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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Simply Radish, Simply French

Radishes are the hidden gems of the too green Spring garden, crunchy crimson jewels waiting to be devoured, usually on the spot. Those that make it inside become a French treat, as an appetiser or a Spring breakfast.

aly moning radish harvest
Early morning radish feast.

Radishes, French Butter and Salt Flakes

  • Harvest a bunch of radishes, trim the roots and wash well in cold water. Arrange on a platter.
  • Serve with softened French butter, cultured butter or the best butter you can get you hands on.
  • Also add a small bowl of fleur de sel, Murray Pink salt flakes, or Maldon salt flakes.
  • Select a handsome radish, cut a cross in the top, squash in a bit of butter, then dip the buttered end into the salt.
  • Devour and repeat.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Feel the earthy, crunchy, salty, sharp, creamy, fresh explosion in your mouth. The success of this simple dish relies on the freshness of the radishes.

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My favourite breakfast

Radishes mature quickly and require fortnightly reseeding. They don’t need much room, just friable, well-drained soil. Kids love growing them too. Cherry Belles are my favourite variety but the longer crimson and white French Breakfast is a stunning, milder cultivar, more suited to stuffing with white butter.

Early moning radish havst

Memories of Marcella Hazan

Marcella Hazan, who passed away on September 29, ¬†was my cooking muse. ¬†I feel that I knew her well. She fulfilled the role of Italian aunt, she was my Zia from Venice and Florida.¬†Her voice was often bossy but sensible. In the late 1980’s, I owned two small cookbooks by Marcella, all text, no glossy pictures, with recipe titles and indexing in Italian before English (unlike her modern editions). Some of my favourite recipes came from these two volumes and they have become part of my extended family‘s repertoire too. ¬†Young chef Daisy can smell Zuppa di bietola e fagioli bianchi as soon as she walks in the door. Marcella not only taught me how to cook down to earth Italian food, but also my first Italian words, soffrito and battuto. No Ciao bella and Va bene for meit was always about the cooking. ¬†From this little beginning, came a degree in Italian, some translating, lots of travelling to Italy, and Italian friends. Marcella completely changed my life. ¬†Although sadly I no longer own the modest dark green and maroon cookbooks, my versions of her recipes live on.

Marcella advised, in a forthright manner, on the importance of using salt, so I dedicate my little Italian salt container to the  memory of Marcella.

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