Actually, that's part of sage's problem, and why it has a relatively low profile in American cooking compared to other savory herbs, such as basil and oregano. While we think of all manner of uses for other herbs in all seasons, we tend to pigeonhole sage as a Thanksgiving herb suited mostly for stuffing and turkey.

But the richly peppery-rosemary flavor of fresh sage can more than earn its keep all year. You just need to know how to use it.

Let's start with what it is. Sage is a perennial related to mint. There are many varieties, including pineapple-flavored sage from Mexico (best suited for desserts). Sage generally is sold in three forms -- fresh, dry ground and rubbed.

Fresh is pretty self-explanatory. When shopping for it, look for leaves that are tender-firm with a downy coating and no brown spots.

Rubbed is dried sage leaves that have been quite literally rubbed off the stems. It tends to be pillowy soft and retains flavor well.

Dry ground sage is the least appealing of the three. It has a more muted flavor and doesn't hold up well in cooking. Skip it.

So what to do with sage outside of Thanksgiving? Just look oversees. Because sage pairs so well with dairy, the English have long made a sage-flecked cheese known as sage Derby. So take their cue and add a few fresh sage leaves to your next grilled cheddar sandwich.

The English also like to use sage with sauteed onions, usually destined for a stuffing. So why not toss fresh sage into caramelized onions, then use them to top a pizza with gouda?

In Germany, sage lands in sausages. And sometimes beer. Not sure about the last one, but I'm inclined to borrow the sage and caramelized onions from England and spoon them into a bun with a grilled sausage. In Italy, sage rules saltimbocco and osso bucco. But it's also a natural with butter-drenched pasta.

• J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is author of the recent cookbook, "High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking." His Off the Beaten Aisle column also appears at FoodNetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @JM--Hirsch.

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