Oregano, Marjoram, Zaatar, Whatever

November 13th, 2007

I made absolutely wonderful pizza over the weekend. A large part of the credit goes to Mark Bittman for writing about fried pizza in last week’s NY Times, but some of the credit goes to the herb garden.

I gave up on fresh oregano long ago. Somebody sold me a plant that was called True Italian Oregano, or some such thing. I grew it. I tasted it. I didn’t like it. But the darn thing grew and grew and I still have it. It’s an unkillable ground cover if nothing else.

Last winter I ordered 2 varieties of “Marjoram” seed sold by Nichols Garden Nursery. I’ve been cooking with dried marjoram for a long time and thought I’d see what it was like fresh.

Sweet majoram, in August

One of the varieties was Sweet Marjoram (Origanum majorana, according to them), which I’ve come to know over this season as a beautiful little plant – both in fragrance and appearance. It had tiny, slightly fuzzy, soft green leaves with a delicious aroma, almost like perfume. It never got big enough this year where I felt like I could cut much off to use, however. It may or may not be perennial in Central Virginia, but I’m hoping it is. If I thought it wasn’t, I sure would have cut more of it during the summer. Regardless, I’ll be planting more seeds this winter so I’ll have all I want next year.

‘Zaatar’ flowering amidst the pepper plants

The other marjoram was called Marjoram ‘Zaatar’ (Marjoram hortensis/syriaca, according to them). I like Middle Eastern food, and I’m familiar with the herb/spice mix known as Zaatar, so I was curious what this marjoram was. After it germinated and grew a bit, I thought “Hmmm, this looks a lot like the True Italian Oregano plant I already have”. But I planted it out anyway and watched it grow all summer, not sure what to do with it.

Now I know what to do with it. Saturday I planned to make the fried pizza previously mentioned. The picture accompanying the article showed a pizza topped with fresh basil. There are still plenty of herbs in the garden, but the basil froze a couple of weeks ago. So I snipped a few leaves of parsley and Chinese chives and several sprigs of ‘Zaatar’ marjoram. All these were chopped finely and sprinkled on top of the pizza. It turned out very well and I thought that the ‘Zaatar’ marjoram tasted more like grocery store oregano than anything I’d grown before. In fact, when I got up the next morning, I kept thinking “I smell pizza”. I finally tracked down the fragrance to the cutting board on the counter – which had been washed I might add.

I’m not the only one who’s confused by the oreganos/marjorams. Looking around the internet, I found several sources trying to untangle them all (1,2,3,4). I’d like to try more of them next year, but which to choose? That last source gives the best advice, I think. She says:

With so many varieties of oregano, I enjoy having many different types in my garden at once so I can choose just the right flavor for a dish: a course and tangy Greek oregano for moussaka; an aromatic Italian oregano for my pizza dough; or a perfumey sweet marjoram for my summer salad dressing. I advise you to do the same and let your nose and taste buds be your guide, (rather than the confusing labels!) when you choose oregano for your garden.

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