Cooking Siciliano and the Oregano Festival

I can’t imagine a garden without herbs. Or cooking without herbs. Or life without herbs. If I were marooned on a desert island and had just one food request, I would choose fresh herbs. And if then forced to choose only one herb, the answer might well be oregano.

Dried oregano from last week’s pick.

Although a perennial herb, oregano has distinct seasons. It shoots up in Spring, producing tall hard stems with bracts of pale mauve flowers. It’s best to harvest these stems once in full flower and hang to dry. If you’ve ever bought a packet of dried wild Greek or Sicilian oregano, you’ll notice that the flowers are favoured. By harvesting the mature stems, the plant will reinvigorate for summer and beyond. It is alive in winter, but not so productive.

Today’s pick, ready to hang.

Every time I gather bunches of oregano and string them up, I can almost taste the savoury crunch, salty sea air, pizza, fish, pickled olives, capers and the Mediterranean all rolled into one little sensation. I first tasted this herb in 1968, the year I first ate pizza. A few years later, as a cash strapped student with two infant children, my favourite weekly treat was a bag of oregano laced olives from the little Greek grocery shop on the corner of Canning Street. I am still searching for that same taste, that excitement that transported me away from my childhood diet of bland British/Australian cuisine, and into the firm embrace of Cucina Mediterranea.

Dried oregano, bagged for the ‘export’ market and oregano salt,

When making a simple pizza sauce (with garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and tomatoes, fresh or canned) I invariably choose to add dried oregano. When cooking fish, a simple fillet of flathead, a snapper or a pesce spada alla siciliana ( swordfish), oregano usually stars in the sauce. Its earthy, slightly bitter flavour bonds well salt, garlic and oil. Fresh oregano, olive oil and vinegar is a perfect dressing for a warm potato salad or is the final blessing, along with a squeeze of lemon, on fried saganaki or halloumi.

Pan fried flathead, dusted in seasoned riceflour, cooked in EV olive oil, dressed in salmoriglio.

I often feel enslaved by my food memories, though it’s a pleasant kind of servitude. One other vivid recollection involving oregano is the day I first tasted Salmoriglio, that famous Sicilian sauce and marinade. We were sitting in a little restaurant in Palermo. It was late Spring in the year 2000. The decor spoke of that era- terracotta paving on the floor, Mediterranean tiles on the walls, and colourful Italian made platters and plates. We ordered Pesce Spada, grilled swordfish, dressed with Salmoriglio. It came with oven roasted potatoes and grilled red peppers on the side. To this day, it is the fish sauce of choice.

Flathead alla Siciliano.

Salmoriglio

There are a few variations on the theme of salmoriglio. Some recipes add capers or anchovies. I think the following recipe comes closest to that taste true of Palermo. It can be a sauce or a marinade for vegetables. The sauce is best used straight away or within 24 hours. I made it last night for a sauce to go with pan fried flathead fillets, and today I used the remainder to marinate some zucchini and tiger prawns, which were then grilled.

  • 6 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves, removed from woody stems
  • 2 large cloves garlic
  • course sea salt flakes to taste
  • juice of one large lemon
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 6 tablespoons EV olive oil
  • 1-2 tablespoons hot water

Mash the leaves with a pinch of salt flakes and garlic in a mortar and pestle. Pound well to amalgamate into a rough paste. Add the lemon peel and oil. Continue to pound then add the lemon juice and a little hot water, mixing well to make the sauce creamy. You can gently warm this sauce if you wish. If you make it in a food processor, the sauce will have a dense consistency and will not be so rustic or tasty.

Gamberi e Zucchini alla Griglia con Salmoriglio.

Oregano Salt Recipe.

  • 1/4 cup of dried oregano leaves
  • 2 tablespoons sea salt crystals.

Grind in a coffee or spice grinder and store in a jar. Add to baked vegetables, fresh tomatoes, Greek potatoes.

So what food would you choose on your desert island dear reader? My choice of oregano assumes that I will also have a fishing rod.

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26 thoughts on “Cooking Siciliano and the Oregano Festival”

  1. I’m thinking the Salmoriglio and fresh fish sounds like excellent desert island fare to me!–or how about desert oasis fare! I can’t live without a herb garden either, Francesca, but this summer heat has just fried mine this year. I’ve had to buy herbs at the grocery for the first time in years, maybe ever! 46C is just too hot for them, even if I water them extra. Hubby and I are talking about plans to put some extra shade around the place if this is the new normal!

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    1. So sad to hear about the suffering herbs Ardys in this new normal heat. I do use quite a lot of shade cloth here in summer. I have hooped all my garden beds, and when needed, the covers come on for the season, usually cable tied on. Most of my Asian herbs live under a shady tree and only receive dappled light ( mint, Thai basil, coriander, lemon grass…) but still suffer if not watered daily. I can only grow lettuce in summer under 50% or more shade cloth, and also use white 20% cloth at times too. Best wishes over this summer: on days over 40c we stay indoors, and only play outside from 6 am to about 9 am.

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      1. I’m surprised you need to use so much shade cloth as well as shade trees. No wonder my herbs are dying as I write! 43.8C here again today and I’ve just done the middle of the day watering by hand. The morning and evening waterings are on irrigation. Thank you for the tips, I’m going to do things differently next year. Like you, we do all the outside chores before 9am and hibernate during the day time heat. It will be interesting to see what happens…

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  2. I am in love with mint this summer. For the first time ever I have been able to grow a big bush of it, and use it liberally. In the past I have tried growing pathetic little runners and not watering them enough. This time I bought a big bush and try to keep the water up to it. I also have oregano, which the bees adore. I had never thought about drying it (slight blush of embarrassment) so where should I hang the bunches and for how long? And then store in brown paper? And then give away to garden less friends ~ perfect!

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    1. It’s so nice when you get a big pot of mint going. and can use it with gay abandon. It likes the south side or under the dappled light of a big tree, unlike it’s sun loving cousin, oregano. The bunches dry quite quickly in this weather. I usually hang them on a shady verandah for a few days, or in colder seasons, I dry herbs hanging from a shelf in the kitchen. I store the give away bunches in brown paper, as some people like to crunch their own flowers into their food ( a little like those Sicilian packets of wild oregano we get in Melbourne) but I also stash some stripped leaves and flowers in jars. I love giving away these little parcels. The salts makes a good gift too.

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  3. Oregano things to add to my to do list… I must check a hidden corner where there was an old oregano plant, then see how the new plant in the vege patch is going. Oregano salt… yes! And Salmoriglio… yum.
    Not sure about desert island but my go-to plant in the vege garden when all else is less than optimal is nasturtium, it subs for salad leaves, wraps, pesto greens… and the chooks love any excess… which being a prolific self seeder, there regularly is.

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    1. Nasturtium is such a cheery plant, yellow and oranges trailing around the veggie patch, but I have never grown fond of the taste of the leaves or flowers in salads. I remember a funny little saying from years ago, ‘Don’t cast nasturtiums about me…’

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  4. Oh, you had posted salmoriglio before and methinks it had got lost amongst the pages 🙂 ! Yes, I love herbs, yes, I normally grow pots and pots, and, yes, as with Ardys, but a bare few have survived this summer’s early temperature onslaught! Warned of worse for next week. Am more a thyme and basil gal, but faithful oregano is always there and, after decades of lack of appreciation, have made friends with the various mints. . . Meanwhile oregano will be on the on line order early next week, half for some tasty fish and the other to make salt I can see being very useful . . .

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    1. Yes, I have posted about Salmoriglio before, such is my love for the sauce and at my age, there are bound to be a few repeats, but always with a variation on the them I hope. That salt is rather useful- and the thyme version works well too. Good luck with the heat over summer Eha.

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  5. I really don’t know that I could pick just one, but herbs would be up there! Especially in summer I use bunches a week 🙂 I love that you’re using piles of oregano too – people often seem to use the Mediterranean herbs (except perhaps for basil) in such a measly fashion! We often do pizza just covered in oregano, thyme and sage.

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  6. Lovely post. I was able to buy the most amazing locally grown dried Biodynamic oregano when we had our place in Apollo Bay, I learned to use it with gay adandon and consider it a must on pizza. I have mint, basil, parsley, chives and sage on my balcony, but they really can’t keep up with me snipping at them. It’s hard to choose a desert island food, tomatoes, rice, olive oil, can’t decide….

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  7. Your food memories are always wonderful! I too think of oregano growing in various beautiful Mediterranean locations and being used in beautiful dishes just after it was picked. Sad to be so far from there.

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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  8. Hey F .. I love the sound of the Salmoriglio .. and yes that’s another for me to try! Oregano is a favourite of mine and stars in my tomato sauce for the pizza base. Hm, now what food would I like on my desert island, I think I’ll have to go garlic (preferably without rust ..lol) and I’m prepared to share this for some of your oregano! Good thinking on the fishing rod 😃

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  9. Totally with you Signora, fresh herbs can completely transform a dish. I’ve actually just been in Mamma Rosa’s garden, where I have picked a gargantuan mound of basil which I am going to preserve in oil for those sparse winter months.

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  10. Oregano is the cornerstone of our little Herb’n’ garden. As with you, it’s the one herb I don’t want to be without. I love when in our mid-summer when the oregano blooms and your spot on as that’s the best time to clip and dry. We have one large pot dedicated to this purpose and one pot we let go through the summer. I love watching the bees play in the blossoms. A lovely post and great recipe.

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