Green eats: For the love of oregano

A key ingredient in the Italian cuisine, this herb has many health benefits, but most of all it adds great taste to almost anything you cook.

eggplant 311 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
eggplant 311
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
It’s hard to imagine Italian food without oregano, that wonderful herb that marries so well with tomato sauces, fried vegetables and grilled meats. Together with basil, sage, garlic and olive oil, it forms the basis of the Italian palette of flavors.
It’s not only the taste of oregano that’s appealing. Tinctures and extracts of oregano are also used to scent soaps, laundry detergents and even perfumes.
Most people are familiar with oregano in its dried form – especially on pizza (beware of pizza spice mixtures often delivered with take-out pizza, they may also contain sugar and MSG) – but it is also used as a flavoring ingredient in commercial cheese products, sauces and various canned goods.
In my kitchen I use both dried and garden-grown fresh oregano in a wide variety of dishes like salads and with potato dishes, marinated fennel and other vegetables (especially mushrooms).
Oregano also has an affinity to garlic, red onion, olives, capers and anchovies. Recently I infused agave (but you can use light honey) with a few fresh oregano leaves and a few drops of rosewater and drizzled it over halved fresh figs. It was pure heaven.
If you buy a bunch of fresh oregano, you’ll notice that it easily darkens when bruised, so the best way to store it is to gently wrap it in paper towels, dribble in a few drops of water, seal in a ziplock bag and chill. To enhance the scent and flavor, crush the leaves between your fingers, or with the palm of your hand, before adding.
Native to the Mediterranean, oregano was used by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and is still an integral part of Greek and Italian cuisine. It is also widely used in Turkish, Spanish, Mexican and Portuguese kitchens, among others.
All types of oregano have some medicinal properties, but apparently the Mediterranean kind is the most effective, particularly because it includes high amounts of carvacrol, a powerful antioxidant which may help prevent heart disease and certain types of cancer. The oil extracted from the leaves is considered strongly antiseptic, antispasmodic, carminative and anti-fungal, which means you can put a few drops in a glass of water to ward off colds and flu, or apply it to the skin when necessary.
Note: There are several kinds of oregano oils available in Israel, often made from marjoram or less effective strains of oregano in cheap carrier oils. To date, only Oreganol is “the real McCoy” – extracted from hand-picked organic Mediterranean oregano blended with extra-virgin olive oil.
Use this multi-purpose pesto on foccaccia or pasta, mix with white cheese as a dip or spread, and add to soup and sandwiches.
To make this really quickly, use prewashed spinach. Always pick over spinach, prewashed or not, to remove stems and small pods. Use a small blender or food processor attachment if available.
Freeze in an ice-cube tray in the freezer, pop out the frozen cubes and store in an airtight container lined with parchment paper. To store in the refrigerator, place in an airtight jar and cover the top with a layer of olive oil.
Vary the recipe by substituting chopped walnuts for pistachios, or avocado oil for olive oil. Add a few tablespoons of freshly grated Parmesan or hard goat cheese if desired. ✔ 1 cup (packed) fresh spinach leaves ✔ 1 cup fresh oregano leaves ✔ 1⁄2 cup fresh parsley leaves ✔ 2-3 Tbsp. toasted pistachio nuts ✔ 2 tsp. lemon juice ✔ Salt and coarsely ground black pepper to taste ✔ 1 large garlic clove ✔ 2-3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Grind all the ingredients together except the olive oil till smooth or slightly chunky if you like. With the machine running, drizzle in the olive oil slowly and process till blended.
Season with salt and pepper and blend again. Taste and add more oil, lemon juice or seasoning if necessary.
Easy to make, this serves as a great snack or first course, especially but not only for those who don’t like tomatoes. For a more substantial serving, cut the slices thicker. They will take slightly more time to brown on both sides.
✔ 2-3 elongated light-weight eggplants ✔ 1⁄3 cup extra-virgin olive oil ✔ 1⁄2 tsp. dried oregano ✔ 1 clove garlic, crushed ✔ Fresh oregano pesto (recipe above) ✔ Grated or sliced goat cheese
Cut the top off of each eggplant and cut lengthwise into thin even slices. (This takes a little practice, so it’s good to have an extra eggplant around.) Do not cut too thin, or the slice will fall apart.
Preheat the grill in the oven, and line a large baking pan with parchment paper. In a small bowl, mix olive oil, dried oregano and garlic. Brush both sides of each eggplant slice with the mixture. Grill the slices till golden brown on both sides. Watch carefully so they don’t burn, and remove done slices as necessary. Let cool in the pan.
Spread a tablespoon or more of pesto lengthwise on each slice, and top with sliced or grated cheese. Sprinkle with a few fresh oregano leaves or a pinch of the dried. Slip under the broiler again till the cheese is melted and slightly golden.
Q & A
Is there really any difference between “Atlantic” sea salt which I understand is very trendy here, and just plain regular kosher salt? Hannah Fortuna
The grayish looking “Atlantic” sea salt is pure unwashed sea salt that has been collected without rinsing. It retains the natural chemical balance that nature intended. Regular table salt, kosher salt and very white coarse or fine sea salts have been rinsed, which affects both the flavor and natural chemical balance which some sources claim creates an imbalance in the body. I prefer to use unrinsed “Atlantic” coarse sea salt whenever possible.
Why does cheese always seem to go moldy after just a few days in my refrigerator, even though the last day of sale is weeks away? I thought Tnuva cheeses contained preservatives. I took it back to the store once or twice, but now I’m too embarrassed so I either don’t buy it at all or consume it the same day.
Raphael Harris
Tnuva hard cheeses do contain preservatives, so even if you store opened uncovered packages in the refrigerator the cheese would get hard rather than moldy. I suspect that the problem is the temperature in your refrigerator.
(The refrigerator can have a problem even if the freezer works normally). If the refrigerator is as cold as it can be and the problem is still happening, I suggest that you either buy a thermometer to check the temperature or call in a service person to check it out.
I think my knives need a good professional sharpening. Where in Tel Aviv can I get that done? Ken Tarlev
I think it’s important to have some kind of knife sharpener in the home because if you use them frequently you should also sharpen them frequently.
Electric and manual knife sharpeners are available in most kitchen utensil outlets.
You can have them professionally sharpened at Lublinsky on King George Street (just a block before the entrance to the Carmel Market). But in a fix, you can always run both sides of the knife blade alongside an unglazed ceramic bowl or dish. Remember – good cutting knives should never be washed in a dishwasher because the soap can damage the blade. It’s also a good idea to store them in a wooden block or on a magnetized strip on the wall.