What’s her chops
Rachel Roddy’s pork and sage
There is an ancient phrase that says, “Why should a man die who has sage in his garden?” I would like to alter this: “Why should a man die who has sage in his garden, or in a pot on his, or her, kitchen shelf?” Actually, as I write this, far from home, the plant is in the sink. The inch of water has probably long been drunk, so the dusty branches and moleskin leaves will be parched and crisp. The woman may not die, but in her hands, the plant might.
The generic name for sage, Salvia officinalis, is derived from the Latin
salvere, to save or cure – hence the proverb. The ancient Romans used sage as a general tonic, believing its properties to be many, from soothing sore throats, joints and snake bites to sharpening minds. A medieval tradition says the growth of sage in the garden is a sign of the prosperity of the house. If my plant stranded in the sink is anything to go by, our future is looking parched.
Sage flourished on the sunny side of the garden of the house I grew up in, despite the vigorous games that took place over it. Our cat, too, was drawn to the soft, velvet-like leaves and would curl up in the middle of the plant. As the oldest, I was entrusted with scissors and sent out to pick herbs. Mint was my favourite; I would roll the leaves between my sweaty palms and take great sniffs. Rosemary I liked for its pine tree-like needles, sage for its silvery-green leaves and its smell recalling mothballs and places closed for too long (ie my grandma’s wardrobe). The sage picked was probably destined for stuffing, which I liked very much, even though the association was so set in my mind I could taste wardrobe in stuffing too.
When I smell sage, there is still wardrobe, but in the best way, as I love and appreciate its powerful, almost meaty scent. I use it nearly as much as I use rosemary, basil and oregano. It is an obvious thing to say, I know, but it is impressive how the nature of a dish – braised meat, for example – can be altered completely by the use of a different herb.
A delicious way to eat sage leaves is to swish them through batter then fry them. The combination of crisp outside giving way to tender leaf inside is so marvellous. Sage sautéed in butter for filled pasta, or simmered with white beans, are probably the most everyday ways I use it. Pumpkin and sage too, are another Fred and Ginger of this kitchen. Then there is sage and pork, notably Marcella Hazan’s pan-roasted pork ribs, which I have adapted to chops, almost as loved and made as her butter and tomato sauce and her bean soup.
Like so many recipes, this is more a way than a specific set of instructions to be followed slavishly, and quantities are flexible according to taste. It is straightforward: brown the pork; add sage, garlic and, in my case, juniper for its woody nip; then add a great whoosh of wine and let heat, time and the odd prod do its work. As I understand it, this is classic Italian cooking: a stovetop simmer/braise that leaves the meat tender and creates the simplest sauce. I often serve these chops with bread or mashed potato, but on this occasion I used polenta.
I took Marcella and Anna Del Conte’s advice for the polenta – two firm and trusted voices swirling around the kitchen along with the winning scent of pork and sage. I welcome more advice if you have any. At first I thought: bugger, nothing good will come of this; too much water, not enough polenta. But then, like a good plot or a pan of custard, the polenta began to thicken. Polenta does require you stir, and stir for a good while, but music and a glass of wine help turn a task into a good thing. You could, of course, use instant polenta, which saves time. Once ready, for the polenta
Add sage, garlic and juniper for its woody nip; then add a great whoosh of wine and let heat and time do its work
to remain soft and creamy, you must move swiftly, putting blobs on plates and pork on top. Like a soft, grainy pillow, polenta is an excellent partner for pork cooked this way, even more for all the sticky, sage-scented juices that curl round the polenta like a moat, before being soaked up. I just wish I had had the foresight to scrape the leftover polenta into a tray, ready to cut into neat squares to fry later, rather than leaving it to set firm into a panshaped lump: not very sage of me.
Pan-roasted pork chops with sage, juniper and polenta
Serves 4 4 tbsp olive oil 4 pork chops or 1kg single ribs 2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced 10 sage leaves, 4 of them chopped 4 juniper berries, gently crushed (optional) 250ml dry white wine Salt 250g white or yellow polenta
1 In a frying or sauté pan with a lid, warm the olive oil over a medium flame and brown the chops until they are coloured deeply on both sides.
2 Add the garlic, sage leaves and juniper to the pan and stir, then add the wine and a pinch of salt. Allow the wine to simmer briskly, then reduce the heat to a very low simmer, half cover the pan with the lid and cook for 40 minutes, turning the chops/ribs every now and then, until they are tender and the meat is starting to come away from the bone and the liquid rich and sticky. If at any point the pan looks too dry, add a little water.
3 In a heavy-based pan, bring 1.3 litres of water to a simmer, then add a pinch of salt and the polenta, sprinkling it gradually, all the time whisking. Reduce the heat to medium low, and stir, in a figure of eight with a long wooden spoon for 30-40 minutes, by which time the polenta will thicken. It is ready when it is thick and creamy and pulling away from the edges of the pan. Taste for salt. Serve the pork on the polenta, pouring the sticky juices over it.
Cook’s tip Herbs in pots keep better than in bunches. In the absence of a garden or window box, keep fresh herbs stem down in a glass of water covered by a plastic bag or, better still, a shower cap, and put in the fridge.