Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Oregano - Herb of the Week

I’ve done an herb of the week post for Mexican Oregano and for Ornamental Oregano but I have not done one on traditional oregano, the staple herb of Mediterranean cooking.

Legend has it, the Greek goddess Aphrodite created aromatic oregano as a symbol of joy and grew it in her garden on Mount Olympus. Perhaps we should not be surprised that oregano was believed to bring happiness.    

So with this happy vibe in mind,

                             we make Oregano (Origanum spp.) the herb of the week.

Oregano has played a significant role in medicine, cookery and cosmetics for thousands of years. Today, our love for this powerful herb continues, though primarily for its role in cooking; more than 300,000 tons of oregano are consumed each year in the United States alone. Yet, despite oregano’s popularity, most of us really know very little about the plant itself or its true flavor potential.

Knowing how to select and grow your own oregano brings rich rewards: When grown in the right conditions, oregano yields luxurious flavor—the essence of Mediterranean sun and sea—that is infinitely better than any you can buy in a jar.

The word "oregano" derives from the Greek oros (mountain or hill) and ganos (brightness or joy), probably alluding to the plants’ bright beauty in its hillside habitat. In addition to oregano’s association with Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty, the herb is linked to the goddess Artemis, protector of childbirth. Artemis often was depicted wearing a crown of dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus) and ancient Greek women also wore the wreaths during labor.

Cultivating Flavor

The secret to attaining the full flavor potential of any Origanum in your garden is to provide growing conditions similar to its Mediterranean homeland. 

In the wild, oregano grows in chalky soil on rocky south-facing hillsides that would stress most other plants. So in your garden, treat oregano as a rock garden herb with low water requirements. To duplicate its preferred naturally chalky soil, add a little limestone to the soil or work it between the rocks where you intend to cultivate oregano. The soil should range from neutral to alkaline in pH (6.8 to 8.0) and be very well-drained—like the limestone outcrops where oregano naturally grows. Avoid heavy, poorly drained clay soils at all costs.

If you cannot provide these conditions in the garden, grow oregano in a pot. Remember that oregano has shallow roots, so you’ll need to water potted plants more often than those in the ground. Otherwise, this herb is practically carefree. Its leaves contain natural insecticides, so pests rarely are a problem.

Buy well-established oregano plants in pots. You can grow oregano from seed, but it’s difficult to do. The seed if often no true and the flavor can be lacking.  It is better to take a cutting or root division form an existing plant or buy a nursery plant where you can smell and taste the leaf and know that it will be to your liking.  Oregano flavor can vary greatly from one plant to the next. If it tastes weak and grassy, take a pass—it probably will not taste any better once it’s established in your garden.

Preserving Oregano

Oregano’s flavor also can change during the growing season. As a rule, the plant’s oils are more concentrated in summer, when its leaves are smaller and hairier, and lowest in fall. So plan to harvest your oregano in early summer, preferably right before the plant blooms. Once oregano flowers, the oils migrate to the top of the plant, which makes them better for perfumery or medicines because the oils are easier to recover. To harvest, cut back stems to no more than half their height so the plant can recover easily.

The easiest way to preserve oregano is to dry it. Spread the stems on paper towels atop cookie trays or spread them on window screens.  Then set the trays in a well-ventilated room away from direct sunlight. As soon as the leaves become brittle, put them in jars, seal tightly and store them away from light and heat.
Dried oregano is more concentrated in flavor than fresh (water in the leaves dilutes the oils), so use it sparingly. Too much oregano can quickly overpower the flavor of a dish and even cause vomiting, one of its many uses in ancient times.

Medicinal Uses of Oregano

But the plant’s medicinal value is more than an ancient fable. Studies show that oregano is highly antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antifungal and antiviral. In The Green Pharmacy (Rodale, 1997), ethnobotanist James Duke, Ph.D., says oregano also contains at least seven compounds that can lower blood pressure.

The Origanum genus includes two different flavor groups used for cooking: mild-flavored sweet marjoram and Italian oregano, as well as the more spicy and pungent-flavored Greek oregano, Turkish oregano and Syrian oregano.

The compound carvacrol contributes the sharp, pungent flavor associated with culinary oreganos, as well as the plants’ antibacterial, antifungal and antimicrobial properties. A mild tea made with dried oregano, however, can help settle an upset stomach. The ancient Greek physician Dioscorides commented on the health benefits of combining oregano with onions or sumac. The latter spice mix—oregano and sumac berries, along with a few other ingredients—still is used today in Lebanon and Syria.

Oregano in the Kitchen

Oregano’s original use in cookery was largely medicinal, due to its antimicrobial properties. Early cooks realized that oregano not only made good food taste better, but also made it healthier. Clearchus of Soli, an ancient writer from Cyprus, once remarked that when dry salt fish begins to spoil, a large quantity of oregano would correct the problem.

Baked Chicken with Oregano
Makes 6 servings
Slow "dry" baking in an earthenware pot produces a luscious dish that looks and tastes as though it has been lightly grilled. A German Römertopf baker is ideal for this, but any earthenware casserole dish will do.

2 medium onions
1 large roasting chicken (about 4 pounds)
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
2-3 tablespoons dried oregano OR ½ cup fresh oregano leaves
Coarsely ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cut onions in half lengthwise then slice them paper-thin. Scatter half the onions on the bottom of an earthenware baking dish. Carve chicken into 12 pieces and put them in a deep bowl.

Combine salt, oregano and pepper and rub meat with the mix, coating each piece evenly. Put chicken in baking dish and cover with remaining onions. Cover dish with a tight-fitting lid and bake 1 hour and 10 minutes.

To brown meat, remove lid about 15 minutes before end of cooking time. Serve immediately.

Balsamic Vinaigrette
2/3 cup Olive oil
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
1 Tbls or less of Dijon Mustard
1 to 2 tsp oregano
salt & pepper to taste
Blend all ingredients together in a cruet and shape well.  This is perfect on a Mesclun Mix, especially with some added chopped walnuts. 

Tomato-Oregano Butter (makes 1/2 cup)
Place a slice of butter on grilled fish, poultry or veal.  The butter also good rubbed over pork chops and hamburgers before cooking.

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 small clove garlic, chopped
1/8 cup (2 Tbls.) fresh oregano, chopped
1 Tbls. tomato paste
1 tsp. lemon juice
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/8 tsp. salt

Mix together butter, garlic, oregano, tomato paste, lemon juice, pepper, and salt in small bowl.  Form butter into 6-inch long log on a sheet of aluminum foil.  Wrap tightly in foil, twist ends of foil to compress butter.  Freeze for up to 2 months.  To serve, cut butter into 1/4 inch thick slices.  Allow to soften slightly before using.

Note: this butter may also be made in a mini food processor: Add garlic and oregano unchopped (about ¼ cup)  to processor and process until finely chopped.  Add butter in several pieces along with tomato paste, lemon juice, pepper and salt; process until combined, scraping down side as needed.

1 comment:

  1. I hope to get more reading in today off your blog. From now on I am still gaining some useful details herbal blend to keep safe and healthy.


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