Sage is a herb I rarely use. I think, like most English people, I associate it simply with the stuffing for the Christmas turkey, or other heavy, pork-laden winter fare. When I think of cooking with herbs, I think of gorgeous, vibrant bunches of coriander, with their bright, yellow-green leaves the exact colour of ripe limes. I think of feathery dill, in large quivering bunches, with its slender leaves like little jade needles. I think of fresh mint, possibly my favourite aroma in the world, reminiscent of lemons in its freshness. I once stalked a small boy halfway across the suburbs of Marrakech because he was carrying the biggest bunch of mint I've ever seen in my life, and it was perfuming the surrounding air with its zesty scent. I think of the sharp, astringent, aniseedy snap of fresh basil or the beautiful delicacy of a sprig of thyme, barely wider than one of my own hairs, with its tiny pointed leaves, those ready for picking sporting a delightful purple blush where they meet the stem. I had never noticed this until a chef I once worked for pointed it out to me, instructing me to harvest only the leaves with a deep, flushed underside for whatever dish he was cooking at the time. But rarely do I think of the braille-like pebbly texture of sage leaves, the muted jade green of a Regency drawing room, with their deeply aromatic and somehow comforting scent; designed, it seems, to be paired with other comfort foods to bring cheer in the darkest winter.
Perhaps this is unfair, though, and a gross underestimation of the potential of poor old overlooked sage (or even downright maligned - Elizabeth David dismissed it as having a "musty, dried blood scent" that "deadens" food). I was going to say there must be a reason why supermarkets sell this herb all year round, not just at Christmas, but then I realised that supermarkets sell most things all year round, and that is no indication of their quality - just think of hideous, crunchy, sour strawberries in November, or bitter Peruvian asparagus even when the tender English crop is in full swing. However, there is definitely a case to be made for bringing sage out of the winter period it is often consigned to. Sadly, it seems that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall got there first in the fight to rehabilitate this lovely herb with his article in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, but hopefully this is another recipe that will help to support his case.
There has been a gorgeous piece of veal sitting in my freezer for a couple of months now, from the Real Food Festival. While the burgers and sausages have been barbecued, and the rump steak served as veal saltimbocca, the little silverside roasting joint has languished, saved for a special occasion that kept failing to arise. Finally, the stars aligned to produce the perfect opportunity for this diminutive joint: it was a Sunday, the weather was beautiful but not too hot, my boyfriend and I had nowhere important to be, and we both wanted a good roast dinner. Despite the bizarre weather of late, it is still July, and therefore a full roast with all the heavy trimmings (Yorkshire puddings, thick dark gravy, the spiky caramelised edges of golden root vegetables) doesn't seem appropriate. Instead, I came up with this much lighter variation on a roast dinner; satisfying, flavoursome, but still full of summer.
I wanted to serve the meat fairly plain, because it seemed too lovely to mess around with. One of my favourite ways to serve simple, fast-cooking joints of meat like fillet or rack of lamb is to roll them in a crust of herbs, nuts or spices (or all three). That way the beautiful interior of the meat still captures attention, but it both looks nicer and has a bit of textural contrast to accentuate it. I decided to use sage for the veal crust, because it pairs so well with veal (as in the classic veal saltimbocca, where veal steaks are wrapped in Parma ham and sage leaves). The crust is a variation on Italian gremolata, a mixture of very finely chopped parsley, lemon zest and garlic. It's best known for being sprinkled over osso bucco, a dish of braised veal shin on the bone usually served with saffron risotto. The mixture of these zesty, tangy ingredients perfectly balances the unctuous richness of braised meat and marrow. I used sage instead of parsley, and added a few breadcrumbs to the mixture as well to help it crisp up in the oven.
After searing the veal in a very hot pan (I relish that sizzling noise), I brushed it with a little mustard and rolled it in the sage, lemon and garlic mix. It then went in the oven on top of a bed of mushrooms and sliced leeks. I completely guessed the timing for the meat, as I couldn't find any reliable guidelines as to roasting times for a joint this small, but it worked perfectly (to my immense delight, especially after the tragedy that was my recent beef topside, planned to be oozing blood and instead dry and mealy throughout, probably due to my overactive oven). I kept the accompaniments as simple as possible: boiled and steamed summer vegetables (carrots, broccoli, peas and broad beans), and tiny baby new potatoes roasted in their skins until crackly and burnished gold. Instead of gravy, I poured a glass of rosé into the hot roasting tin with the mushrooms and leeks; it formed a dark, flavoursome jus with the earthiness of mushrooms and a slight sweetness from the wine (which, incidentally, was horrible wine to drink, more akin to an energy drink than anything vinified, but lovely for cooking with).
The colours of this dish are perfect for summer: the vegetables are wonderfully vibrant against the muted pastel pink and green of the crusted veal. It is beautifully tender (and apparently even better the next day, thinly sliced in a bagel with mustard and rocket, as my boyfriend informs me), the fat rendered into crispness and the sage, lemon and garlic accentuating the rich, slightly bloody meat. Add to that a crunchy canvas of summer vegetables and a trickle of light gravy, and you have the perfect meal for a warm summer evening with a glass of chilled white wine. Possibly the best part is the mushroom and leek mixture I roasted the veal on; the mushrooms absorb all the meat juices as well as the wine from the gravy, meaning they are beautifully caramelised but also saturated with flavoursome juice. The sage really brings the dish together, infusing its subtle perfume throughout the meat and vegetables.
It really does deserve its year-round place on the supermarket shelf after all.
Sage-crusted veal with summer vegetables (serves 2, with leftovers):
- 10 baby new potatoes
- Salt and pepper
- Dried herbs, for the potatoes
- 500g silverside joint of veal
- 10g sage leaves
- 3 cloves garlic
- Zest of a lemon
- A slice of bread
- Olive oil
- 2 tsp mustard
- A punnet of mushrooms
- 2 leeks, sliced
- Half a head of broccoli, cut into florets
- 1 carrot, finely diced
- 500g broad beans, podded
- A couple of handfuls frozen peas
- A knob of butter
- A glass of rosé wine
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Toss the potatoes in a little olive oil, salt and pepper and your choice of dried herbs. Place in a small roasting tray and place in the oven. They will take about 30-40 minutes to cook, but it does no harm to leave them in for longer while the veal roasts.
Place the sage, garlic, lemon and bread in a blender and pulse until finely chopped. Spread out on a plate.
Heat a little olive oil in a heavy-based ovenproof pan until almost smoking, then place the veal in the pan. Sear on all sides until golden brown, then brush with mustard and roll in the sage mixture to coat thoroughly.
Place the mushrooms and leeks in the pan then place the veal on top. Put in the oven and roast for about 25 minutes, for medium-rare meat. Remove the meat from the oven, place on a carving board and cover with foil. Rest for 10-15 minutes. Keep the mushrooms and leeks in the oven.
While the meat is resting, boil the peas and broad beans, and if you have a steamer, steam the broccoli and carrots over the top. If not, just boil everything together (do the carrots and broccoli first, as they take longer). Toss the cooked vegetables with the butter and some salt and pepper.
When ready to serve, place the vegetables and cooked potatoes on a plate, slice the veal thinly and arrange over the top. Pour the wine into the mushroom and leek pan; it should hiss and bubble. Stir the pan to deglaze, and serve this over the top of the meat and vegetables.