During fall harvest, we tend to favor megacrops like potatoes, onions, cucumbers, cabbage and tomatoes. They’re pantry and canning jar fillers, for sure. On the other hand, smaller-stature plants such as parsley, calendula, dill and other herbs we often overlook. While they don’t fill canning jars (unless you’re drying large quantities), herbs have a power punch that most veggies can only dream of.
Take oregano. An important culinary herb, oregano leaves are used in cuisines of the Mediterranean, the Philippines and Latin America. In Greece it adds flavor to the classic Greek salads as well as their famous lemon-olive oil sauce that accompanies fish dishes. In southern Italy, oregano (a member of the mint family) is used extensively with roasted, fried or grilled vegetables, meat and fish. Its popularity in the U.S. is said to have sparked when soldiers, returning home from World War II, brought back a taste for the “pizza herb.”
No longer confined to jars in the spice cabinet, new research is discovering more properties, and thus uses, for oregano as an antibacterial agent and an antifungal agent, for example. Here is something you can share at your next coffee shop meeting: Oregano is also being tested for its ability to reduce the methane production in cows, which emit about 100 kilograms of the greenhouse gas per year per cow.
On our front deck, by the door closest to the kitchen, oregano shares a large container with sage and parsley, the three herbs that I use to enhance baked potatoes. I sprinkle the chopped herbs on a baking pan that’s been coated with olive oil, toss on a few calendula blossoms and then set halved potatoes, cut side down, on top of the herbs. After baking the spuds for about 45 minutes at 350 degrees, the herbs and flowers create beautiful patterns on the round, potato “pallets.”
Fresh sprigs of oregano also flavor our vinegars, soups, butters, salad dressings, muffins, yeast breads and tea. Yes, tea. When I feel the twinges of a cold coming on, I brew a batch of oregano-garlic tea. The original recipe comes from a student who demonstrated how to make the tea as her final project in my organic gardening class. Like the container on the front deck, oregano shares the stage with other ingredients; in this case, some unlikely ones.
Over the past several years I’ve been able to substantially reduce the symptoms of a cold or stop it in its tracks altogether by drinking this tea. It might not be the tastiest hot brew on the planet, but you get used to it. I’ve shared this recipe in the past, but with a yucky, cold-flu going around town, I thought it might be useful.
2 cups water
A few slices red onion
4 to 6 cloves garlic, smashed
1/4 cup chopped fresh oregano or 2 tablespoons dried
4 to 6 slices fresh ginger
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons honey or other sweetener
Pinch cayenne pepper (optional)
Directions: Place water, onion, garlic, oregano and ginger in a nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and steep for 15-20 minutes. It will turn a nice pink blush color. Remove from heat and stir in lemon and sweetener. Pour into a mug and take small sips; inhale the steam, too.
And now to round out this week’s column with a couple Q&As:
Q: We ate shrimp for dinner last night. What should we do with the shells?
A: Bury them (deep) in your raised beds or, if you live in a bear-free neighborhood, turn them into your compost pile. Shellfish shells are chock full of nitrogen, important trace elements,and some highly specialized nutrients (like chitin) that plants enjoy tremendously. However, the bacteria that help them decompose may be even more important. Researchers in Canada and New Zealand demonstrated that compost containing chitin-digesting bacteria protected potato crops against several damaging fungal diseases and reduced populations of parasitic nematodes.
Q: How do freezing temperatures sweeten kale?
A: Cooks will tell you that certain plants like kale, Brussels sprouts and cabbage taste better after a frost. This is not wives’ tales stuff. The cold snap causes starch, which is stored in the leaves, to change to sugar. And we all know that a teaspoon of sugar is sweeter than a teaspoon of Saltine cracker crumbs.
To connect with local gardeners and growers, visit the Kodiak Growers Facebook page and local farmers’ markets. To contact Marion, send her an email (email@example.com), or head over to Facebook, Instagram at marion_owen_photography.com or her blog at marionowen.wordpress.com. Or pick up the phone, 907-486-5079.