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Outstanding Oreganos and Mild-Mannered Marjoram

Cultivate culinary delight with Origanum, the 2005 Herb of the Year.
By Susan Belsinger
April/May 2005

Jerry Pavia
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I have cultivated the Origanums for more than 20 years, but last year I began collecting them in earnest. As I write this, I have a collection of 32 origanum plants from the United States and Canada: Half of the plants — the hardy specimens — are out in the garden and the other half — tender perennials here in Zone 7 — are in pots in my greenhouse.

Cultivating these versatile plants is a pleasure, and one of the things I love about collecting them is how it brings me together with other gardeners. I bought (or was given) many of my plants in 2 1/2-inch pots from Francesco DeBaggio in Chantilly, Virginia, who is carrying on the herbal business of his father, Thomas DeBaggio. Other plants were bought from or shared by growers across the country and in Canada. Probably the best plants are starts or clumps like the ones I brought home in my suitcase from the Ozark Folk Center Heritage Herb Gardens in Mountain View, Arkansas from my gardening friend Tina Marie Wilcox. A few years back I also received some starts from Madalene Hill and the Festival Institute gardens in Round Top, Texas.

As well as sharing plants, I enjoy observing these plants’ character traits and sharing this information with other gardeners. I also love delving into the history, lore, medicinal qualities and botany of each new plant genus. I learn a lot from the Internet and a plethora of great herbal tomes, but I’m also especially thankful for all of the experts in our Herb Companion family of buddies who are willing to help us understand the botany through their personal examples. I find the entire process thrilling and presently I am deeply immersed in the origanums. If you’d like to join our ongoing origanum discussion, please visit our online forum at www.HerbCompanion.com.

Studying these herbs is a sensory experience. I have smelled and tasted all 32 of the origanums in my collection, even though many are ornamental, not culinary. They range from bland-tasting to very pungent. There are a number of ornamental origanums that I would not be without in the garden, though most of them are not very tasty in the kitchen. However, I do use some of their gorgeous blooms as edible flower garnishes.

Marjoram
Origanum majorana

Marjoram’s bouquet is citrus first, with some sweet and spicy floral notes, followed by a bit of thyme. Its flavor is mildly resinous, hinting of thyme, balsam and pine with a lingering sweetness. Marjoram gets its flowery smell and taste from linalool and sabinene; it is not hot like some oreganos because it has much less carvacrol, a chemical that, in large amounts, numbs the tongue. Marjoram’s aroma and versatility in the kitchen allow the cook a huge range of flavor combinations. Marjoram, like thyme, has a roundness and balance of sweet and savory that make it useful in brightening the flavor of almost any dish without altering the food’s essence. Marjoram adds a mellow depth of flavor, much different from that of a hot, spicy oregano. Marjoram and thyme are both kitchen companions of mine: when I want an herb flavor that is not overly assertive, this duo adds just the right blend of spice with a touch of sweetness. I add marjoram to sauces, soups, vegetables, casseroles, salads and salad dressings, breads and even desserts.

Oreganos

The oreganos, on the other hand, are pretty much all over the map from bland and tasteless to nearly incendiary. This variation in taste is due to their chemical composition. Fresh oregano has a spicier fragrance than marjoram, with hints of thyme, clove and balsam.

Probably the most popular oregano in America is O. majoricum — a hybrid cross of sweet marjoram and O. vulgare — which is sold as Italian oregano, Sicilian oregano or hardy marjoram. Commonly cultivated in the United States, Spain, Portugal and Italy, O. majoricum combines the sweetness of marjoram with the spiciness of oregano, and is my personal favorite in the kitchen. It is wonderful in all things Italian and is essential in tomato sauce and minestrone, with meat, legumes and pasta dishes. If your Italian oregano is sharp with no sweetness to its aroma, then it is not the correct plant. Trust your nose.

Another variety worth mentioning is Greek oregano (O. onites), also called pot marjoram, which like sweet marjoram, is not winter-hardy. Its distinctive sharp aroma and spicy flavor are preferred for most Greek dishes. Greek oregano is an example of a hot, spicy herb. The leaves’ color is lighter when dry and their flavor is very pungent — spicy with a hint of peppermint, pine and sometimes clove. ‘Kaliteri’ has a paler, gray green leaf and a milder flavor than ‘Rigani’, but I enjoy both of them in Greek dishes with feta cheese, olives and vegetables, as well as spanakopita (see recipe below).

O. syriacum is fairly new to me. The plant is similar to O. majoricum in both appearance and flavor, although I believe it is a bit more pungent and slightly resinous. This can be used in both Italian and Greek dishes.

O. vulgare has many names, including wild marjoram, winter marjoram and wild oregano, and is generally not the best flavor for culinary use. Although a number of O. vulgare species are used throughout the globe in cooking, many of them can be extremely hot, or even rather bland in taste. My friend and research scientist Rex Talbert once told me the way he judges oregano: “Put a leaf in your mouth and if you have to spit it out in three seconds or less because it is burning your tongue, it is high in the chemical carvacrol, which gives oregano its heat.” These hot oreganos have a place in some cuisines, but I prefer ones with flavor and just a hint of pungency. I often use the more pungent oreganos in combination with sweet marjoram to tame the heat and balance the flavor.

Growing the Origanums

While O. majoricum is a hardy perennial that will survive northern winters if well mulched, O. onites and O. majorana are perennials only in mild Mediterranean-like climates. Both do well in containers with enriched, well-drained soil indoors for the winter.

To best cultivate the origanums, provide them with good drainage and keep them free of weeds, with enough room around each plant for its fine-branching lateral roots. They grow best in full sun, with fertilization about once a month. They are fairly unfussy plants: if you cut them back early in the season just before they form flower buds, you will get an extra harvest. They can be pruned after flowering, and again in the early fall, becoming handsome, bushy plants to flavor many savory dishes. Their growth habit is to spread and use up the nutrients in the soil, so they need to be divided every two or three years.

Both marjoram and oregano dry well and retain their flavor. Cut the stems and lay on screens, or tie them in bunches and hang them upside down in a warm, dry place. As a matter of fact, I prefer the dried herb to the fresh in some recipes, especially in hearty, long-cooked dishes. The recipes below combine the origanums with foods from their native Mediterranean region.

Recipes

Salsa with Oregano

Makes about 3 cups

Tomatoes asnd oregano are made for one another and there is nothing like a freshly made salsa.

4 to 6 jalapeño or serrano peppers (or 1 habanero), stemmed, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 small to medium onion, peeled and cut into large chunks
3 to 4 garlic cloves, peeled
4 or 5 ripe tomatoes (2 to 2 1/2 pounds), cored and quartered
1 handful fresh oregano leaves (about 2 tablespoons or so)
1 teaspoon cumin seed, toasted and ground
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper
2 to 3 teaspoons lime juice

In a food processor fitted with the steel blade, combine chiles with onion and garlic, and pulse until coarsely chopped. Add tomatoes and oregano and pulse until the tomatoes are in small bits, but don’t puree. Pour into a bowl and add cumin, salt, pepper and lime juice. Stir to combine. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary. The salsa can be eaten immediately or allowed to stand at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Greek-Style Cucumber and Tomato Salad with Feta

Serves 8 to 12

This lively salad can be served as a colorful, tasty appetizer with crusty bread to begin a meal or as a salad meal. Greek oregano is quite pungent and will give this salad a nice zing. Taste your oregano before adding and if it isn’t very hot, add a bit more than the recipe calls for. Better to start slow and add than to overdo it at the beginning.

2 large cucumbers, peeled if waxed, cut in half lengthwise, and sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces
1 pound tomatoes, cored and cut into wedges
1/2 red onion, quartered and sliced thin
1 red bell pepper, roasted and peeled, quartered lengthwise and sliced into strips
1/3 cup imported black olives, such as kalamata
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
8 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 cloves garlic, pressed or finely minced
2 tablespoons freshly chopped Greek oregano leaves

Combine cucumbers, tomatoes, onion, bell pepper and olives in a shallow bowl or platter. Season lightly with salt and freshly ground pepper. Sprinkle about two-thirds of the feta over vegetables.

In a small bowl or measuring cup combine oil, vinegar, about 1/4 teaspoon salt, garlic and oregano and stir well with a fork. Add some black pepper and stir; taste for salt and vinegar and adjust if necessary.

Drizzle about two-thirds of the dressing over the salad and toss well. Sprinkle remaining feta on top, garnish with olives and drizzle with remaining dressing. Serve at cool room temperature. The salad can be made about an hour in advance; if you chill it, allow it to come to room temperature before serving.

Creamy Tomato Soup with Oregano and Roasted Garlic

Serves 6

This simple soup is rich and flavorful and can be made quite quickly once you’ve roasted the garlic. Serve it with good bread or crackers and cheese and follow with a salad. Use Italian oregano in this recipe — you want both sweet and savory — or use half oregano and half sweet marjoram.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
2 cups warm vegetable stock
1 bulb roasted garlic (see instructions below)
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh Italian oregano leaves (3 tablespoons chopped)
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 cup heavy cream
About 2 teaspoons honey or sugar, optional

In a nonreactive soup pot, heat oil over medium-low heat and add onion. Stir and sauté for a minute or two. Cover, lower heat and sweat onions for about 3 minutes.

Add tomatoes and stock to the pot, stir and increase heat to medium. Squeeze garlic cloves from their skins into the soup pot and add 1 tablespoon of the garlic- infused oil left from roasting. Add the oregano, stir well, cover and cook until soup comes to a simmer. Simmer gently for 5 to 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

In a blender in small batches, blend the soup. Return the blended soup to the pot. (I usually blend about three quarters of the soup, leaving some bits of tomatoes and onion. If you want to have a puree, blend all of it.) Put the last ladle or two of soup into the blender, add cream and blend. Then add the cream mixture to the soup pot and stir to blend. Heat over low heat until the soup is heated through. Taste for seasoning. Sometimes canned tomatoes can be acidic so add honey or sugar to bring up the sweetness if necessary. Serve hot.

This soup is good made ahead and gently reheated. Do not allow the soup to boil or it may separate.

Zesty Mediterranean Garlic Bread

Makes about 12 slices

Make enough of this so everyone gets at least two slices because it’s so good, you can’t eat just one! For the best flavor, use Origanum xmajoricum, or a combination of equal parts oregano and marjoram. If you use sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, use a little of that oil as part of the 1/2 cup oil called for in the recipe.

1/4 cup finely minced sun-dried tomatoes (see instructions at right if using dry)
1/2 cup olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
About 12 slices good-quality rustic bread

In a small bowl combine sun-dried tomatoes, oil, garlic, oregano and cheese and blend well. Either toast the bread and spoon the mixture onto each slice, or spoon it onto all slices, stack the bread, wrap it in foil and bake for 20 to 25 minutes at 350 degrees until hot.

Savory Spanakopita

Serves 6 to 12

This version of spanakopita is packed full of flavor and good for you. Whole-wheat phyllo (also spelled filo) can be found in the freezer section of your health food store. If you haven’t worked with phyllo it isn’t difficult, as you get the technique as you go along. Remove any big stems from the fresh greens and reserve them for another use. The pungency of Greek oregano works well in this dish.

2 pounds of fresh greens, such as spinach, chard, kale, dandelion, nettle and mustard
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced fine
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 generous tablespoons minced fresh Greek oregano leaves (or 2 teaspoons dried, crushed)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 extra-large eggs
About 10 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
Freshly grated nutmeg
1 box whole-wheat phyllo, thawed
About 2/3 cup olive oil

Grease a 9-by-13-inch pan and set aside. Wash and dry greens, removing any large stems, and then chop roughly and set aside.

In a large pan, sauté onion in 3 tablespoons olive oil over moderate heat for about 5 minutes. Add greens a few handfuls at a time and stir, cover and cook until the greens are wilted, stirring occasionally, for 5 to 10 minutes. Add garlic and oregano, season generously with salt and pepper, stir, cover and remove from heat.

Beat eggs in a bowl. Crumble feta into the eggs and season with nutmeg, salt and pepper.

Remove lid from greens so they cool a bit.

Unwrap phyllo, unfold and cover with a slightly damp towel. Working carefully, remove one phyllo sheet at a time and fold it in half. Place the folded sheet in the prepared baking pan and brush the top lightly with the olive oil. Repeat with about 5 or 6 more sheets until the phyllo covers the bottom of the pan and sticks up the sides by 2 or 3 inches.

Toss the greens with the egg and cheese mixture. Spread this mixture evenly into the phyllo-lined pan.

Create another phyllo layer by brushing about 3 or 4 folded sheets of phyllo with oil and arranging them on top of the greens mixture. Fold the extra phyllo from the bottom over the top to make a finished package. Brush once more lightly with oil.

Cut into triangles or diamond shapes before baking. (If you wait to cut the spanakopita until after it is baked it will be difficult and the phyllo will flake into many pieces and look messy). Bake at 375 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes or until the spanakopita is golden brown. Let sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Ricotta Cheesecake with Sweet Marjoram

Makes one 9- to 9 1/2-inch cheesecake

In southern Europe, especially in Italy, chefs make cheesecake with ricotta cheese. It has a different texture and is less dense than New York-style cheesecake. This recipe captures the fragrance of sweet marjoram. Serve the torte on its own or with seasonal fruit such as berries, sliced peaches or a compote of honey and dried figs and garnish with marjoram sprigs.

Crust:
1 cup whole almonds
1 cup unbleached flour
Large pinch salt
1/4 cup powdered sugar
10 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces

Filling:
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup fresh sweet marjoram leaves (use
Origanum majorana)
Zest of 1 lemon
4 extra-large eggs
3 cups ricotta cheese
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon lemon extract or pure lemon oil

Generously butter a 9- to 9 1/2-inch spring-form pan. Grind almonds in a food processor until they are nearly fine. Add flour, salt and powdered sugar and pulse until blended. Add butter and pulse until blended — it will not become a cohesive dough, more like moist sand. Do not over process. Transfer the mixture to the pan and press it evenly across the bottom and about 2 inches up the sides of the pan. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. Remove to a baking rack to cool. Reduce oven to 350 degrees.

To prepare the filling, combine sugar and marjoram leaves in a food processor and pulse until marjoram is finely minced. Add lemon zest and pulse a few more times.

Beat eggs in a bowl with a fork. Stir in sugar mixture, add ricotta and extracts and stir well. Pour filling into baked crust. Bake for 1 hour. The cake will be set, but the center will be slightly soft. Remove to cool on a baking rack. Once cool, refrigerate until ready to serve.


Susan Belsinger is a culinary herbalist who loves playing with food. She delights in kitchen alchemy — the blending of harmonious foods, herbs and spices — to create real, delicious food that nourishes our bodies and spirits.


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