Thursday, November 6, 2014

Eating Santa Clarita: Purple Sage for Thanksgiving

The first Thanksgiving feast was more foraged than farmed. Sure, Pilgrims and the Wampanoag grew corn, but deer, fowl, fish, and other foods came from the wild. Foraging then was a matter of necessity. Today, foraging is a means of giving the Thanksgiving feast a truly local flavor. It’s an opportunity to consider what the wilderness provides—to connect with nature at the fundamental level as a gatherer. More practically, foraging is a pleasant reason for a hike or a task to assign those whom you wish to go take a hike.

I am planning to harvest and taste a few native foods as we approach the big feast. Some will be novel, but we begin with a local species of sage, that most quintessentially Thanksgiving of herbs. It makes for a warmly welcoming introduction to eating Santa Clarita’s indigenous flora.

Meet Your Food

Sage adds an ineffable roundness to the turkey and stuffing at the center of Thanksgiving; dinner wouldn’t be the same without it. A few species of sage are indigenous to Santa Clarita, and of these, purple sage (Salvia leucophylla) is the choicest for culinary applications. It's related to the familiar culinary sage (Salvia officinalis), which hails from Europe. However, purple sage grows almost exclusively in Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange Counties—a plant of discriminating zip codes, to be sure. Since it’s rarely sold in nurseries (the “purple sage” you see for sale is usually the same name applied to a very different species), you’re one of a tiny percentage of people who can feasibly incorporate this flavorful plant into your meal.

Are you leery of consuming leaves off a bush growing in the middle of nowhere? Take some solace in the fact that California's various sages have a long legacy of use by several Native American tribes. In Edible and Useful Plants of California, Charlotte Clark writes that the native black sage “was used by early settlers to season sausage, poultry, and meat stuffings.”(111) Purple sage makes an appearance in Judith Larner Lowry’s recently published book California Foraging, where she writes, “The leaves have a future in edgy cuisines, since they are attractive and tasty when lightly fried to garnish pasta or eat as appetizers. The hint of bitterness will please those interested in re-introducing such complex tastes to their palate.”(82) If you’re still nervous, remember that you’re only using a little bit of it as a seasoning and, more importantly, you can confirm it’s sage with the sniff test—an unmistakably sagey aroma.

Recognizing and Harvesting

 Note the unique, pebbly texture and silvery/gray/white leaves of purple sage.

Purple sage is a woody shrub with small, elongate leaves with blunt edges. They are a beautiful silvery gray and have an uneven, pebbly surface texture. Don’t expect any purple on the plant this time of year; pale purple flowers come in spring. The strong, sagey smell is evident when leaves are brushed or bruised. It’s a plant of lean soils and steep hillsides. Good places to find it are the hills forming the southern flank of the Santa Clarita Valley. There are many popular hiking spots here, as you’re likely aware. If you want to be sure you know what it looks like, take a look at the photos below. To get to this particular plant for the purposes of identity confirmation, park at the City of Santa Clarita’s East Walker Ranch parking lot. From the map kiosk, walk 20 paces down the trail and there, within a tangle of green, is silvery purple sage. Dozens of other purple sage plants dot the hillside. 

East Walker Ranch is full of purple sage, like most of the hilly areas in the southern Santa Clarita Valley. Here's one that's just yards from the start of the trail if you want to verify what it looks like before gathering your own.

You should only gather purple sage on a property where you have permission. It’s not endangered or threatened by any means, but it’s still not something you can legally collect at, say, Placerita Canyon State Park. I wouldn’t be unduly concerned about the impact you’ll have on the wild populations of purple sage by pinching a few leaves, though. It’s locally very common and a robust plant that can withstand quite a lot. On a more philosophical note, I think we’re more apt to notice troubling declines in plants like purple sage if we identify and responsibly monitor or use them. Plants may well be more susceptible to demise from disinterest than from occasional, responsible harvesting.

Eating Purple Sage: A Test with Chicken  

To use purple sage fresh, just rinse off the leaves. If you want to use it dried (the way culinary sage is often sold), leave stems in a paper bag in a cool, dry spot to discourage mold. Wait a couple weeks. Then strip the leaves and crumble them for use.

Since sage is often used with poultry, I decided to taste it with chicken. I seasoned a small piece of chicken breast with a mixture similar to what you might use when roasting a turkey, keeping sage as the sole herbal component: 1 teaspoon melted butter, ¼ teaspoon lemon juice, 1/8 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon pepper, and 2 purple sage leaves, very finely chopped. For a comparison, I made the same marinade with culinary sage leaves as well. After the chicken marinated for 15 minutes, I cooked it in a skillet.

 The purple sage in this photo looks a little more green than usual because it came from a watered plant, which leads to greener (vs. grayer) leaves. The culinary sage is of the favored 'Berggarten' variety.

Purple sage gave a savory, woodsy flavor with sweetly floral elements somewhat reminiscent of lavender. Culinary sage made the chicken taste rich and round and contributed a sweet-bitter flavor like pine or rosemary. Both were unmistakably “sagey”, but side by side, differences were evident. Given my deep Claritan roots, I was hoping I’d like the native sage better. However, centuries of selective breeding of culinary sage have produced a familiar, tasty plant. I probably would have given it a slight edge over purple in a blind taste test. For this, I am ashamed.

The Verdict

Sage is probably the most accessible way to add a wild-foraged element to your Thanksgiving meal. The flavor of purple sage isn’t so different from culinary sage, so it will be a nice blend of novelty and familiarity at the table. It can make an appearance in turkey, stuffing, or flash-fried for a crispy garnish. It won’t taste exactly the same as culinary sage, but you’ll get most of the flavor you’re wanting and expecting. Purple sage's novelty and Claritan credentials will surely make up the difference. Just think of how you will regale family and friends with the story of how you hiked, searched, and triumphed in your quest to bring a wild-foraged piece of Santa Clarita to the feast. Why wouldn't you?

My next culinary trial will be California Bay, friend to pumpkin and potatoes.


Anonymous said...

You can find several varieties of native sage, including purple, at the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley. They sell and propagate California native plants.

A Santa Claritan said...

Indeed, they do sell it, but who knows what their source is? If it's sage propagated from, say, cuttings in Orange County, well that's not very Santa Claritan at all. It's a chance I dare not take. That said, if I were to buy Purple Sage, I like RSABG's stuff better than TPF's.