Nothing says fall to me quite like sage. Just to look at it makes me feel like leaves should be turning and falling from the trees. I think of roasted pork, brown butter, and of course the collectively revered turkey and dressing. Rubbing the soft, almost plush leaves with your fingers not only feels like the velveteen green melts into your fingers, but also releases their aroma. It has a pronounced scent that somehow remains soft—nothing too intrusive or pungent, not from just one leave anyway—and herbaceous. Parsley tastes as green as its leaves are, and I feel similarly about this synesthesia with sage; its pale gray-green color tastes darker, softer, muskier than verdant green-leafed herbs. It has notes of eucalyptus, cedar, dried mint and the slightest hint of lemon. It’s incredibly fall-esque. It’s assertively warm, playfully bitter and a bit like dried grass, and while I know that saying something tastes like a bale of hay isn’t exactly enticing this is different; it has this amazing ability of tasting more like harvest-time than the actual harvest.
But sage gives me guilt. Much as I love it I sometimes feel like I hold it with too high a sacrosanctity. I reserve it for stuffing into the cavity or under the skin of a bird, mixing into a dressing for Thanksgiving, or something with a really good pork sausage that’s studded with fennel seeds. It grows in the garden all summer long, beautifully, and yet I can hardly touch it. I will say that the guilt is slightly fleeting because, planted ornamentally it’s beautiful; it grows into a gorgeously mounding shrub, silver-green leaves almost sparkling in the sun, and in the late spring or early summer it blooms tiny purple trumpet-like flowers along a tall, narrow stem. But for the purposes of cooking, it is so much more than the Thanksgiving herb. It is excellent with apples and pears in savory, sweet and cocktail applications. The Italians love it with veal for the Roman dish saltimbocca. A leftover holiday ham bone can be used to make split-pea soup as my mother always did, but frankly I’d much rather use it for a white bean soup with sage. You can see why it also pairs so well with other fall and winter-harvests, like squashes and sweet potatoes, because their sweetness accepts the herbal and assertive grassiness of the sage. It can’t be used with the reckless abandon you would get away with using parsley because it can overtake the dish with even just a pinch too much of the herb.
While sage works with sweet things impeccably, it craves something sour or the slightest bit bitter, and while I can’t validate its culinary significance, there has been a recent influx of cucumber-sage candles on the market and, though it sounds odd, is really fabulously pleasant. But, really, this isn’t surprising when you consider that, with sage in your garden, should you have it and one, that when a cool summer breeze grabs it and you catch a whiff, it is absolutely ethereal. In fact, white sage, though a different variety than the common culinary sage, is used by Native Americans to cleanse, purify and bless people and their dwellings, and I’ve read that some cultures consider sage a bringer of good luck and fortune when planted at the front of your homestead.
I think the best way to celebrate sage (and fall) is with this salad. Butternut squash gets tossed with some sage, its aroma rubbing onto the squash’s sunburst orange flesh, and roasted until soft and sweet. The sage kind of tames and sullies the custardy-sweetness of the squash so that it’s meaty and savory rather than something akin to pie filling. The dressing combats this sweetness, too. Roasting the lemons not only gets the essential oils in the rind flowing, perfuming the everything with the pure aroma of the lemon, while the pulpy flesh scotches a little and takes on a smoky-sweet flavor. The juices you get from these lemons are darker—almost cloudy, like old gold—and with more bitterness. This is exactly what you want, because it creates harmony; bitter lemon, sweet squash, warming herbaceous sage, and slightly pepper arugula. I like shaving some sharply salty Parmigiano-Reggiano on to it, but a bleu cheese crumbled overtop would be fantastic, too.
The other thing that I love about this salad is that there is virtually no waste when it comes to the squash. I scoop out the seeds, wash them, dry them and then roast them in a little olive oil so they add a little crisp and crunch to the salad. So to that harmony of bitter, sweet, herbaceous, peppery, and salty, now add crunchy. It’s perfect. I serve it as a meal but you could easily serve it as a side or first course. Frankly, if you cut back on the arugula a little, just tossing in a handful or two of the tender and peppery leaves, you could make this as a side dish rather than a side salad.
First, the squash is cut open, gutted, has its skin peeled off and cut into 1” cubes.
Toss them with a little olive oil and minced sage and into a 425° oven they go.
Dump the squash guts and seeds into a bowl of water, squish them around to free the seeds. Pull out the seeds, dry them on some paper towel and then toss them in an oven-safe non-stick skillet with a little olive oil and salt. Toast them in the oven for 8 – 10 minutes, until they’re toasted and tanned.
Cut up some lemons—preferably unwaxed—toss them with a little olive oil and roast these, too. About 15 minutes is all they need—you want them scorched and caramelized, their pulpy flesh having almost turned to a jam. Set a fine-mesh sieve over a bowl, plunk in the lemon wedges and push on them with a wooden spoon so their cloudy juices drain out and all the seeds are held back. Whisk in some salt and extra virgin olive oil until it all comes together. It should taste bitter, as it is this slight shock to the jaw that combats the exuberant sweetness of the squash. If it is too bitter though, then whisk in just a pinch of sugar to help reestablish balance.
By this time the squash should be done. Toss it with more fresh minced sage and tumble it over a bed of baby arugula (and baby kale, too, if you want), and shallots that are sliced into thin rounds.
Sprinkle or crumble on some cheese—shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano or asiago, grate over Romano, drop little baby t-spoon-sized dollops of ricotta, or crumble bits of pungent bleu cheese.
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