Sage, or Salvia, is the largest genus in the Lamiaceae (mint) family. There are approximately 700-900 species of sage, but the species used most often for culinary applications is referred to as garden sage or Common Sage (Salvia officinalis). Sage is identified by its green/gray leaves and blue to purple colored flowers. It is a perennial, evergreen subshrub with woody stems. It actually does originate from the Mediterranean region, but has since spread, or naturalized, all over the world. Sage is renowned for its culinary and medicinal applications. It has numerous uses in fresh and dry forms, and it it also useful as an essential oil. See Salvia Officinalis for more information.
There are several other species of sage that are useful for more than just cooking and medicinal applications. Most of the California coastline and some inland areas, particularly in the central and southern parts of the state, are home to coastal sage scrub (see map of California for locations). ‘Sage scrub’ is a catch-all term that encompasses several plant species, not just those in the genus Salvia. For example, the scientific name for California Sagebrush is Artemisia californica, which is outside of the genus Salvia. The most common species of Salvia that grow in the coastal sage scrub areas are Black Sage (Salvia mellifera), White Sage (Salvia apiana), and Purple Sage (Salvia leucophylla). The coastal sage scrub range has been reduced over time because of development practices. In many counties and cities, it has been given a protected status and permits are required to remove it for further development. In addition to preserving coastal sage scrub for its unique character, these plant species are protected because they provide habitat for several animal and insect species. Most notably, the California gnatcatcher is a federally-listed threatened species, and requires coastal sage scrub (critical habitat) for its survival. Other species commonly found in coastal sage scrub are: Red-Diamond Rattlesnakes, Orange-Throated Whiptails, Cactus Wrens, and Sage Sparrows (see picture below).
Common Sage has a strong, peppery taste that can be quite pungent and earthy. It is usually used in meat rubs, stuffings, and sauces. The recipe that we’re showcasing today uses sage as the main flavorant for a burnt butter sauce, which is absolutely delicious. There are several variations of this recipe. The one from the Food Network link (provided below) includes red pepper flakes, but you can omit it if you like (check the comments to see how other chefs personalized this recipe). If you’re not sure what to pair it with, I really enjoy this sauce with pumpkin or squash ravioli. Homemade potato or sweet potato gnocci is fabulous as well.
The sauce is easy make. First add the indicated amount of butter to the pan and cook on medium-high heat until it starts to brown and the aroma deepens. Then add the sage directly to the butter. The sage will immediately begin to fry and crisp up. If you are going to add gnocchi or pasta make sure you time it to finish at the same time as the sauce (it only takes a minute or two to make). Toss the pasta/gnocchi with the sauce and serve with freshly grated parmesan cheese. Enjoy!