sage advice

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There is something forgotten and faded about sage, its musty nature reminiscent of somewhere that’s been shut up for too long, its dusty-green hue like something dulled by too much sunlight. Musty and dusty, lemon and camphour tinged, soft as moleskin yet rugged as my removal man, sage is one of my favourite herbs.

It had only been shuttered up for three months, but our new flat had a sage-like feel to it before I flung open the wooden shutters and windows on Saturday. I wonder if that was the reason I bought the plant? An unconscious herbal response to our new home! It’s the first of many pots that will eventually line our long, narrow balcony, providing me with kitchen herbs and Luca plenty of leaf-tugging and pot-pulling temptation.

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Ignorning all advice, sage and otherwise, opting instead for the furious adrenaline fueled frenzy that spontaneously erupts when you leave everything to the last-minute, meant the move was unpleasant. I’m not sure I have ever felt quite so frazzled and frothing. Luca on the other hand thought all the boxes, heaving, open windows, bottles of toxic cleaner and flapping lift doors were hilarious.

Four days later and although far from organized and still besieged by homeless items, we are relieved and happy to be in our new flat. It feels pleasant and absolutely right. You might remember that Testaccio is shaped like a quarter or – rather more memorably – a large wedge of parmesan cheese. Our old flat was on one cut side. We are now on the other, the arc of the wedge being the river. Our balcony hangs over busy, plain-tree lined Via Galvani. Bearably busy though and punctuated  - much to Luca’s delight – by the intermittent clip-clop clatter of the horses pulling carriages back to their home in the Ex-Mattaotio.

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I’ve had it in mind to batter and deep-fry sage leaves for months now, ever since eating rather more than my fair share at an aperitivo. The moorishly delicious leaves and my social ineptitude are to blame in equal measure for my disproportionate consumption. In possession of a sage plant, an ancient cooker positioned next to a blowy balcony door and flat to be warmed – I fried.

I’m sure we all have strong, possibly uncompromising views on batter. Where flowers and herbs are concerned I like mine light and delicate. Having whisked together 200 ml of warm water, 100 g of plain flour, 2 tbsp of olive oil and a hefty pinch of salt, I leave my pale batter to rest in the fridge for a couple of hours. Once it’s the spoon-clinging consistency of thick cream, I fold in a couple of eggs whites beaten so vigorously they stand to attention in peaks.

I drag the leaves through the batter, this side and that, before lowering them into very hot oil. It takes just seconds, a nudge and a flip, for the soft battered leaves to puff and seize into crisp golden cocoons. A slotted spoon is needed to lift the leaves from the oil onto first: a plate lined with brown paper or kitchen towel and then: another a clean plate over which I launch a shower of fine salt. The crisp, golden batter shatters and gives way to a warm, musky leaf. A few battered leaves, a cold beer (in a Nutella glass no less) on a sun-drenched balcony and all was well and good.

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Talking of strong, uncompromising views, I have encountered many on the subject of the delightfully named saltimbocca – which literally translated means jump-in the-mouth – a most glorious combination of veal, prosciutto, sage, butter and wine. ‘Slice upon slice with the sage leaf pinned like a brooch‘ some say. ‘The veal dipped in flour‘ others cry. ‘Sage leaf under prosciutto’. ‘Sage leaf over prosciutto.‘A sprinkling of parmesan.’ Wine!’ ‘No no Marsala!’ ’3 minutes.’ ’7 minutes.’ 

Being, as I am, a saltimbocca novice, I was more than happy to let a friend who is staying take the lead. Alida learned from her father Adriano who in turn learned from his mother who in turn……. The veal must be best quality and thinly sliced. If it isn’t thin enough, a couple of rolls with a wooden pin should do the trick. There is no dusting in flour, no scattering of parmesan, simply a slice of veal, another of prosciutto, a single sage leaf, a flick of black pepper, a roll, a tuck and a strategic skewering with a toothpick

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As Alida cooked the saltimbocca: first warming butter and oil until smoking, then leaving the pale-pink rolls untouched in the hot fat until they formed a deep golden crust, she explained the reason for rolls as opposed to a flat, open saltimbocca. Rolled she noted, the veal retains an exquisite pink tenderness at its heart. There is also a sliver of sage, a musky note, in every bite. ‘Of course you could try the open saltimbocca or a sprinkling of flour or parmesan‘ she said as she lifted the edge of a roll with a fork. Her eyes however, lifted in much the same way as the corner of the veal roll suggested – in inimitable Italian style – otherwise.

Once the saltimbocca are cooked – which takes just a matter of minutes – you move them into a warm plate while you deglaze the pan. Alida did this by pouring some white wine into the pan and then using a wooden spoon to scrape and dislodge all the dark, sticky juices and golden crust from the bottom. Back over a lively the flame she added a generous nub of butter and allowed it to melt and thicken the dark and richly flavoured sauce before pouring it over the saltmibocca.

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For those of you with sage doubts, this is a dish that could well convince you otherwise. The domineering and bitter side of sage’s character is smothered, like gossip by silence, into something softer and more forgiving.

I rhapsodized over my meal – I had drunk rather a lot of wine – and finally understood others fervent devotion to this (near perfect) combination and timeless dish. Not so much a jump, more a languorous roll in the mouth. The combination of veal – golden and caramelized outside and tender within – fatty and salty prosciutto, darkly musty sage and a butter and wine sauce is a heady and purely pleasurable one. Unlike moving.

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Saltimbocca   Veal rolls with prosciutto and sage

Recipe from my friend Alida and her father Adriano Borgna

I haven’t given precise quantities for oil, butter and wine because it feels counter intuitive for dish like this. Taste, practice and a heavy hand with the butter and wine.

for 2 as a main course or 4 as small second dish.

  • 8 thin slices of veal
  • 8 slices of untrimmed prosciutto
  • 8 sage leaves
  • black pepper
  • salt
  • olive oil
  • butter
  • white wine

Over each slice of veal lay a slice of prosciutto and a sage leaf. Grind over a little black pepper and sprinkle over a little salt. Roll the veal into a neat log and then secure with a toothpick.

Warm a generous nub of butter and some olive oil in a good, heavy based pan. Once the fat is very hot and smoking add the rolls. Allow the rolls to sit untouched so a golden crust forms then turn them 90° and again allow a crust to form. Once the rolls are cooked and coloured evenly (this should take about 3 minutes) move them onto a warm plate.

Add some white wine to the pan and using and wooden spoon scrape and dislodge all the dark, sticky juices and crust from the base of the pan. Then back on the flame, add a generous nub of butter and allow it to melt and thicken the dark sauce which you then pour over your saltimbocca.

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48 Comments

Filed under antipasti, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, sage, supper dishes, Testaccio, veal

48 responses to “sage advice

  1. I have a huge Sage plant that is several years old by my country cottage.
    Have only it in my Southern dressing at Thanksgiving to accompany turkey.
    Thank you for another idea.
    Oh my
    Italy
    a dream of mine..

    • rachel

      I am hoping my plant will live to be a few years old! I am an enthusiast but a careless one with plants. If Luca had been girl he would have been called ernestine!

  2. Hilary

    ooh, love your new balcony and the floor!! Happy new flat!

  3. Hilary

    I just re-read the recipe for the veal (slow day at work, dreaming of dinner) – do you really mean the prosciutto should be the same thickness as the veal? Wouldn’t that be really thick for prosciutto (or can you get paper thin veal there?). Do you mean width?
    BTW, you could deal to the rogue apostrophes in the first para :-) (auditioning as your proofreader!)

    • rachel

      You get the job, you are my proofreader – thank you. Yes the veal should be really thin and the prosciutto fatter than usual. I have changed the recipe though as it was probably confusing for those with thicker slices of veal. xx

  4. Just wonderful. You really captured sage.

  5. laura

    Bless you for finding the time and energy to write another of your brilliant posts! SO glad that it’s your items that are “homeless” and not you and Luca and SO glad that you will have a balcony, however slender, for pots of plants.
    As Michelle said, you really captured sage. I love sage – smell, taste, color – and it is actually VERY good for you!
    Bless you for the light batter and delicious banter and bless you, Alida and Adriano for a superb saltimbocca recipe!

    • rachel

      I found the time by not doing what I should be doing: unpacking, cleaning and organising. I am a domestic disaster. We are glad we have a balcony and that we can hear the horses (Luca’s favourite word). Hope you are well? x

  6. As usual it is a sheer pleasure following your moves through your words.
    I am very happy for you that moving day is behind you and Luca (nothing more stressful then a move). Funny that your post is a combination of sage and moving into a new flat, because some sage once said that burning sage (dried sage that is) in a new flat (new to you but inhabited in the past by other people…spirits) clears the energy of the place and sends smoke signals to previous tenants that it is time for them to move on… That being said I am not really new age-y but figure this practice is harmless, like most superstitions I guess :-) , so I follow it non the less…if only for the smokey smell of burnt sage that is quite mysterious…

    • rachel

      Hello, It is the most unbelievably stressful thing that just gets worse as you get older, accumulate more things (including the sweetest, naughtiest liitle boy.) This idea of burning sage is wonderful and evocative and it makes my recent sage cooking seem even more appropriate! thank you so so much

  7. I never thought about deep frying sage leaves- I’ve been awaiting zucchini blossoms to fry, but in the meantime I will be very content with these!

    • rachel

      I hope you do, they are wonderful, crisp, musky and delicious. I am going to try some other herbs this week and will let you know

  8. Hello Rachel! Just found your fabulous blog and I can’t wait to explore! Having lived in Italy (Livorno) for several years in my early twenties, I’m feeling rather homesick of my adopted country. I have a gigantic sage plant in my back garden, and its leaves grace my table almost daily. It’s one on my very favourite herbs, too. Your description is spot on – musty and faded like a room closed off for too long – it brings a new appreciation for this humble plant. Love it! Must try rolling my saltimbocca! I’ve always made it flat (in fact, I frequently use chicken – heresy, I know!) Thank you for this lovely post, and enjoy your new flat! ~Rebecca

    • rachel

      Hi Rebecca, Nice to meet you! I know Livorno well and thought about going to live there a few years back! I think saltimbocaa make with chicken is absolutely lovely but veal is even lovelier and more delicious. My balcony and I are jealous of your garden

  9. Christine

    Glad that you’re all moved in, even if unpacking is another story.

    The saltimbocca looks wonderful and fast and perfect. I’ll have to make some soon.

    One of my favorite ways of using sage is with white beans, in a recipe of sorts that I learned from my Italian roommate in college – Luca. To make the “Luca beans” you warm up a nice quantity of good oil, throw in a bit of chopped onion until golden. Add a blob of tomato paste and then a few cups of cooked cannellini beans with some juice. (Obviously, fresh cooked is best, but I’ve used cans in times of desperation). Throw in a bunch of sage – I like to chop it so it’s everywhere, but whole is fine too. Salt and pepper to taste, but add more ground pepper than you would think. Then just let it simmer until the onions are tender and the flavors melded. So good and so fast if you already have some cooked beans.

    • rachel

      Having proscastinated over packing, i am now doing the same with unpacking.
      I love this idea for white beans and will be trying it this week – thank you, thank you.

  10. Congrats on the new flat, I am looking forward to seeing what angle you choose for your intro pictures!
    Saltimboca is one of my favorite meat dishes, so easy to make but guests are still always impressed. The sage just does the trick. Great tip with rolling the meat, I like mine pink!

    • rachel

      I am looking forward to finding the position, I think a new table for the balcony is in order. I have to admit I am missing my table in the window at the moment. Yes, rolling is such a good way of retaining tenderness.

  11. Hey Rachel – quick (vaguely technical) question, or two. What’s the rationale behind using warm water to make the batter – then adding ice cubes? Plus, why did you go for whisked egg whites? As opposed to say using sparkling water? Is that how sage is traditionally battered in Roma, or just a way of making a nice light tempura batter?

    • rachel

      Now you know I am the most untechnical person….It is a combination of the river cafe recipe and a woman in Puglia. The warm water is to help the flour dissolve and then the ice-cubes begin the chill. That said I have just removed the cubes as it is confusing and and a couple of hours in the fridge should do the trick. The batter is decidedly unRoman and yes, more tempura like. Do you have a good batter?

  12. Carolle

    We love saltimbocca but have difficulty finding really good veal, when we do we buy in bulk but then proceed to eat it everyother day until it’s gone, last night was the first night of our veal marathon! I’ve always made saltimbocca flat but tomorrow we’ll definitely be having it rolled with lemon sauce which is my favorite. Glad to hear your all moved in to your new flat don’t worry too much about unpacking everything all at once just think how pleased you’ll be when you come across something that you’d totally forgotten you’d got when you get round to opening that box that had been pushed right to the back of a cupboard.

    • rachel

      A veal marathon – that sounds like my sort of event. I also love your advice – thank you, I now feel better about another evening avoiding. In lemon sauce – interesting, a recipe?

  13. You’re”ode to sage” is beautiful. As a lover of sage…closing my eyes and smelling it conjures up many memories of past meals and ideas for future recipes using this ” old soul” herb. I am currently growing some pineapple sage. Any ideas for using it? It is very pineapple scented. Maybe a polenta cake withe pineapple sage and fresh peaches?

    • rachel

      Old soul herb – I love that. pineapple sage, I am intrigued. I have never used sage in anything sweet but I bet it could work beautifully. please let me know about the cake Rx

  14. Ann

    Lovely, lovely dusky sage — I can’t wait to fry some in your delicate batter. Welcome home, Rachel and Luca!

  15. Happy new home! I wish you and Luca much happiness there. (It looks like my little family will be making a big move this year–to the Seattle area!) I have some sage in my garden… and lots of zucchini blossoms. It’s time I learn to fry them, don’t you think?

    • rachel

      Thanks kate and yes, a plate of (home grown) golden leaves and flowers is essential. All the best for your move too x

  16. Hi Rach–I was especially pleased to see the saltimbocca recipe. On one of my last nights in Rome, I ordered it at a trattoria near our friends’ home. It was the first time in many, many years that I have eaten it. It was prepared just as yours, rolled with a fat sage leaf pinned in the middle. Sumptuous brown demi-glace poured over the meat. Have mercy.
    I love sage–crispy leaves picked off of a pork roast, simmered into brown butter sauce, chopped into cornbread dressing…
    Your new flat has nice light.

    • rachel

      It has got a nice light, I just need to find the right spots! Maybe get a new table (tiny) for the balcony. I hope you are settled back at home and all is well. Keep us up to date with book news xxx

  17. hannah alehandra

    I love your blog so so much! Have been a loyal reader for years now, it’s my favourite. Please post some interesting summer salad recipes :)

  18. olivia

    Hi Rachel,
    the foto of the fried sage just made me laugh so much, I’m living in Torio with my boyfriend and at first I could never believe how his mum would serve wine in nutella glasses. It must be a very Italian thing to do. I always enjoy your recipes and often take inspiration from them. Tanti saluti, x olivia

  19. So happy to have discovered you wonderful blog and your wonderful writing. I can’t wait to try the rolled saltimbocca…I’ve only prepared it flat.

  20. Well, YOU know this pretty much killed my bacopescaterianism dead. I now have to say I’m a saltimboccabacopescaterian. And that definitely doesn’t jump OUT of the mouth!

  21. I’m extremely belated in telling you how much I love this post. I’ve always adored sage, and can’t wait to try frying the leaves. Beautiful writing, as always.

  22. Just wanted to say that I loved reading this – it’s by far the best written blog post I’ve come across in as long as I can remember (not everyone can describe sage quite as well as you just did). And on that note, I’m about to try your veal saltimbocca recipe as well as subscribe.

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  24. Rachel, randomly I found this post. Thank you, it’s lovely. love from La La land. x

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