Herbing it up: Oregano

The next time a friend offers you an oregano “start,” take it. This spicy cousin to marjoram defines most Italian-American traditional favorites including pizza, spaghetti sauce and any Mediterranean dish featuring tomatoes and garlic.

Every sprig will have a wonderfully pungent aroma, yet all are slightly different. Plant a couple of varieties of oregano in a kitchen herb garden and snip as needed.

Before the first frost, clip the plant to within two inches of the soil, strip the leaves from the stems and dry leaves in a dehydrator. Or you can do what I do: tie a ribbon around the oregano bouquet and hang these from a beam in your garage or plant shed. Our climate is dry enough that this herb can “preserve” itself, if it is hung in a protected, moisture-free area.

Once completely dry, the leaves will crumble off the stems. Store this treasure in brown paper bags or in a mason jar, and remember that you need approximately half the amount of a dried herb as you need of the fresh herb called for in a recipe, because the flavor is more concentrated.

Most varieties of oregano are perennial, so it’s worth the effort to establish them in your garden. I’ve started mine by seed, but like parsley, germination requires time and patience.

Greek oregano, O.vulgare hirtum, is a true culinary oregano that some say originated in the mountains of Greece. Once established, this spicy ground cover with white flowers is quite hardy and well adapted to our climate.

Greek oregano imparts a mellower flavor and is the variety most of us appreciate. You can pick up a pack of seeds just about anywhere. Big box stores and local nurseries offer oregano in 4-inch pots. If you are planting only one, let it get established for a month or so before snipping. Pruning actually stimulates growth. Blooms are pink to deep purple and leaves are a grey green, providing a nice contrast to the deeper green plants in your kitchen herb garden.

Oregano does not require heavy fertilization or much water, once established. I think its pungent oils and thus its flavor actually are more pronounced when it is slightly water-starved, but don’t stress your plant for the sake of flavor until it is well established.

Here’s a hint when making tomato sauce: Season the pot early in the simmer with oregano and you’ll send a fragrant bouquet of aroma through the whole house. But be sure to add a second hearty pinch in the last 15 minutes of cooking, because the volatile oils signature to this herb evaporate quickly. You want the flavor to remain in the sauce if you appreciate oregano’s unique flavor.

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