Winter squash is coming on now. We’ve had a few long rainy days and nights, and more are promised. Meanwhile, my sage plants — bushes, really — are full and glorious. So naturally I’m thinking about squash and sage together.
Sage is a plant I love, and lucky for me, there’s not just one — there are many. Cleveland. Jerusalem. Mexican sage. White sage. These are big sages with powerful, resinous leaves and stacks of flower bracts stacked one over another, bursting with their little mint-like blossoms of blue, purple, or yellow, depending on the variety.
But culinary sage is no slouch, either. A mature plant is round and bush-like with soft, silver-gray leaves. In the spring, its flowers are violet, held in rust-colored bracts, and are almost sweet-smelling — but not quite. There is a hint of mint (Labiatae), the family to which sages belong. While there are blooms, sage is oddly right with peas and asparagus.
But any suggestion of mint quickly disappears when the blooms fade, as summer temperatures rise. By fall, sage’s aromatic oils have turned muscular and complex, more pungent, both savory and a little sweet at the same time, and that’s when those hard-skinned squash come around.
Sage with winter squash is my winter equivalent to basil with tomatoes. It’s a combination I have a hard time getting away from.
I roast cubes of squash with garlic and sage. When starting a squash soup I chop sage leaves and cook them with onions until golden; 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 Musquée de Provence squash or Delicata, or a cake made from leftover Marina de Chioggia or butternut squash fried in olive oil.
Fried sage leaves offer their crisp texture — along with their flavor — to the soft squash. I also crisp breadcrumbs with minced sage in olive oil or ghee, then scatter them over a winter-squash risotto, that squash cake, or another squash soup.
However you use it, sage brings the sweetness of the winter squash, which can be considerable, into balance, dragging it a bit more down to earth.
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 more plants will grow.
A further bonus? Sage leaves make a calming tea. Just pour near-boiling water over them, let them steep for 10 minutes or so, then sip.