I remember reading some snarky tweet months ago that went something like this: “Remember life before iphones, when we had to take pictures of our food with cameras? Then we had to bring the film to the Fotomat and wait a week for the pictures to be developed? And then we had copies made and sent those photos of our food to all our friends? WE DIDN’T. NO ONE CARES. STOP IT.”
I probably got the wording wrong, but that was the sentiment. I get his point about over sharing, (and I’m right there about selfies. Especially swimsuit selfies), but sometimes a shot—or, in this particular case, an Instagram Story—inspire a walk into the kitchen.
Over the long July Fourth weekend, I was lazing around (as I did for most of it), scrolling thru Stories when I found Jessica Seinfeld waving a curious looking shiny leaf in front of her phone. I think Jerry was in shot, too (since it was on Stories, it’s in the ether now…). Her caption identified the leaf as fried sage, along with their circumspect curiosity about tasting it during a family trip to Umbria. Huh.
We love sage. We’d been sprinkling it on these truffle oil ricotta toasts that we passed around at the beginning of every dinner party ever since we’d tasted a more ambitious pizza version using the same ingredients at a friend’s barbecue years ago.
I knew frying sage in brown butter was a thing, but when I googled around and landed on a recipe, the fried sage I found were batter-dipped—almost tempura—and so that became the trajectory.
In our two modest garden beds, there are three sage plants. One has become so large, we could call it a sage bush without hyperbole. Many of its long, lush leaves are adorned with pretty purple flowers. I’ve Instagram-asked if these buds are edible and armchair chefs confirm that they are, so I have sprinkled them into Elettra Weidemann’s Rossellini Spaghetti from her cookbook (and blog) The Impatient Foodie. A foot or two behind the bush sits a diminutive tri-colored sage plant whose leaves are so lovely, I haven’t had the heart to pick one from it yet. The leaves that marvel me the most are the large ones that have sprouted from the third sage plant. This one resides in the adjacent garden bed, but we used the same topsoil and Moo Goo, I swear. Unlike the standard long and lean sage leaves that we all know, these are wide and oval and kind of spectacular. These, I have not resisted plucking, so when I found a recipe in which they could be highlighted, I got excited.
We had invited about 16 friends over for dinner on the eve of the Fourth. A few added plus-ones, and our daughter Astrid had some college friends up, so the final count was 23. The weather was glorious, we had enough chairs and tables for porch dining, and the menu was one we could do with one hand tied behind our back—or, at least with our eyes closed.
But then I threw fried sage leaves into the mix.
Aside from Food 52 double dipped fried chicken, I don’t have tons of experience with batter. But with an ingredient number of five (to which I added more later), how tricky could it be? So, I handed the task to Astrid’s friend, Emma, who was eager to pitch in. And who, I neglected to consider, was a neophyte in the kitchen.
As I was busy making the corn salad, I guided Emma through the batter mixing as she stood next to me, mindful about continual stirring of the water, beer, flour and baking powder to avoid clumping. 101, pretty much.
“So, fill the frying pan about a quarter inch of olive oil and heat it,” I instructed. “I’ll be right back.”
And I headed upstairs to iron the tablecloths.
The smoke alarm went off about five minutes later. When I returned to the kitchen, Bertrand was heading outside, smoking frying pan in hand.
“Honey? Olive oil burns.” I actually think he might have said, “Jane? [in a tone dripping with sarcasm] Olive oil burns.” He only uses my name when he’s annoyed.
And what was my mature response? “Emma was making them,” I replied, throwing this 26-year-old newbie under the proverbial bus.
Emma is a rookie in the kitchen. I knew that. Totally my fault.
For the next ten minutes, I remained angry and churlish, awkward and embarrassed that I had been blamed for this, and I know it made the kids (the 26-year-old kids) who were helping out with various tasks nearby, uncomfortable.
Fifteen minutes later, Bertrand walked back into the kitchen, “Hey, Emma! I think you should try the fried sage again!”
To which I wanted to reply, Why don’t you apologize? But he had no reason to. She had been my charge and I entrusted a new task to her without enough guidance. So we started again, and this time I was more pro-active, both with her and this recipe.
“More flour,” I instructed. “Like, three heaping tablespoons more.”
She did, continuing to stir with her fork, as I’d instructed the first time. The thin, sheer, runny batter that she’d made on her first try back before the smoke alarm had not looked promising. This time, shunning the recipe and going rogue with the flour heaps, it now bore the consistency of Bisquik. Better.
With the heat on a manageable medium, I placed the first few batter-dipped leaves in to the heated oil when our first guests arrived: Florian and Jing and their two daughters, the older Amalia heading straight to me.
“Can I help?” she asked, peering into the pan and assessing the batter situation.
“Amalia has gotten very interested in cooking,” Jing explained.
I directed her outside to gather up more leaves. “The big fat ones in the bed on the left,” I added. She returned with a hearty handful, which we rinsed, patted, dipped into the thick batter, then gingerly placed into the bubbling oil.
Emma, who had joined the growing party after my little pout bout, returned to the kitchen as I was letting the first fried batch dry off on fresh paper towels. Once they’d sufficiently aired, I had her sprinkle a bit of Maldon salt on them
“Would it be crazy to squeeze a little lemon over them, too?” she asked, tentatively.
It was a genius suggestion, adding a touch of tart to this divine mix of musty, salty and crisp hors d’oeuvre.
The leaves were a hit. And a curious one at that. We made them again the following weekend, and our friend Martin suggested adding parmesan to the batter. For the unforeseeable future, those ricotta toasts appear to have been benched. I want to try basil leaves next time, but my friend Bobby says that basil is mostly water, so it might not work. I’ll report back.
Batter-Fried Sage Leaves
- 12 sage leaves, rinsed and dried
- 6 heaping tablespoons of all-purpose flour
- 1 t baking powder
- pinch of salt
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/8 cup beer
- 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan
- 1/2 olive oil
- 1 lemon, halved
In medium size mixing bowl, blend flour, baking powder and salt. Stir in water slowly, followed by beer, whisking with whisk or fork to avoid clumps. Once batter is beaten, stir in parmesan. Heat olive oil in generous-size frying pan over medium flame. Once oil is heated, dip sage leaves, one by one, into the batter, making sure that each leave is completely coated, then place into pan. Let each side cook for about 5-8 minutes, then carefully turn over with a spatula. Leaves should be firmed by the batter and bear a crisp appearance on each side before removing. Allow to dry on folded paper towels for a minute or two, then sprinkle with a squeeze of fresh lemon, followed by a little salt. Serve warm.