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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Herb of the Week -- Oregano

A popular cyber-myth, found widely on the internet, says that the word Oregano come from the Greek words Oros meaning mountain and Ganos meaning joy. The myth states that the word loosely translates into "Joy of the mountains" because Oregano is found growing wild on the hillsides in Greece.
It's a fun and pretty explanation, and because it sounds so right at first, many herbal websites will see that on the internet and include it in their own information.
Fortunately, you have me, to help clear up any misunderstanding.
Without getting into a long and boring explanation of etymology, although I have the background research if you are truly interested, Oros and Ganos when combined as a plural would not turn into a word that resembles Oregano, but into a much different word.
That being said, the folklore of the myth makes it fun, and since the true origin of the word is unknown, feel free to continue to believe that it means Joy Of The Mountains if you want. Just remember, you heard the truth first here.

The first recorded or known use of Oregano is from the Mediterranean regions, where it does indeed grow wild on the hillsides. Wild Oregano has a much sweeter or smoother flavor than that grown domestically, especially Oregano that is grown in cooler climates, where it can tend to get a slight bitter taste. This is not as strong if it is picked while the leaves are young, and before the plant flowers.
But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Lets explore how to grow it first, before we talk about picking it.

My research into Oregano has shown me a mistake I may have made when planting mine, and I will probably move the plant at the end of this year. I learned that Oregano will have a better flavor if it is planted in full sun, in soil that is not too rich. Mine is a beautiful plant but has a very mild flavor. I have it growing in full shade.

You can grow Oregano from seed if you choose to do so, but seed grown Oregano will vary in flavor. For the best flavor, grow from transplants. At the nursery, rub a leave between your thumb and finger and check for a strong scent. As with all herbs, the stronger the scent, the stronger the flavor.

Select varieties that are made for cooking (assuming you want to cook with it) like Greek Oregano(Origanum heracleoticum), Sicilian Oregano (Origanum vulgare ssp. hirtum) , or Italian Oregano(Origanum onites) , rather than the ones that are grown primarily as ornamental plants like Golden Oregano(Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’).

A few bits of trivia: The plant commonly known as Mexican Oregano (lippia graveolens), is not really oregano at all, while Marjoram (Origanum majorana, Lamiaceae), an herb I will talk about in an upcoming week, is actually a variety of oregano

Oregano is a perennial that can be grown indoors, outdoors, in your garden, or in containers. It does well as an ornamental border or ground cover, and thrives in rock gardens as well. It will grow in the shade, but as I mentioned above, will have a better flavor in the full sun and full sun is generally recommended. Oregano likes well-drained soil, on the lean side, rich soil tends to dilute the flavor. Oregano can reach a height of 30", but usually grows between 8-12", especially if you are harvesting regularly. Plants will spread about 18" and will send out runners. The plant will have a low, dense ground cover, and then send up taller shoots of leaves.

Once the shoots, or sprigs reach about 5" you can begin harvesting. To produce a fuller, bushier plant, pinch off flowers as they start to form, forcing the plant to produce more leaves. As with any herb, once the plant blooms, the leaves will not have as much flavor. You can divide your Oregano plant if the center starts to die out, or if it gets too woody, or if you just need to make more plants.

You can harvest by picking individual leaves or sprigs to use in cooking as needed, but should also cut the entire plant back to almost a ground cover. This should be done at least once a year, and can be done up to three times. Once, when the plant reaches 6" tall, next when you see the first flower form, and once late in the growing season.
Once harvested, it can be preserved in several ways. Freezing will maintain the most flavor, but takes up the most space, drying will lose a little flavor, but is often the most practical method. Fresh herbs can be wrapped in a paper towel and stored in a plastic bag in a refrigerator for up to several weeks.

To freeze Oregano, you can freeze entire branches on a cookie sheet, then, once frozen strip off the leaves and store them in plastic containers in the freezer. Another method is to finely chop the leaves and mix them with just enough butter, or olive oil, to bind them together and create a rough paste, and then freeze this paste in ice cube trays. Once frozen, the cubes can then be put in labeled zipper freezer bags and returned to the freezer. (Make sure you label them, once chopped and frozen, most green leaves look alike.)

Drying herbs is even easier, I put them on a cookie sheet in my truck and let the smell permeate my truck, as the sun dries them, but I am fully aware that my method won't work for everyone. What you don't want to do is use an oven to dry your herbs. Do this only as a last resort, as this will actually start the cooking process and begin the breakdown of the essential oils, thereby resulting in flavor loss.

One method of drying herbs, that works well for many people, (My mother used this method for dill when I was a kid, although she didn't do it exactly this way), is air drying in a paper bag. If you live in an area that has a high humidity level, it is essential that your herbs be completely free of moisture before you start this process, or they will mold before they can dry.

Pick your oregano in late morning, after the dew dries, but before the afternoon sun hits. Pick or cut full branches (sprigs). Shake them well to remove insects, or dust, but don't wash them unless absolutely necessary. If you must wash them, then make sure you use paper towels and dry them thoroughly.

Strip the leaves from the first inch or so of the branch. Bundle 8-10 branches together. Oregano has a low water content, so it can be bundled in big bundles, moisture rich herbs like basil or chives need to be in looser smaller bundles or they won't dry.

Tie a string or rubber band around the base of the bundle. (Tie tightly, the stems will shrink as they dry.)

Put the bundle in a paper bag with small holes cut in it, and gather the top of the bag around the base of the bundle. Then hang the bag in a warm dry room. (I know, the heat of the laundry room makes it tempting, but don't try it, the moisture will mold your herbs.)

Check in about two weeks and they should be dry and ready to go.

Once dried, strip the leaves from the stems, and store them in airtight containers. Canning jars are good, Ziplock bags will work. The leaves take up more room whole, but will retain more flavor. Crushed leaves take very little room, but will lose some or their flavor. Do what works best for your own situation.

A rule of thumb is that one teaspoon of dried herbs is the equivalent of one Tablespoon of fresh herbs.

So, now you have a whole freezer full of little Oregano cubes, and a shelf of dried Oregano leaves, what do you do with them?

Oregano has many culinary applications as well as medicinal applications.

Medicinally it has a wide variety of uses. Very few studies exist that can verify or refute the medicinal properties of most herbs, And of course, everybody's body is different and reacts differently, so I make no guarantees. But the up-side is, Oregano is perfectly safe so you can experiment all you want with no danger or worry.

Tea made from Oregano leaves is said to help with indigestion, bloating, flatulence, coughs, urinary problems, bronchial problems, headaches, swollen glands, and to promote menstruation. It has also been used in the past to relieve fevers, diarrhea, vomiting, and jaundice. It will have a strong flavor and so you may want to sweeten it with a little honey, or stevia leaves. (OK, sugar or Splenda will work too.) Unsweetened Oregano tea can be used as a gargle or mouthwash.

If you don't like the flavor, or you aren't a tea drinker, the dried leaves can be finely ground or pulverized and put into capsules.

Fresh Oregano leaves can be pounded into a paste, adding water as needed or finely ground oatmeal, until the mixture is a spreadable consistency. This can be used to treat rheumatism and aching muscles as well as itching from insect bites.

If you put a handful of Oregano leaves in a mesh or cheesecloth bag and allow your hot bath water to run over it, then let the bag steep in the tub as you bathe, you will get a nice aromatic bath said to help aching joints and muscles and promote relaxation.

Now, finally we get to my favorite use of herbs, Culinary uses.

Oregano is a versatile herb that appears in most Greek, Italian and Mexican dishes, as well as many other unexpected places such as alcoholic beverages, meat and meat products, condiments and relishes, snack foods and milk products. Origanum oil (the essential oil of the Oregano plant) is used as a food flavor and also as a fragrance component in soaps, detergents and perfumes.

Known as the "pizza herb", Oregano combined with basil make up the basis for most Italian dishes. Recipes abound on the internet, and I believe one would be hard pressed to find a recipe book that did not include Oregano as an ingredient in at least some of the entrees, but for something new and different here are a few fun things you may try:

  • Use handfuls of fresh oregano in salads as a green rather than an herb.

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

  • Drizzle extra virgin olive oil over a huge hunk of feta cheese that's been topped with oregano leaves and serve with an assortment of green, red, and black olives.

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

  • Toss oregano leaves and toasted pecans with mandarin oranges and leeks, drizzle with a bit of balsamic vinegar and some extra virgin olive oil.

  • Make some crostini by toasting some stale crusty bread with extra virgin olive oil and garlic. When it comes out of the oven layer the surface with fresh oregano and a few twists of fresh black pepper and some diced seeded roma tomatoes.

  • My wife makes a potpourri by simmering fresh herbs, Oregano being one of her favorites, that makes our house smell like she is cooking lasagna. I have tried to do this before and ended up making a mess and making the house smell like burnt offerings. Personally I think that herbal potpourri is cruel. I open the door, take a breath, and think that we are having lasagna for dinner,( did I mention that my wife makes the best lasagna I have ever had?) Only to discover that we are actually having leftover meatloaf.

As you can see, the uses and applications of Oregano are limited only by the limits of your imagination. Remember, any time you cook with fresh Oregano, you should add the leaves as close to the end of the cooking process as possible, because as soon as they get hot the flavor starts to break down.

Let me just finish with a few of the traditional magical, or superstitious uses of Oregano:

Oregano is an herb of happiness, tranquility, good luck, health, and protection. Make a Tea or burn as an incense for any of the above, and for letting go of someone you love - be it a husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, or anyone else that it hurts to leave.
Plant Oregano around your house for protection, and scatter it inside the house to protect it (add violets to protect the family from colds). Carry it in a sachet or charm to bring good luck and good health. It is also said to protect and promote psychic dreams when worn on the head during sleep.

So grow some Oregano to bring good luck, tranquility, happiness, health and protection to yourself and your family, and please, let me know about your success with Oregano. Leave me a comment and share recipes, tips, ideas, and suggestions. Your ideas are as valuable as mine.

Here is a picture of my oregano, let's see picture of yours!

1 comment:

  1. Good luck with your new post, just linked it to my bloglist.