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I Spice: Oregano

The flavor of fresh oregano packs less of a punch than dried oregano. (Big Stock Photo)

Ladies and gentlemen: I, Monica Bhide, should really excuse myself from writing this column, having never cooked with fresh oregano. Shameful, no? Can you please forgive me? I have seen it, smelled it and touched it. Yet when it comes to cooking with it, I instinctively turn to the dried herb.

Recipe Included

Growing up in the Middle East, my only exposure to oregano was in my father’s alternate pantry. It was a place my mother never ventured and my father never left. He had chili oil, Italian seasoning, cans of British baked beans, and, always, dried oregano. Although we used it primarily when making pizza, I can swear I saw him sprinkle it on okra and other vegetables sauteing in the pan. I remember the distinct warm and sometimes overpowering aroma of this herb, whose name means “mountain joy.”

I learned early on that adding jarfuls of it in an attempt to make a bland tomato sauce brighter was a bad idea, on so many levels. I have read varying accounts on the Internet about the way this Mediterranean herb was popularized in the United States. The most interesting account, from Home Cooking at, is that its consumption increased drastically when American soldiers returning after World War II wanted more and more pizza.

I have always enjoyed New York Times best-selling author and Food Network star Ellie Krieger’s open-hearted approach to cooking, so I called her to chat about oregano. She and I agreed that oregano is a rare case in which the dried herb has a much more intense flavor than the fresh. She loves it in tomato sauces, dips and Greek salads. But, unlike me, she has used it fresh to top pizza after it’s baked. “It adds a great freshness to the taste,” she says.

Storage of dried oregano is the same as for all the spices discussed in I Spice thus far: Store away from heat, in a cool and dry place.

As we were discussing oregano, Krieger remembered one other use: “My neighbor once gave me a bottle of oregano oil, and told me to take a little mixed in water for my cold. It worked wonders!”

Well, she’s isn’t alone. I got several e-mails, about this including one from I Spice reader, Canadian Krista Kealey, who wrote me to say she swears by oil of oregano to fight off colds. “I take it straight, and I also put it in things like spaghetti sauce for an extra punch of flavor. Although I’m fighting a bug now, I haven’t had a cold in two years.”

I Spice reader Lisa Shapiro wrote me to say she loves to sprinkle it on top of feta cheese, then bake it in the oven atop some good olive oil: "After it gets soft and gooey, I spread it on delicious crusty bread.” Reader Melanie Votaw told me she likes it on scrambled eggs. Food blogger (and another Canadian!) Charmian Christie sang the praises of fresh oregano: “I love the taste of fresh oregano in my homemade Italian meatballs and I also think it adds a layer of flavor to fresh tomato sauce when combined with other herbs. It's taken a back seat to basil, but really deserves a bit of attention. How about some Quick Fresh Tomato and Herb Pasta?”

Don’t think, though, that oregano is only for pizza and pasta. How far from Italy is this Fanesca (Ecuadorean Fish and Grain Soup)? Try it in some Herbed Grilled Vegetables (a whole bunch!), or Grilled Okra With Tomato Vinaigrette -- I’ll bet my dad would love that!

But not everyone loves oregano.

Award-winning children’s book writer Marie Karns told me that it gave her post-traumatic stress disorder. “In high school I made meatballs for the family when my sister's boyfriend was joining us for dinner. . . . I thought more was better when it came to spices. . . . Let's just say the meatballs had an oregano-green hue, and that my sister's boyfriend, nervous as he was, choked them down to be polite," she says.

Which brings me to my request: Do you have PTSD due to a spice or herb? Share your stories of kitchen disasters about herbs and spices with me and you could be featured in this column. Write to me by Dec. 20, be sure to put “Kitchen Disasters” in your e-mail subject line and send to here.

-- Monica Bhide

Greek Salad Pitas With Feta Spread and Turkey
4 servings

MAKE AHEAD: The spread can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

Adapted from Ellie Krieger's “So Easy: Luscious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Week” (Wiley, 2009).

3/4 cup (4 ounces) feta cheese

3 tablespoons nonfat plain yogurt

Freshly grated zest and freshly squeezed juice from 1/2 lemon (1 teaspoon of zest and 1 tablespoon of juice)

2 teaspoons dried oregano

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 whole-wheat pitas

4 large leaves romaine lettuce, torn in half

1 medium English (seedless) cucumber, cut into thin half-moon slices

16 to 20 fresh mint leaves (1/4 cup loosely packed)

12 ounces thinly sliced roast turkey breast (low-sodium, if desired)

Use a fork to combine the feta cheese and yogurt in a medium bowl, mashing any large chunks of cheese. Add the lemon zest and juice, oregano and pepper; mix well to form a spread. Refrigerate in an airtight container until ready to use.

To make the sandwiches, cut each pita in half to form 2 pockets. Line each pocket with a half of a lettuce leaf. Spread 2 heaping tablespoons of the feta spread into the pocket. Fill each pocket with about 6 cucumber slices, 4 or 5 mint leaves and 2 or 3 slices of turkey. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 262 calories, 29 g protein, 20 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 82 mg cholesterol, 521 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  December 11, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide, recipes  
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