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Robust Oregano

Fine Cooking Issue 32
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Oregano seems like a straightforward enough herb. Any­one who has tasted a tomato-sauce-topped pizza can recall its flavor, which is hearty and assertive with a peppery bite and a zing. Yet once you take a closer look at oregano, things get a little confusing.

Many plants are loosely classified as oregano. Their flavor depends largely on where they’re cultivated; in general the hotter the sun, the stronger the flavor. To add to the confusion, some reference books call oregano “wild marjoram,” and many recipes suggest that the two herbs, both members of the mint family, are interchangeable. In fact, there are so many varieties of oregano that Art Tucker, an herb expert at Delaware State University, suggests that rather than thinking of oregano as a specific plant, one ought to think of it as a particular flavor.

Fortunately (or not, depending on how you look at it), when you buy fresh oregano, you’re rarely given a choice of variety. For much of the year, most stores sell Greek oregano, which is what the country’s largest herb supplier (The Greenhouse in Encinitas, California) offers. But depending on the season and the availability of Greek oregano, you might instead find Mexican oregano, or some other variety. Though the flavors of these oreganos may be a little more or less intense (Mexican is usually stronger) they can be used interchangeably, so there’s no need to bring your botany book along to the grocery store.

A strong flavor needs other strong flavors

If you’re looking for a delicate herbal flavor, skip ahead to read about oregano’s refined cousin, marjoram. Oregano’s flavor is bold and gutsy; it wants to be noticed. The herb is a natural with garlic; in fact, it’s hard to find a recipe that includes oregano but not garlic. I also like to use it along with lemon or steeped in vinegar.

Strip the leaves off the stems. To use fresh oregano, hold the rinsed and dried stems in one hand and strip off the leaves by running your fingers of the other hand down the stems. Use whole leaves or chop them with a sharp, dry knife. The Italians traditionally also use the buds just before they flower.

Oregano dries well

Although I find fresh oregano more complex and interesting, the herb is among a handful that work well dried.

There’s usually little choice when buying fresh oregano, but some spice lines, including McCormick’s, and mail-order spice houses, like Penzeys, offer both Greek ( McCormick’s calls it Mediterranean) and Mexican varieties. You’ll notice more difference between the two varieties when they’re dried than when they’re fresh since drying intensifies aspects of the herb’s flavor.

Use Greek oregano in Italian, French, and (obviously) Greek recipes. The more pungent Mexican oregano is used in commercial chili powders as well as in homemade chili and other Latin American fare. Its spicier flavor is balanced nicely by cilantro, and it’s a natural partner for cumin.

Dry your own fresh oregano. If you have an excess of fresh oregano, you can dry it by tying the stems together and hanging it in a warm, dry, well-ventilated place. Oregano  dried at its peak will likely have more flavor than supermarket varieties, which can vary in age. I store my homemade dry oregano en branche, as the French say, in a paper bag in a dark place, and crumble the leaves off the branches as I need them. Storing the whole branches helps keep the volatile oils intact.

For delicacy, try marjoram

Sometimes oregano’s hearty nature can overpower a dish. In such cases, I turn to its more demure cousin, marjoram. Some recipes suggest that marjoram and oregano are interchangeable. I disagree. Taste a leaf of marjoram and one of oregano side by side. Marjoram has a kind of woodsy perfume with soft floral edges while oregano has an earthy, sharp, almost resinous quality.

Best used fresh, marjoram is generally found in the more refined dishes of northern France and in England, while oregano’s bold flavors are more characteristic of the rustic dishes of southern France, Italy, and Greece.

Experiment with oregano and marjoram

• Toast fresh oregano leaves lightly in a pan and add them to your favorite chili or taco recipe.

• Drizzle olive oil over a hunk of feta cheese that’s been topped with oregano leaves and serve with olives.

• Sprinkle fresh whole leaves of marjoram in a salad of greens.

• Match the woodsy flavor and perfume of marjoram by adding some to a sauté of mushrooms.

• Toss marjoram and toasted pecans with thinly sliced oranges and leeks dressed with pecan oil.


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