I used to go to a little seafood restaurant in Virginia that made fish that tasted unlike any I had ever had before.
It was cooked over a wood fire, but there was more to it than that. So I asked a waiter how they prepared it to make its taste so unique. He said it was easy: They use nothing more than olive oil, lemon juice and oregano.
Ah, oregano. The herb that is in so many spice cabinets, but no one knows what to do with it.
Some people put it in their tomato sauce for pasta, but I generally do not because I think the earthy quality of the oregano interferes with the bright tomato taste I am usually seeking. It is a vital ingredient in a lot of Greek food – think of Greek lamb or the ubiquitous marinated Greek chicken. And although it does not have a whole lot of friends, it does play very well with eggplant.
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So to find ways to get the best out of oregano, I looked toward eggplant, tomatoes and Greek food.
And fish, of course. I had to use it with fish.
Unfortunately, I do not have access to a wood-burning fire, and probably neither do you. So I decided to cook a fish in another one of my favorite methods, en papillote.
“En papillote” is French for “in parchment,” and it means the fish is cooked inside a pouch made out of parchment paper or aluminum foil. It makes for a lovely presentation, too, because steam makes the pouch puff up like a pillow as it cooks. When the pouch is placed in front of you, you tear it open and are rewarded with a cloud of all the aromas blended together.
I chose to use tilapia, largely because it and catfish were all the store offered for sale, but any firm-fleshed white fish would do. Olive oil, salt, pepper and a splash of white wine were all added in turn, and then I laid a sprig of oregano on top of that. A couple of thin slices of lemon and a small pat of butter topped it all off.
All that was left was the crimping and the baking. I folded the parchment paper over in half and carefully crimped the edges so it could cook without losing steam.
When finished, the dish was even better than I’d hoped. The fish was tender and remarkably sweet (thank you, tilapia) with only the rustic taste of the oregano as a counterpoint.
I next looked to Greece and was rewarded with a dish called fried potatoes with tomatoes and oregano. Admittedly, it is not the most inspiring name, but the dish is spectacular. Besides, according to the cookbook “Mediterranean Harvest,” some people refer to it as pizza potatoes. That’s a much more satisfying name.
The dish begins with shallow-fried potatoes, as opposed to deep-fried, that are seasoned with salt, pepper and oregano. Frankly, the potatoes are great by themselves – and totally addictive. Try not to eat them all before the tomato sauce is ready because the sauce makes the whole thing exponentially better.
This sauce is particularly easy: chopped tomatoes (canned is fine), garlic, a little bit of the leftover oil from the potatoes and oregano. You can add some crumbled feta on top if you want, but I didn’t even bother to because I was so in love with the way everything tasted without it. These are flavors that are meant to go together.
For my last dish, I went with eggplant and tomatoes. And because tomatoes go well with zucchini, and zucchini also goes well with oregano, I added a couple of them, too.
Eggplant, tomatoes and zucchini all pretty much require garlic and olive oil, so those went in as well, along with some equally necessary onion. To make it more substantial – an entree instead of a side dish – I put it all on top of pasta.
I tasted it, and it was excellent. Sublime. But also kind of familiar.
Eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, oregano, onion, garlic, olive oil: I suddenly realized that I didn’t create anything new, I just made ratatouille and stuck it on noodles.
Fried potatoes with tomatoes and oregano
Serves 4 to 6
Recipe from “Mediterranean Harvest” by Martha Rose Shulman
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 medium potatoes, preferably Yukon golds, scrubbed, peeled if desired and cut into thin wedges
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano, divided
2 garlic cloves, minced
One 14-ounce can chopped tomatoes with juice
1/4 cup crumbled feta, optional
Heat the olive oil in a wide nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until hot and add half the potatoes. Cook, turning, until nicely browned and cooked through, about 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a serving dish or platter, leaving the oil in the pan. Immediately season the cooked potatoes with salt, pepper and 1/2 teaspoon of the oregano. Cook the remaining potatoes, season them and transfer to the serving dish.
Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the oil and add the garlic to the skillet. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, season with salt pepper and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon oregano, and cook until the tomatoes thicken and smell fragrant, 5 to 10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings. Either pour the tomato sauce directly over the potatoes or make a space in the middle of the serving dish and fill with the tomato sauce (for dipping). Sprinkle with feta if desired, and serve.
Per serving (based on 6): 156 calories; 4 g fat (1g sat.); no cholesterol; 4 g protein; 28 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 159 mg sodium; 33 mg calcium
Recipe by Daniel Neman.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 eggplant, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
Freshly ground black pepper
2 medium zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch slices, then quartered
One 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
Cooked rigatoni, penne or ziti pasta
In a large skillet or pot, heat oil over medium-high and add onions. Sauté until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant up to 1 minute. Stir in eggplant and season with half the salt; add pepper to taste. Cover; cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add zucchini and the remaining salt. Cover; cook until eggplant and zucchini are tender, about 7 minutes. Pour tomatoes and their juice into a large bowl and squeeze or crush. Stir tomatoes and oregano into pot. Simmer uncovered for 10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve over cooked rigatoni, penne or ziti.
Per serving (not including pasta): 90 calories; 4 g fat (no sat.); no chol.; 2 g protein; 12 g carb.; 6 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 342 mg sodium; 38 mg calcium.
White fish limani en papillote
Recipe by Daniel Neman.
Four 4-ounce portions firm-fleshed white fish, such as tilapia or mahi mahi
4 teaspoons olive oil
4 tablespoons dry white wine
1 shallot, sliced thin
Four 4-inch sprigs of fresh oregano or 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 lemon, thinly sliced
4 teaspoons (1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon) butter
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Fold 4 large pieces of parchment paper or aluminum foil in half crosswise; then unfold them.
Place a piece of fish just to one side of the fold on each piece of parchment or foil. Pour 1 teaspoon of oil over each, season with salt and pepper and add 1 tablespoon wine to each one. Divide the sliced shallot over each piece, add a sprig of oregano (or 1/8 teaspoon dried) to each and cover with 2 slices of lemon. Top with 1 teaspoon butter.
Fold the parchment or foil back over the fish. Beginning with one corner on the fold, tightly crimp the edges together by folding them in little triangles. Leave room around the fish so the pouch has room to puff out. Make sure the seal is tight so that steam does not escape.
Place the pouches on baking sheets and cook for 12 minutes. Serve while hot and the pouch is still puffed. Allow each diner to tear into his own pouch; that is part of the fun.
Per serving: 245 calories; 12 g fat (4 g sat.); 75 mg cholesterol; 30 g protein; 4 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 66 mg sodium; 27 mg calcium.