Sage. The taste of the herb’s flat, long, oval leaves is unmistakable. It’s a tricky ingredient to cook with. Use too little and it floats out of perception. Use too much and it’s like a musky version of Grandma’s potpourri.
If you’ve ever had saltimbocca, those pounded, fried Italian cutlets, there’s inevitably a sage leaf adhered to the cutlet’s surface. Although sage plays nicely with lighter meats like chicken (and pork), I think it’s best with potatoes. That is all because of Alain Passard.
Almost 15 years ago, I dined at my first three-star Michelin restaurant. Back then, the Michelin guide didn’t exist in the United States. I had to go to somewhere like Paris. So when making plans to visit friends who were studying in the French capital, I booked a table for one at L’Arpège, Passard’s tiny, civilized restaurant in the seventh arrondissement.
This was just a few years after Passard had upended the fine-dining equilibrium by shifting his roasted-meat menu to focus only on vegetables. I can still remember a beet dish assembled in a martini glass. It was equal parts earthy and bright. A masterly, revelatory way to cook with the deep blue-red root.
At $400 total for lunch, it was more than I’d ever spent on a meal. I was terrified, being American and basically a kid. But it was worth every penny.
Now, when I want to think about vegetables in a fresh way, I still look to Passard. He knows the power of potatoes with sage, but how he connects the two, specifically in his book The Art of Cooking With Vegetables, is absolutely surprising. He melts good salted butter over the lowest possible heat. He then adds fresh sage leaves, followed by garlic. When the butter is gurgling gently and the pan perfumes wondrously of sage and garlic, he adds boiled potatoes.
It’s rich and simple, homey and refined. If you have access to new garlic and new potatoes, it’s even better. But I recently cooked it with regular old Yukon Gold potatoes and papery garlic heads from the grocery store, and it didn’t disappoint. It never does.
ALAIN PASSARD’S POTATOES WITH SAGE
1½ to 2 pounds small potatoes
4 tablespoons good salted butter, like Kerrygold
4 sprigs fresh sage
4 or so garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
Flaky salt (optional)
1. Bring a large pot of water to boil. You want potato pieces that are no more than about 2 inches wide and 1 inch thick. Cut the potatoes accordingly. When the water comes to a boil, add enough salt so the water tastes lightly salty, about 2 tablespoons. Boil the potatoes until just tender. You don’t want them too soft. Drain the potatoes.
2. Meanwhile, in a large, heavy skillet, melt the butter over low heat. Tear the sage leaves from the sprigs and add them to the skillet. When the leaves soften a bit after about a minute, add the garlic. Cook on low for 15 minutes, until the aroma is lovely and intense. The butter should be gurgling gently and the garlic should not brown.
3. Add the drained potatoes to the skillet and stir gently to coat. Cook for a few minutes. Taste the potatoes to determine when they’ve absorbed some of the flavored butter. Sprinkle to taste with flaky salt and serve. This side pairs well with roasted meats.