I've been watching some of the new TV season of Barefoot Contessa, the one based on Ina Garten's most recent book, Back to Basics. In several of the programs the subject of fresh herbs comes up and Ina makes a point of saying how she doesn't like to cook with fresh oregano, preferring it in dried form because the flavor is more subtle.
I agree. Mostly, but not entirely.
It's not often that I'd choose a dried herb over fresh. The flavor difference between fresh and dried thyme is huge, with fresh thyme being softer and more complex; dried can be bitter. Dried rosemary is often tasteless. And I think dried parsley is like little flecks of green dirt.
But dried oregano adds a flavor that both compliments and complements, without dominating other ingredients. Dried oregano also adds that this-is-Italian flavor that we insist upon in our pizzas or our favorite spaghetti and meatballs.
Besides Italian cooking, dried oregano is also used in Mexican, Turkish and Greek cuisines to season sauces, meats, chicken, salads and seafood. A few things to know about working with dried oregano:
- As you add it to a recipe, gently rub the oregano between your fingers for a few moments. The warmth of your hands will help release the oregano's flavor. This is good to do with any dried herbs.
- There are several kinds of oregano with flavors that range from mild to pungent, from intrusive to floral or woody. How to choose? Most of the oregano found in our grocers is Greek and has a slightly bigger personality than Italian or Spanish. Mexican oregano is a different plant, similar to European oregano but with a stronger flavor. While tasting is always the best way to choose what you like, if you're unfamiliar or in doubt, choose Greek oregano.
- Vegetables that work well with oregano include eggplant, red peppers, green beans and tomatoes and it's a frequent addition to ratatouille.
- Oregano is often sprinkled over Greek salads and adds a nice taste to feta cheese. But use a light hand as it can dominate the fresh salad flavors.
- Oregano goes well with such flavorful ingredients as black olives, anchovies, sheep and goat cheese, and lemon.
We have a new recipe that uses dried oregano to add flavor to a favorite jarred sauce in our version of a classic dish from Naples: Eggs in Purgatory (see our link).
Fresh oregano, with its flat leaves, has an aggressive flavor and to my palate, a slightly metallic taste. Here I'm agreeing with Ina Garten and find that whether it's eaten raw or cooked with other ingredients, fresh oregano tastes too pungent and intrusive.
But when used in an infusion to transfer its fragrance into flavor, this is when fresh oregano is like no other fresh herb. This is done by adding fresh oregano to food to season it without eating the oregano itself. The best example is when you add sprigs of fresh oregano to the cavity of a whole fish that is then grilled or roasted. Before serving the fish the oregano is discarded but because it was included in the cooking, the oregano has added subtle but complex flavor to the fish.
Another way to add oregano's taste without actually eating the herb would be to make oregano and garlic infused olive oil. In a small saucepan combine a cup of extra virgin olive oil with four or five smashed garlic cloves and two or three sprigs of fresh oregano. Place over a low heat and cook until the garlic begins to soften, about 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Discard the oregano and garlic and use the olive oil to baste fish, or add to a favorite pasta recipe, or sauté jumbo shrimp. (Remember: if you've added any food to olive oil, even if the food has been discarded, the oil must be refrigerated to prevent spoilage.)
You can make an oregano-scented roasted tomato sauce by cutting plum tomatoes in half, drizzle with a little olive oil, add salt and pepper, spread on a rimmed sheet pan adding several crushed cloves of garlic and three or four sprigs of fresh oregano. Cook at 275° F for about 2 to 3 hours until the tomatoes are shriveled. Remove from the oven, discard the oregano, slip off the tomato skins, and purée the tomatoes with the garlic.
According to author Harold McGee, the name oregano comes from the Greek, meaning "joy of the mountains." I love the notion of ancient Greeks, perhaps tending their sheep on a hillside, and picking sprigs of oregano leaves from a woody shrub on a rocky hillside, and adding them to a meal.
Joy of the mountains, indeed.