- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Inspiration comes in many forms for the gardener and the cook. A visit to a new garden always brings ideas. Likewise, seeing a dish prepared can change the way we think about working in the kitchen.

That’s what happened to me when inspiration came in the form of a red-haired guy with a ponytail and orange shoes. A visit to a local restaurant by celebrity chef Mario Batali was a wake-up call.

His love of the freshest ingredients fits right in with us gardeners, and his passion for organic food works, too. I had an epiphany as he added fresh herbs at the end of each dish. His work looked simple, but the flavors were complex.

In honor of Mr. Batali, I decided to write about oregano. It’s so easy to grow, some might even call it invasive. As a member of the mint family, oregano spreads with ease, covering a small plot in just a few years.

It might be a good idea to sink a pot of it in the ground to keep it in check, but even that might not work, as the stems fall over the sides, rooting wherever they meet the soil. In my garden, I like it in containers — no chance of overrunning the garden that way.

Cooks favor Origanum vulgare hirtum, or Greek oregano. It has strong, spicy flavor. Don’t confuse it with Origanum vulgare, which is an ornamental and not good for cooking. It’s great in the garden, though. It was the first herb I ever grew, and its purple flowers filled the summer air with wonderful scent. I watched small, iridescent bees fly from blossom to blossom. Unfortunately, 20 years ago, I didn’t understand why it didn’t add the zip to dishes I expected.

Greek oregano has white flowers and is not as invasive as its ornamental cousin. The plant loves well-drained soil and a sunny location. It’s another herb with origins that can be traced back centuries to the Greeks and Romans.

Like most herbs, it’s best harvested in the morning, just as the dew dries. Oregano is easy to store. It can be saved fresh for a couple weeks and can be frozen or dried. Oregano can be cut all the way back a few times a year. It will return with tender, fresh growth.

Stems and leaves can be stored in the fridge for two weeks in sealed plastic bags, if necessary, but are much better fresh. The herb loses flavor quickly after being cut.

Freeze entire branches on baking sheets, then strip the leaves from the stems and put them back into the freezer in sealed plastic bags. Another option is to mix the chopped leaves with some olive oil and freeze them in ice-cube trays.

For drying, cut the stems and hang them upside down in a warm, dry place.

Store whole stems in glass jars in a dark place. Leaves still on the stems maintain more flavor than leaves stripped off and ground into powder.

Oregano-marinated grilled chicken

2 chickens, cut into pieces

Salt and pepper

4 garlic cloves, chopped (garlic lovers should double)

1 cup apple cider vinegar

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 tablespoons fresh chopped oregano

Place chicken in a large bowl and add salt and pepper to taste. Mix garlic, ½ cup water, vinegar, olive oil and oregano. Pour over chicken and mix well.

Marinate chicken in refrigerator at least two hours or up to 12, turning occasionally. Prepare grill. Remove chicken from marinade. Discard marinade. Grill chicken, turning occasionally, until done, about 45 minutes.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Baked feta cheese with oregano on toasted bread with tomato

Feta cheese slices, cut ½-inch thick

Fresh chopped oregano

A few drops extra-virgin olive oil per bread slice

Toasted Italian or French bread slices

Ripe tomato slices

Place a feta cheese slice on a piece of aluminum foil a bit more than twice as large as the cheese slice. Coat cheese liberally with oregano, drizzle with a few drops of olive oil and fold aluminum foil over to seal. Place on baking sheet and bake in preheated 250-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until soft. Spread on toasted bread and top with sliced tomatoes from the garden. Makes as many as you want.

Mahi mahi with fresh oregano

This recipe, which uses fresh ingredients from the summer garden, is inspired by Mario Batali.

1/4 cup olive oil, plus about 1 tablespoon more if grilling mahi mahi

2 bay leaves

6 garlic cloves, chopped (garlic lovers should double)

1 large onion, chopped

1 zucchini, chopped

1 jalapeno chili, chopped

½ cup fresh oregano leaves

1 medium roasted tomato, chopped

½ cup of white wine

4 8-ounce mahi mahi fillets

1 tablespoon butter

4 ounces diced white mushrooms

Salt

Heat olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add bay leaves, garlic, onion, zucchini and jalapeno and cook for 3 minutes. Add oregano and continue to cook for about 2 more minutes, or until vegetables are softened. Add chopped tomato, white wine, and ½ cup water. Stir and remove from stove. Keep warm until serving.

There are a couple ways to cook mahi mahi. One way is to poach it, and the other is to grill.Poach mahi mahi fillets in water in a large pan for about 5 minutes, or until tender and opaque. (Remove carefully and keep warm.) If grilling, coat mahi mahi with extra-virgin olive oil and grill. Be careful not to overcook.

For an 8-ounce piece, grill one side 4 minutes, then carefully turn and cook for 2 more minutes, or until cooked as desired. Keep warm.Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon butter in a small pan. Add mushrooms and a little salt to taste. Cook about 5 minutes, or until mushrooms have released their liquid and are beginning to brown.

Divide oregano sauce among plates and top with cooked mahi mahi. Top fish fillets with mushrooms. Makes 4 servings.

Beet oregano salad

4 large beets

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

3 large garlic cloves, minced

3 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves

8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Salad greens, enough to make a nice bed on a large plate

3/4 cup crumbled feta cheese

1 small red onion, chopped

Cut tops off beets and wrap them in foil. Roast in preheated 350-degree oven until tender, about 1 hour. Let cool, remove from foil and slice. To make dressing, mix together honey, vinegar, garlic, oregano, oil and mustard in a blender until smooth. Arrange salad greens on a large plate. Top with sliced beets, feta and red onion. Drizzle with dressing.

Makes 4 servings.


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