I am a huge fan of oregano, but I find it extremely under used here, especially in its fresh form. Oregano's flavor and potency can vary a great deal based on the plant and the climate- anywhere from astringently spicy to a milder, nutty, sweet spice. In general, especially if you grow your own, it will have a round, earthy, yet vibrant spiciness, but most importantly draws out flavors of your food.
Oregano is both a culinary, as well as, medicinal herb that actually belongs to the mint family. However, it is commonly confused with marjoram (I gotta admit I don't understand why, but...). While oregano also goes by the name of wild marjoram, it is very different from the sweet marjoram that we associate with the name. Oregano is used fresh, dried (often even more potent that fresh), and medicinally as an oil.
Its anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-bacterial properties were discovered as early as the time of Hippocrates, who used and recommended oregano oil medicinally for many things including providing relief for headaches, inflammation, toothaches, digestive tract issues, urinary tract issues, skin conditions such as acne and dandruff, and to cure the common cold. While it is still used by many seeking natural and herbal treatments for ailments (I include myself in that category), many of these claims have not be scientifically substantiated yet. Yet...
Oregano contains fiber, iron, manganese, Vitamin E, Vitamin B6, folate, calcium, and omega fatty acids. Additionally, it is rich in Vitamin K, which is an important vitamin that promotes bone growth, maintenance of bone density and production of blood clotting properties. According to the Journal of Nutrition, oregano has a very high concentrations of anti-oxidants that help protect your cells against the effects of free radicals and improve your body's ability to fight infection. Additionally, oregano is often used in Europe as a detox, to help get rid of phlegm in lungs, to eliminate diarrhea and to regulate menstrual cycles.
Also, oregano and oregano oil is a powerful anti-microbial because it contains the essential compound called carvacol, which among other things, researchers in the UK are testing to naturally kill the MRSA virus (to great effect).
So with all those health benefits, why not use more oregano in your cooking :) Oregano is actually relatively easy to grow, and is readily available in dry form. It is native to temperate climates of Europe and the Mediterranean, as well as in North and South America, and is a perennial herb in the temperate areas- however annual in cooler climates. Oregano is easily identified by its beautiful purple flowers and olive-green spade-shaped leaves. While beautiful and fragrant, oregano flowers are not edible- super bitter! Oregano grows very well in your home garden or potted on a warm windowsill indoors, and has a tendency to deter bugs. Grow oregano from seed, and sow outdoors in early spring after the last frost.
When choosing seeds, or purchasing packaged fresh oregano at the supermarket, Turkish and Greek oregano tends to have the deepest, most complex flavor and is often used in this cuisine.
Greek cuisine often pairs oregano with tomatoes, as well as, lemon and olive oil such as in Greek salads (one of my favorites!), in lemon flavored sauces, as well as to flavor fish and meat. You will often see fresh oregano torn over food similar to how Italians use basil, as it is a flavor enhancer and fantastic aromatic. Turkish cuisine uses oregano similarly and is often rubbed into lamb, mutton, on kebabs and in sauces.
In South America, especially Argentina where oregano grows wildly, oregano is used for everything culinarily (especially as a rub on beef) including in drinks (oregano scented sparkling water!), medicinally, and topically in face creams, body lotions, toothpastes, etc. as it is widely seen as a cure-all herb.
Whether your love affair with oregano is sparked due to its subtle, delicious flavor, its amazing health benefits, or unusual properties (Penn State researchers are studying oregano as a flachelent and methane reducer in cows), it may be time to give it another taste. Don't let oregano be relegated to just a pizza spice anymore :)