Switched at Birth

Switched at Birth

Marjoram is my favorite herb. I use others more, but I love it the most for its intoxicating fragrance. Heck, I would almost wear it as a perfume if it didn't leave those green smears on my neck where I rubbed it on.

In fact, the essential oil derived from marjoram, also known as sweet marjoram, is used in perfumes. It almost smells too good to eat, but the flavor is just as wonderful as the scent. It's a versatile herb in the kitchen, lending a subtle grace to the food it's in.

If you've confused marjoram with oregano, you're not alone. Linnaeus, the famous botanical naming guru, practically started the whole confusing mess when he classified them in the same genus of plants. They're now classified separately (marjoram is Origanum Marjorana), but their names are often used interchangeably by mistake.

The flavors are similar but not interchangeable; taste them and you'll understand the difference. Oregano is more assertive, but marjoram has a more delicate flair. If oregano was the burly bouncer, marjoram would be the petite black belt; they both pack a punch, but do it in a different way.

You can use them in the same types of dishes and with the same foods, but marjoram is more versatile. Try marjoram anywhere you'd use oregano--added to pizza sauce it provides subtle zip. It's terrific with eggs or in quiches and it is great with tomatoes, potatoes, fish, chicken and beef.

Add a hefty pinch of the dried to stew, soup or stuffing. Sprinkle some fresh over your next salad or shake it up in a vinaigrette. Marjoram is also terrific in marinades--particularly in those for mushrooms, artichokes and beans. For a heavenly flavor and aroma, knead some into your next loaf of bread.

Marjoram works well with other herbs, too. Try it with basil, bay, garlic, thyme, and even oregano to add depth and a subtle perfume to your foods.

While fresh marjoram is stronger, dried holds the flavor well (unlike many other herbs) and can usually be substituted for fresh in cooking (decrease the amount by 1/3). Rub it between your fingers to release the flavor before you stir it in.

This appetizer is a great way to show off marjoram's heady flavor, which holds its own with the olive oil and feta. Served with the tomatoes as an accent and a loaf of crusty bread to chew on it's good enough for a light lunch.

Mediterranean Salad

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh marjoram
8 ounces Feta cheese, crumbled
1 1/2 cups diced tomatoes

Place the cheese on a plate or small platter and surround it with the tomatoes. Drizzle the olive oil over both of them and sprinkle on the freshly chopped marjoram. A simply flavored cracker is a good accompaniment. The flavors of the oil, the cheese, the tomatoes and the marjoram are perfect complements. Any guests will gobble them up.

Another great use for marjoram's unique flavor is in this vegetable marinade.

Vegetable Marinade

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh marjoram OR 2 teaspoons dried
2 cloves of garlic, crushed and minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
4 cups assorted vegetables (mushrooms, steamed carrots, beans, etc.)

Mix the first five ingredients together, then pour over the vegetables. Let them marinate overnight in the refrigerator and serve at room temperature--precook any firm vegetables like carrots. This is a tangy appetizer or snack anytime.

If you don't already grow it, make a place in your garden for marjoram. It's best grown as an annual because it doesn't survive winters north of zone 9. Plant it from seeds or plants in the spring. In extremely hot regions, it appreciates some afternoon shade--especially the variegated and gold leaf varieties. I grow mine at the front edge of a flower border where I can brush against it to release its fragrance.

Marjoram likes a dryish, well-drained soil--when grown in damp ones you'll notice that the bottom leaves and sometimes the whole plant will seem to melt away. The flavor is stronger when the soil is nutrient-rich.

The plants form an upright shrub from one to two feet tall with small and slightly fuzzy leaves. Marjoram benefits from cutting the plant back by half several times during the season, but you can also cut what you need for an evening's meal. If you plan on drying the leaves, gather them when there are bloom buds on the plant for the strongest flavor.

I usually set out around a dozen plants every spring, but most families can make do with three for regular use and drying. You can also grow marjoram in a sunny window indoors, but I've found the flavor to be not quite as intense when grown this way. In gray days of winter though, when I need my marjoram fix, I'm not too picky.

Not surprisingly, marjoram was a favorite fragrant herb of the smelly, bath-challenged Middle Ages. Housewives and ladies alike strewed it over the floor and carried sachets of it to sweeten the air closest to their noses. The idea still works--sprinkle a handful of the leaves over your carpet before you vacuum and you'll sweeten the air in your house.

Aphrodite is said to have created marjoram as a symbol of happiness, and after breathing in the sense-filling fragrance, I believe it. It makes me smile every time.

It's because of the Aphrodite connection that marjoram wreaths were traditionally worn at Greek weddings for a happy marriage and the seeds sown on graves for a happy afterlife. Lore has it that if you rub yourself with marjoram before going to bed (hey, who'll see the green smears in the dark) your dreams will be of your future mate. Well, at the least, your dreams will be sweet.

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