Oregano (Origano in Italian) is probably the herb most commonly associated with Italy in the United States, however, it is not the mostly commonly used herb in Italian cuisine (that distinction would probably go to parsley or basil). With its pungent flavor, oregano gained great popularity in the United States after WW II, when returning G.I.’s longed for the flavor of the pizza they had eaten in Italy. Additionally, the large American-Sicilian community in the United States contributed to making this herb very popular, but it would be quite unusual to see it in the regional cuisine of central and northern Italy.

Native to the Mediterranean, oregano is very closely related to marjoram. Oregano (like basil, sage, mint, rosemary, thyme and marjoram) belongs to the Lamiaceae (mint) family. The intensity of oregano varies tremendously, depending on a number of factors: the variety or genus, the soil, the climate and the season all have a great influence on the content of its essential oils – phenols carvacrol and thymol – which are what determine its flavor and intensity. Oregano sometimes can be so strong, it can actually numb your tongue. But other varieties grown in colder climates often have minimum aroma and flavor. The most commonly used variety in Italy is the “Sicilian Oregano” – spicy, sweet and fragrant, this variety is a hybrid made from sweet marjoram or wild marjoram and origanum onite. As with thyme and bay leaves, this herb is usually more flavorful in dried form than fresh.

Cut the small leaves from the woody stems with scissors, if you are using fresh oregano. Wash the leaves thoroughly before using them and blot dry with a paper towel. 

Wrap uncut stems in a damp paper towel, place inside a plastic bag and refrigerate for up to 5 days. Store dried oregano in an airtight container away from light and heat for up to 2 years. Faded color or dimished aroma or taste usually indicates that the herb is old and should be replaced.

Before adding the herb to your dish, take the leaves in your hands and roll them between your palms to crush them and release the natural oils. The flowers of the oregano plant can also be eaten in salads. They are purple or pink. They impart a slightly spicy flavor.

If you are creating a “bouquet garni,” wash the oregano with the leaves on the stems. Tie the oregano to thyme, basil, parsley, rosemary, tarragon and/or bay leaves with a string. Drop it in a stock mixture and allow it to simmer until all the flavors are imparted into the mixture.

Oregano is a key ingredient in pizza and numerous Sicilian and southern Italian preparations for pasta – such as Bucatini con sarde e melanzane (Bucatini pasta with sardines and eggplant) and Pasta al forno alla palermitana (baked pasta Palermo style), for vegetables, such as Patate con origano (potatoes with oregano) or Peperoni alla menta e origano (peppers with mint and oregano). Often used in Sicily and parts of southern Italy with grilled fish, oregano is also an important ingredient in Italian/American cuisine – most famously – in marinara sauces.

Cooking Suggestions:

  • Oregano pairs very well with tomatoes and other Mediterranean herbs, such as basil. Add the oregano toward the end of the cooking process to help maximize its natural flavor.
  • Experiment by adding 1 teaspoon of fresh oregano or 1/2 teaspoon of dried oregano to your pasta or pizza sauces.
  • Add 1/2 teaspoon of dried oregano or 1 teaspoon of fresh oregano to a vinaigrette for salad.
  • Make a marinade or sauce with other ingredients that pair well with oregano. These include olive oil, vinegar, garlic, basil, onion, parsley and thyme. They make an excellent marinade for lamb, beef or chicken.
  • Substitute oregano in place of marjoram or thyme, if you lack those ingredients. Marjoram is a type of oregano and thyme has a similar flavor, so they can be used to create the same culinary effect. Marjoram, however, tends to have a more subtle flavor.
  • Add oregano after you saute or cook broccoli, zucchini, onion, eggplant or cauliflower. You may also want to add it to stewed or baked dishes with these vegetables. 
  • Create an appetizer by covering crostini, or toasted bread, with a thin layer of provolone cheese. Sprinkle fresh, chopped oregano leaves on top of the cheese and place on the grill or in a broiler for 5 minutes.
  • Add a small amount of oregano along with basil and other herbs to steamed seafood dishes, such as mussels and clams. It can also be used in a marinade and to flavor to other seafood dishes, but you should use it in small amounts because of its somewhat strong taste.
  • When cooking with dried oregano, avoid sprinkling it directly from its container into a hot or steaming pot. The steam can hasten the loss of the remaining flavor and aroma in the herb. Taste and smell the herb before adding it to your dish. Older herbs will have lost some flavor, so you may need to use more in the recipe.

Some Recipes to Use Your Oregano 

Creamy Yogurt Oregano Dip

This would make a great sauce for lamb chops, falafel, hamburgers or a cracker/vegetable appetizer.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups plain low fat Greek yogurt or strained yogurt (see note below)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped (or two green onions)
  • 1 garlic clove, grated (I used a microplane or you can use a garlic press
  • 2 quick dashes of Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Directions:

Mix all ingredients together. Cover and refrigerate to develop flavors, at least 2 hours and up to 6 hours.

Strained Yogurt: Set a large strainer over a 4-cup measuring cup. Line the strainer with a whitempaper towel. Add yogurt to strainer and cover with pastic wrap. Chill in the refrigerator until yogurt is thick (about 1 cup liquid will drain from yogurt), at least 2 hours or overnight.

Olive Bread with Oregano

This bread goes very well with a bowl of soup.

12 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 cup finely chopped onion
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1/4 cup pitted kalamata olives, (or olives of choice) chopped
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
  • Cooking spray

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion to pan; sauté 3 minutes or until onion is tender. Set aside.

Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour, baking soda and salt in a large bowl; make a well in the center of the mixture. Combine buttermilk, butter and egg whites, stirring with a whisk. Add buttermilk mixture to flour mixture, stirring just until moist. Fold in onion, olives and oregano.

Spread batter into an 8×4 inch loaf pan coated with cooking spray. Bake for 45 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes in pan on a wire rack before removing from the pan.

Cool completely on a wire rack.

 

Roasted Baby Eggplant

Serves 6

Ingredients:

  • 6 baby or small, thin eggplants (about 3 pounds)
  • 3 lemons
  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 12 sprigs fresh oregano
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 8 ounces Feta cheese, sliced for serving
  • Olives for garnish

Directions:

Heat oven to 450°F. Slice each eggplant in half lengthwise, cutting only about 3/4 of the way through so the eggplant halves remain attached at the top. Arrange the eggplants in a baking dish at least 2 inches deep, such as a 9-by-13-inch pan.

Thinly slice 1 lemon. Squeeze the juice from the remaining 2 lemons. Insert the lemon slices into the slit in each eggplant, then press some garlic and oregano into each slit. Season with the salt and pepper. Drizzle the eggplants with the lemon juice and oil. Cover with foil and roast, basting frequently with the juices in the dish, until the eggplants are very soft, about 40 minutes.

Remove foil and roast for 5 more minutes. Transfer to individual plates and top with the pan juices, olives and Feta.

Red Peppers Stuffed with Feta, Orzo, Lemon & Oregano

Yields 4 peppers.

Cooking the peppers uncovered gives them a delicious, roasted flavor. Serve them with a little of the pan juices spooned over the top. A red pepper is practically ready-made for stuffing. Just trim away ribs and shake out seeds. Look for pretty peppers with relatively flat bottoms so they stay upright as they bake.

Ingredients:

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium red onion, cut into large dice
  • 2 1/2 oz. kale, washed and torn into bite-size pieces (2 cups lightly packed)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 2/3 cups cooked orzo, cooled (from 3/4 cup raw orzo)
  • Grated zest from 1/2 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from about 1/2 lemon)
  • 1/4 lb. feta cheese
  • 1 teaspoon. chopped fresh oregano or 1/2 teaspoon dried
  • 11/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 8 Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
  • 4 medium red bell peppers
  • 11/2 cups dry white wine or water

Directions:

Heat the oven to 350°F. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet until moderately hot. Add the red onion and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the kale and cook, stirring often, until wilted and tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Season with a little salt and pepper and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the onion and kale with the cooked orzo, lemon zest, lemon juice, feta cheese, oregano, thyme, parsley and olives. Toss gently until combined and season with salt and pepper.

Slice off the top 1/2 inch of each pepper and reserve. With a paring knife, cut away the ribs and discard.

Turn the pepper upside down and pat it to get all the seeds to fall out. Divide the orzo filling among the peppers. Replace the top of each pepper.

Put the peppers in a medium baking dish and sprinkle them with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Pour the wine in the pan. Bake until the peppers are very tender and slightly blackened on top, about 1-1/2 hours.

Grilled Shrimp with Lemon and Oregano

6 servings.

Ingredients:

  • 3 lbs jumbo shrimp in shell
  • 4 large garlic cloves
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 5 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh oregano (from 1 bunch)
  • 3 lemons, each cut into 6 wedges

Directions:

Snip through the shells of the shrimp along the middle of the back using kitchen shears, exposing the vein and but leaving the tail and adjoining segment of shell intact. Devein shrimp, leaving shells in place.

Mince and mash garlic to a paste with salt using a large heavy knife. Transfer to a blender along with lemon juice and pepper and blend until smooth. With motor running, add oil in a slow stream, blending until emulsified. Transfer dressing to a bowl and stir in chopped oregano.

Prepare grill for cooking over direct heat with medium-hot charcoal (moderate heat for gas).

Toss shrimp with 1/4 cup ot the dressing in a large bowl and marinate no more than 15 minutes. (Texture of shrimp will change if marinated too long.)

Lightly brush lemon wedges with some of remaining dressing and grill, turning over once, until grill marks appear, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a large platter.

Grill shrimp on lightly oiled grill rack (covered only if using a gas grill), turning over once, until just cooked through, 6 to 7 minutes total. Transfer shrimp as soon as they turn pink to the platter with the lemons.

Serve with remaining dressing.

Lemony Pasta with Cherry Tomatoes, Mozzarella and Fresh Oregano

6 servings

Ingredients:

  • Coarse sea salt
  • 1 pound chiocciole or other small tube-shaped pasta
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 lemons, room temperature
  • 3/4 pound fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
  • 1 1/2 pints cherry tomatoes (3 cups), quartered
  • 1/3 cup whole fresh oregano leaves
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente. Drain.

Finely grate the zest of 1 lemon into a large bowl. Add cheese, tomatoes and oregano; toss to combine.

Squeeze 4 tablespoons juice from the lemons into a small bowl and whisk together lemon juice, olive oil and a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Add pasta and lemon dressing to tomato mixture and mix well; adjust seasoning. Serve immediately.

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