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Imagine a plant that:
• prevents excessive bleeding, yet can also increase blood flow
• increases urine output (a diuretic)
• reduces excessive sweating
• treats snakebites
• increases women’s fertility
• has antifungal properties
• is an astringent
• is an antibiotic
• suppresses muscle spasms
• promotes estrogen
• assists with hypoglycemia
• can treat Alzheimer’s
• is an anesthetic
• aids digestion
• and in general possesses restorative and healing properties.
Allow me to introduce you to the herb sage, whose name is derived from the Latin “salvus” meaning healthy or safe. Ancient Greek and Roman doctors, folklorists of the Middle Ages, and even a few modern herbalists have all attributed one or more of the above claims to sage. It’s no wonder that it was referred to as “Sage the Savior” or that a Provencal proverb asserted that “he who has sage in his garden needs no doctor.” Too bad there isn’t a botanical entity that promotes common sense. Most of these claims hold less water than the cells of the plant itself. (I particularly like the diametrical beliefs that it prevents and increases blood flow.) Over the ages most of sage’s medicinal claims have been abandoned in favor of its one unequivocal use: in cooking.
Sage is a perennial herb from the mint family indigenous to the Mediterranean. Nowadays it is grown in most temperate regions of the world. It has woody stems, grayish-green leaves and purple flowers. The Romans introduced it to Europe. Charlemagne was so enamored with sage that he ordered widespread planting of it in 812.
Sage is a very pungent herb, a fact to keep in mind when employing it. Peppery, minty, and slightly bitter are the most common adjectives describing its taste. However, there’s a variety known as pineapple sage which believe it or not, has a pineapple scent.
Fresh sage is available year round. Like any herb, look for batches with a bright aroma, vibrant uniform color, no blotches, and no signs of desiccation. If the leaves look arid or limp, opt for its dried, jarred counterpart. Most herbs are a shadow of themselves in dried form but dried sage is fairly decent. Remember the general rule of thumb; one part dried spices/herbs equals three parts fresh. Unused fresh sage can be wrapped in damp paper towels and stored in a bag in the fridge. Or, my preferred storage method with herbs is to stand them up in a small vessel of water, (like flowers in a vase), ideally with a sealable lid, and then refrigerate them. You need only enough water to submerge the base of the stems.
Sage has a wide variety of uses but due to its robust flavor, it marries better with heartier dishes. It is a classic pairing with fattier fare because of the aforementioned beliefs in its digestive properties. It is also utilized with pork, beans, certain cheeses, sausage, goose, forcemeats, marinades and especially stuffings. In France it is most popular in Provence, a region enthusiastic about herbs in general, where it is combined with meats and soups. In Germany they use it to season eel and even beer. The Chinese infuse it in tea. In the Middle East it is enjoyed with mutton. And in Italy where it is quite popular, it can be found in osso buco, paupiettes, (rolled and stuffed meats), rice, soup, and the star of this article: veal saltimbocca.
Veal saltimbocca, which probably originated in Brescia, (a region of Lombardy in northern Italy), is a specialty in Roman cuisine. Quite simply, it is veal sautéed with prosciutto and sage in a butter/wine sauce. In the traditional fabrication method two sage leaves are placed on a veal cutlet overlaid by a slice of prosciutto. A long wooden skewer is then threaded through to hold the veal and toppings in place. This packet is then sautéed.
I have two problems with this method. First, skewers are always awkward. It’s a somewhat tedious procedure to ensure they are threaded properly. The skewer must adequately penetrate each ingredient to hold it in place and in such a manner that the entire packet lays flat so it cooks uniformly. My second issue is the sage is not dispersed evenly. The cutlets are obviously larger than two leaves of sage. This results in a gastronomic mood swing. Some mouthfuls will be devoid of the herb while others will be inundated.
My solution is to first chop the sage leaves. I stick with the basic formula of two leaves per piece of veal. Pound the cutlets thoroughly so they are nice and thin. Season them with salt and pepper. Easy on the salt since the prosciutto is salty. Sprinkle the sage evenly on the cutlets. Top with the prosciutto, fold the cutlet in half, and then pound it again. Deliver some extra whacks to the folded edge so it will not be inordinately thicker than the rest. This second pounding also seals the perimeter of the folded cutlet, holding everything in place. Remember when pounding meat to always use the smooth side of the mallet, and cover it with a sheet of plastic wrap. This inhibits tearing of the meat and prevents the jettisoning of errant projectiles all over your kitchen.
• 8 fresh sage leaves, cut in chiffonade, (as described below)
• 4 veal cutlets
• Salt and pepper, to taste
• 4 slices prosciutto
• 4 tablespoons butter, divided
• 4 oz. dry white wine
To chiffonade the sage, tightly roll the leaves horizontally into a cigar shape. Then slice it end to end to produce little ribbons.
Pound the veal cutlets to thin them out and season with salt and pepper.
Evenly distribute the sage over the cutlets and then top each with a slice of prosciutto. Fold the cutlets in half and pound them again to a uniform thickness.
Melt half the butter in a large skillet. Place the veal packets in the pan, brown the first side, flip and repeat. Remove the veal and reserve. Add the wine and deglaze the pan, scraping the browned bits off the bottom. Add the remaining butter. Season with salt and pepper. Return the veal to the pan and very briefly cook it on each side just to coat it with the sauce and serve.
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