Sage with winter squash is my winter equivalent to basil with tomatoes. Carrots with thyme. Artichokes with Tarragon. It’s a combination I have a hard time getting away from, which is good because winter squash is coming on and my sage plants – bushes really – are full and glorious. Not surprisingly I’m thinking about both squash and sage and, coincidentally, how good they are together, and how many months they’re going to be with us.
Sage is a plant I’m especially fond of, not just culinary sage, but many others. Cleveland. Jerusalem. Pineapple. Mexican sage. White sage. There are sages with powerfully fragrant leaves and flower bracts stacked one above the other with little mint-like blossoms of blue, purple, yellow—even red— bursting from their calyxes. I’ve just brought my more frost-sensitive sages indoors where they thrive in the sun and give off their desert-sagey smells. While the sages (Salvias) are not the sagebrushes of the desert, (the Artemisia genus of another family), they do share some similar properties, namely that rough, resinous perfume.)
Though not quite as dramatic, culinary sage is no slouch, either. A mature plant is round and bush like with soft, silver-gray leaves. In the spring its violet flowers are almost sweet smelling, but not quite. There is a hint of mint, the family (Labiatae) to which sages belong, but it quickly disappears when blooms fade with the rising temperature of summer. But by fall it’s aromatic oils have turned muscular and complex, both savory and a little sweet at the same time, and that’s when those hard-skinned but sweet squash are around. I think they need each other, the squash and the sage.
I roast cubes of squash with garlic and sage. I chop sage leaves and cook them with onions until golden when starting a squash soup; I fry the leaves in olive oil until dark and crisp, then use them to garnish that soup once it’s finished, I also scatter them over seared wedges of Musquee de Provence squash or Delicata, or a galette made from Marina de Chioggia or butternut squash fried in olive oil. (No squash here, but I adore a pasta that’s tossed with handfuls of sage leaves crisped in olive oil with nothing more than salt, pepper and some good Reggiano.) Fried sage leaves give a textured edge to the tender squash as do breadcrumbs crisped with minced sage in olive oil or ghee then scattered over a winter squash risotto, puree, or another squash soup. However you use it, sage brings the sweetness of winter squash, which can be considerable, into balance, dragging it down to earth. To me, it’s hard to imagine squash without the tempering influence of sage. But then, rosemary and juniper are good, so is the bracing freshness of parsley, and pepper and pepper flakes, garlic, and so much more. Gorgonzola cheese spread over hot crostini and floated in the soup, below, is the best. What can I say? (I tried to post a recipe but it came out too strange. Will try again in another post.)
Sage is an easy plant to grow. Buy a small one and soon it will be a large one. It will also drop seeds and make more plants. And a further bonus is that sage leaves make a calming tea. Just pour near boiling water over them, let them steep for 10 minutes or so, then sip and inhale its now soft perfume. Why not have it with a piece of pumpkin (aka winter squash) pie, while you’re at it?