As outdoor herb gardens perk up with spring, resist the temptation to rush out to harvest the new leaves. Let your garden grow. Instead, take a moment to revisit cooking with dried herbs.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, fresh isn’t always better.
As proof, witness the heaping pile of salami, provolone, lettuce, radicchio, onion, pepperoncini and garbanzo beans known as Nancy’s Chopped Salad at Pizzeria Mozza.
This dish is so rich that it requires spoonfuls of dried oregano to make its flavors sit up straight. It’s a pungent mix and maybe not for everyone. Those who won’t like it really won’t like it and they’ll keep disliking it for the day or two it takes for their tongues to regain full sensation.
But those who do like it will feel as if they’ve wandered into a dream deli in an herb garden, and if they try it at home, they will truly come to appreciate the mojo of dried oregano.
Unlike some of the more tender-leafed herbs (basil, tarragon and chives, for example), herbs with tougher leaves (sage, oregano and thyme) dry well. As the leaf dehydrates, the proportion of its powerful essential oils become more concentrated.
So when you start cooking with dried oregano and its ilk, the trick is to use them in dishes that need the fresh herb’s flowery, hot and searing qualities turned up loud. Nancy Silverton’s chopped salad is a perfect example.
The first lesson learned in no less than five attempts to reproduce it at home is that oregano isn’t necessarily oregano. Bottle to bottle, the flavor changes.
It turns out that what we often buy in supermarkets isn’t just one sort of oregano, but a blend harvested in its native ranges in the Mediterranean, then sometimes even augmented with a South American sage. Over the years, scientists poking around the contents of bottled oregano have found so many plant genera (16) and species (40) that it led Rutgers University biologist James E. Simon to quip that oregano was more “a flavor and aroma rather than an individual plant.”
This flavor and aroma, roughly summed up, are flowery enough to add fresh notes to a cheesy pizza, with heat not unlike a chile and a good astringent fillip.
Two granddaddy oreganos out of the Mediterranean, Origanum vulgare and Origanum onites, are responsible for what we consider that flavor. Bottles labeled Mediterranean oregano, Turkish oregano or Italian oregano will probably contain either or both these or sub-species or hybrids of them. Blends incorporating a similar-tasting South American sage, Lippia graveolens, commonly called Mexican oregano, might simply be called oregano.
The first thing to look for is freshness. Without it, there is no flavor. Exposure to heat and light, and sheer age, can reduce the best herbs to sawdust. The spice company McCormick advises consumers to start the freshness check with color. If it’s faded, pass. Then, once you get it home, rub or crush it in your hand. If the aroma is weak, return it.
Freshness trumps varietal specificity, and shopping around may reveal a few surprises about where dried herbs sell briskly and where they spend too much time on the shelves. In my experience, a plain supermarket-brand oregano purchased from a big-box grocery store was fresher than a bulk jar of Turkish oregano bought from a pricey foodie market.
However, Turkish oregano from the Torrance branch of the herb and spice emporium Penzeys stood head and shoulders above both. The company grinds and bottles its herbs only as needed, so the shelf life belongs to the customer, not the store.
Silverton’s dish worked with milder oregano from McCormick (indeed, two friends of mine preferred it that way), but Silverton insists on Penzeys. However, when I tried it with Penzeys’ freshly ground good stuff, it still wasn’t Nancy’s Chopped Salad.
It turns out that the restaurant dish also has a final garnishing of a second sort of oregano, no less than an organic Sicilian from the family firm Gangi Dante. This oregano comes on a whole branch, and the slogan on the packet reads, “Il profumo dell’origano di Sicilia rimane integro sino allo sbriciolamento.” (Translation: The aroma persists till it’s crumbling.)
True in both languages. The beauty of this deluxe Sicilian stuff, which is 100% Origanum vulgare, is that it keeps so much aroma while the astringency is more restrained.
If you buy a branch, Silverton suggests using it only for the dressing and garnish. (This is utterly delicious.) But wallet, be warned: Gangi Dante oregano is also extremely expensive, $13 a branch at the La Brea Bakery deli. And you have only begun shopping.
Because of the heat and astringency of even the Gangi Dante oregano, you need to stack other equally huge flavors against it. So, the fate of Nancy’s Chopped Salad at home depends just as strongly on the choice of red wine vinegar, salami and cheese. The vinegar will cost the same as a decent wine. Banyuls is one of the better commercial versions; O Cabernet vinegar is also good.
The salami should be hard, not the softer deli-meat varieties, and you’ll need a whole link. Trader Joe’s has a good one from Columbus, a long-established Bay Area Italian sausage maker, and specialty stores carry the delicious artisan article Fra’Mani.
For provolone, don’t buy smoked unless your garbage disposal is hungry. Aged is best. The Cheese Store of Silverlake has a delicious one.
For olive oil, use a good, moderately strong Italian one, or, better yet, a robust Greek one.
The long haul
In a week’s worth of trying to replicate Mozza’s chopped salad at home, I drove enough to empty the gas tank in a Prius.
But one fiery, fearsomely expensive week on the flavor trail was worth it for the simple reason that it prompted a reassessment of my spice drawer (and it should be a drawer, or cupboard, or somewhere cool, dry and dark; please do not store dried herbs on a rack above the stove, in a window or in any kind of direct sunlight).
Bottles that failed freshness tests were tossed and replaced. The arrival of new stock inspired a ritual that now signals the start of my cooking a meal. Out comes the chopping board, at least a clove of garlic, kosher salt and the pepper grinder.
The garlic is roughly diced with a knife, then salt and pepper are added to the pile. At this stage, it’s a question of What’s for Dinner? If it’s a salad, dried basil, oregano and thyme go onto the pile to be chopped into a rough paste, then added to a bowl, followed by lemon juice, then oil.
If there are pork chops in the fridge, then the herbs joining the garlic, salt and pepper on the chopping board will be a home-customized “Italian” blend, with dried chile flakes, pinches of marjoram, oregano, thyme and maybe a sage leaf. Once it’s chopped, hey presto: an herb rub.
No meals since the chopped salad quest have cost a fraction of that crazy venture. But most have started with the kitchen filling with the aromas of oregano, thyme and sage arising from a pan of sizzling onions.
The good life, bottled.