Origanum: Herb of the Year for 2005
Outstanding Oreganos and Mild-Mannered Marjoram
by Susan Belsinger
Marjoram sings of sweet earth’s flowers,
and oregano summons the spicy powers.
—Carolyn Dille & Susan Belsinger, Herbs in the Kitchen
Oregano was named by the Greeks from oros, “mountain,” and ganos, “joy.” Its history, thirteen hundred years longer than marjoram’s, is mainly medicinal, with the relief of ailments from toothaches to opium addiction claimed by a long list of herbalists. Native Americans have known oregano for generations and have used it as a medicinal tea and as a flavoring for meats. The Spanish and Italians began recording its use for cooking during the fourteenth century, especially in meat and vegetable stews, and with shellfish. Since World War II, when spice merchants began promoting and importing it in quantities, oregano has moved from obscurity to being one of the most popular dried herbs in the United States.
Delightful myths and lovely uses surround sweet marjoram, while herbal remedies and hearty dishes are associated with oregano, its close cousin. Marjoram has long been one of the most popular culinary herbs. Its cultivation in the Mediterranean has been recorded for twelve centuries, spreading from its native Portugal to central Europe. Recipes dating from the Renaissance call for marjoram in salads, in egg dishes, with rice, and with every variety of meat and fish. It was used to flavor beer before hops, and as a tea in England before Eastern teas were imported.
Marjoram’s fragrance is still prized by perfume and soap makers, as well as by cooks. I share with the bees the enjoyment of marjoram’s blossoms at the end of the summer. While drying the clusters of small purple flowers, I anticipate the further pleasure of our herb and flower potpourri. The Romans, who recognized and chronicled the sensual delights of many plants, made sachets of marjoram, oregano, rosemary, and lavender to perfume linens and baths. The sweetness of marjoram’s aroma and the spiciness of oregano’s complement one another equally well in the kitchen. Their use together and the similarity of their appearance and growing habits have caused problems with identification for cooks and herbalists alike. It is worthwhile to sort through the subspecies and cultivars, as flavor, aroma, and cold-hardiness vary greatly.
Sweet marjoram, which is a tender perennial is classified as Origanum majorana. Origanum xmajoricum is a hybrid cross of sweet marjoram and Origanum vulgare, (some say subspecies virens), and is sold as Italian oregano, Sicilian oregano, or hardy marjoram. Another variety worth mentioning is Greek oregano, also called pot marjoram, and like marjoram, is not winter-hardy. This is O. onites, with a distinctive sharp aroma and spicy flavor that is preferred for most Greek dishes. The aforementioned are the most popular origanums for culinary use. True-to-type culinary marjoram and oregano are mostly cutting-grown; marjoram has flowers ranging from white to pale pink and the oreganos have white to purple blooms.
The characteristics, which identify fresh marjoram are a perfume reminiscent of sweet broom and mint, pale green leaves with faint silvery shadows, and a slightly bitter resinous flavor. When dried, marjoram retains its sweet aroma and its color becomes a pale grayish-green. Fresh oregano has a spicier fragrance than marjoram, with hints of clove and balsam. O. xmajoricum, which is commonly cultivated in the United States, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, combines the sweetness of marjoram with the spiciness of oregano, and is my personal favorite in the kitchen.
Though the nomenclature for O. xmajoricum may be confounding, there is no need to be confused about this excellent herb if you let your nose, mouth, and eyes be your guides. If it smells sweet like sweet marjoram then you are on the right track. As Rex Talbert phrases it, “You have to use your nose to find a good O. xmajoricum”. If it lacks sweetness, and just smells savory and pungent, then this is not the herb of which we speak. When tasting a leaf, it should tingle on your tongue with the familiar spicy pungency of oregano, yet the sweetness should round out the spice, and it should be only very mildly hot. If it is pungent and biting hot on the tongue, with a rather dull spicy taste you don’t have the right plant. Sometimes, we might desire a hot, spicy-tasting oregano, however, that is not what we are looking for here.
The reasons for this vast variation in aroma and taste of O. xmajoricum are due to a number of things. According to Rex Talbert, “A hybrid doesn’t necessarily carry the same physical characteristics everytime, the chemistry can also vary .” Just as the same parents don’t have the same child everytime they reproduce. Another surprising fact, is that although O. xmajoricum is a cross of O. majorana and O. vulgare, the subspecies may vary without being acknowledged. In other words, O. majorana is a given in the cross, but the O. vulgare might be O. vulgare subsp. vulgare, O. vulgare subsp. hirtum, O. vulgare subsp. virens, and so on. Rex Talbert concludes, “In following the rules of taxonomic nomenclature they do not identify the subspecies in the cross. These O. xmajoricum are all legitimate hybrids, but are not necessarily the result of the same taxa crossing.” And finally, each person has a variable threshold of smell and taste, which is open to individual interpretation. It is even said that females smell things differently than males do.
Origanum vulgare may be called practically anything, including wild marjoram, winter marjoram, and wild oregano, and is generally not the best flavor for culinary use. Most seed sold is either the tasteless O. vulgare or a mixture of varieties. The first marjoram that I purchased and brought to my garden was O. vulgare. Two years later I spent a day digging out these very invasive plants, which I had planted as a border for a small perennial garden. Though rangy, it is attractive with its violet blooms, which are good in dried arrangements. There are many variants of O. vulgare that are lovely specimens and some of them are useful in the kitchen. A few of them are O.v. ‘Aureum’, O.v. ‘Aureum Crispum’, O.v. ‘Compactum’, O.v. ‘Gold Tip’, and O.v. ‘White Anniversary’.
The plants known as O. vulgare, which are native to Europe, range from downright burning hot on the tongue to just sort of bland and not very tasty. Greek oregano, O. onites is another example of a hot, spicy herb. Leaves dry to a lighter color and their flavor is very pungent, spicy with a hint of peppermint, pine, and sometimes clove. Both of these oreganos’ leaves are more oval, pointed, and larger than marjoram’s.
Since fresh oregano and marjoram are not always available in American markets, it is worth the small effort to cultivate them yourself. O. xmajoricum is a hardy perennial which will survive northern winters if well mulched. O. onites and O. majorana are perennials only in mild Mediterranean-like climates, but both do well in containers with enriched, well-drained soil indoors for the winter.
The Origanum family likes good drainage and prefers to be kept free of weeds, with enough room around each plant for its fine-branching lateral roots. They do best in full sun, with fertilization about once a month. They are fairly unfussy plants—if cut 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–plants will profit from this usage– giving handsome, bushy plants and many savory dishes. They do need to be divided every two or three years as they spread and use up all of the nutrients in the soil.
Both marjoram and oregano dry well and retain their flavor, if the stems are cut and laid on screens, or tied in bunches, and hung upside down in a warm dry place. In fact, I prefer the dried herb to the fresh in some dishes.
This herb retains excellent flavor when dried, in fact I prefer it dried for some hardy winter soups, stews, casseroles, from pilafs to polenta, and of course in tomato sauces. Crumbling some sweet-scented dried oregano into olive oil, when making garlic bread elevates this simple everyday dish to another level. The repertoire of a culinary artist would be notably lacking without the Origanums.
Some of this information is excerpted from a forthcoming article in the Herbarist 2004 titled ‘Our Favorite Oregano in the Kitchen: Origanum xmajoricum’ by Susan Belsinger and Tina Marie Wilcox and some is adapted from Herbs in the Kitchen by Carolyn Dille and Susan Belsinger, Interweave Press, 1991.
Jalapeño and Oregano Salsa
Use this as a dip for chips, an accompaniment to southwestern meals or any grilled vegetables, fish fowl, or meats. I love it with eggs and potatoes for breakfast. In the summer harvest season, make large batches of this and can it so that you have this taste of summer all year long. If you like it really spicy, you can add a few more chiles. My friend and herbal cooking cohort, Marion Spear, inspired me to add cumin to salsa.
Makes about 3 cups
4 to 6 jalapeno peppers or serrano peppers
2 to 2 ½ pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced fine
1 small onion, diced fine
3 garlic cloves, minced
Generous tablespoon fresh oregano leaves, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon toasted and ground cumin seed, optional
About 2 teaspoons lime juice or 1 to 2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
Remove and discard the stems, seeds and ribs from the peppers. Dice them fine. Combine the peppers, tomatoes, onion, garlic, and oregano in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper, and cumin seed if desired. Add lime juice or vinegar. The salsa is best if allowed to stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Store covered in the refrigerator. Serve at cool room temperature.
Zesty Mediterranean Garlic Bread
Make enough of this that everyone gets at least 2 (or more) slices, because this is so good, you can’t eat just one! For the best flavor, use Origanum xmajoricum. If you use sundried tomatoes packed in oil, use a little of that oil as part of the ½ cup of olive oil. If using dried sundried tomatoes, you will need to reconstitute them. Do this by pouring hot (not quite boiling) water over them just so they are covered and let them sit for 20 to 30 minutes. Pour the water off, chop them fine, and continue with the recipe.
Makes enough for about 12 slices of bread
¼ cup finely minced sundried tomatoes
½ cup olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 tablespoon dried oregano
½ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
About 12 slices good-quality rustic bread
In a small bowl combine the sundried tomatoes, oil, garlic, oregano, and parmesan and blend well. Either toast the bread and spoon the mixture onto each slice, or spoon it onto the slices, stack it, and wrap it in foil. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes at 350 º F until hot.