Sunday, June 16, 2024

A tale of 2 oreganos: citrus highlights distinguish the Mexican variety from its Mediterranean cousin

I’m Italian by heritage; my go-to comfort foods are a simple Margherita pizza or al dente pasta with classic marinara sauce. You could say oregano is an important part of my cooking.

But in the more than 10 years I’ve lived in Mexico, oregano hasn’t been delivering the same peppery, minty punch I’m used to. I thought it was all in my head. Come to find out I wasn’t imagining it at all: Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens) and Mediterranean or Italian oregano (Origanum vulgare) are completely different plants, with distinctively different flavor profiles.

Mexican oregano has citrusy undertones and an earthy flavor. If you open a bag of dried Mexican oregano and take a deep whiff with your eyes closed, you can smell the bright lemony highlights. Which makes sense: it’s in the same family as lemon verbena. (Who knew?) Its flavor is the perfect complement to bean dishes, traditional stews like pozole and a host of meat-based recipes. Those citrus notes also balance the heat of chiles in salsas and marinades.

Italian oregano, on the other hand, is from the mint family. Its flavor is sweeter and has a zesty bite that pairs perfectly with Italian and Mediterranean cuisine.

Of course, you can substitute one for the other, but there will be slight flavor differences, which some of us (ahem) will notice. Here in Mexico, the oregano you buy will be Mexican oregano unless labeled otherwise. I’ve put Italian oregano on my list to bring back from my next trip to the States.

Tacos are a delicious option for serving homemade chorizo.
Tacos are a delicious option for serving homemade chorizo.

Homemade Chorizo

  • 1½ lbs. ground pork
  • 2½ tsp. salt
  • 1 Tbsp. ancho chili powder
  • 3 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
  • 1 tsp. dried Mexican oregano
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ tsp. ground cloves
  • ¼ tsp. ground coriander seed
  • Pinch ground cinnamon
  • 3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar or white vinegar
  • Optional: ¼ tsp. ground achiote (adds red color)

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix well until slightly tacky. Let rest for at least 4 hours or up to overnight. Cook as desired. Store in sealed container in the refrigerator up to 5 days.

Oaxacan Chicken with Garlic and Oregano

  • 30 garlic cloves
  • 1 cup fresh oregano leaves
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup fresh lime juice
  • 1½ tsp. salt
  • Black pepper to taste
  • One 3-lb. chicken, cut into 10 pieces
  • 1½ cups chicken broth

Preheat oven to 450 F. Using a food processor or molcajete, process or mash garlic, oregano, olive oil, lime juice, salt and pepper until coarse and well-mixed but not completely puréed. Rub mixture all over chicken; place skin side down on baking sheet. Bake 15 minutes. Remove from oven; reduce temperature to 375 F. Pour chicken broth onto baking sheet, flip chicken pieces. Bake 45 minutes more or until chicken is cooked through.

Bright lemon, pepper and Mexican oregano beautifully complement the flavor of fresh shrimp.
Bright lemon, pepper and Mexican oregano beautifully complement the flavor of fresh shrimp.

Sheet-pan Shrimp with Tomatoes, Feta and Oregano

  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh oregano
  • 1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • Black pepper
  • 1½ lbs. peeled shrimp
  • For serving: chopped tomatoes, crumbled feta

Preheat broiler. Position rack close to the heat. Mash garlic with salt until it forms a paste. Add oregano, lemon juice, olive oil and lots of pepper. Rub paste all over shrimp. Spread shrimp out on cookie sheet; broil 2–3 minutes per side. Top with chopped tomatoes and crumbled feta and serve. —

Chicken Pozole Verde

  • 2 lbs. boneless chicken thighs, skin removed
  • 1 lb. tomatillos, husked and washed
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 jalapeño peppers, seeded, minced
  • 6 cups chicken broth
  • 1 Tbsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tsp. coarse sea salt
  • 1 large handful fresh cilantro
  • 1 (28-ounce) can white hominy, drained and rinsed
  • For serving: limes, radishes, jalapeños, cilantro, oregano

In a large pot, place chicken, tomatillos, onion, jalapeños, broth, oregano and salt. Cook on high heat; bring to a boil. Reduce to simmer; cover partially. Cook 40 minutes until chicken is fall-apart tender. Remove chicken and shred with a fork. Set aside.

Using a slotted spoon, place cooked tomatillos, onions and jalapeños in blender or food processor. Add cilantro, about a cup of cooking liquid and purée until smooth. In a large pot, place shredded chicken, puréed veggies and hominy. Cook, stirring, over medium-high heat for 15 minutes. Adjust salt as necessary. Serve with fresh lime juice, radishes, jalapenos, cilantro and oregano.

To make in the slow cooker: Place all ingredients except cilantro and hominy in crockpot. Cover and cook for 4 hours on high or 6 hours on low. Remove chicken and shred with a fork. Using a slotted spoon, remove cooked veggies from broth, transfer to blender or food processor. Add cilantro. Process until smooth. Add chicken, blended veggies and hominy to slow cooker. Stir, cover and cook 30 more minutes.

Mexican Garlic Soup with Oregano and Lime

  • 4 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 15 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 8 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1½ tsp. salt
  • Pepper to taste
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 Tbsp. fresh oregano, finely chopped
  • Juice from 1–2 limes
  • For serving: ½ baguette, cut into cubes or rounds, lime wedges

Preheat oven to 325 F. In large pot, heat oil over low heat. Add garlic. Cook until garlic is soft but not colored. Remove from heat. In a bowl, toss bread with half the garlic-infused oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Put cubes on a baking sheet in the oven for 10 minutes until lightly toasted and crisp.

Pour stock into pot with remaining oil and garlic. Simmer on medium heat. Add 1 tsp. salt and chopped oregano. Gradually add eggs, stirring constantly. Simmer and stir until eggs set, roughly 3–5 minutes. Remove from heat; add juice of 1–2 limes. Serve topped with garlic toasted bread cubes and lime wedges.

Grilled Tomatoes with Oregano

  • 4 large ripe red tomatoes
  • 4 cloves garlic, each cut into 4 slivers
  • 2 Tbsp.  chopped fresh oregano OR 1 Tbsp.  dried
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat broiler to high. Core tomatoes; slice in half. Place tomatoes, cut-side up, in a baking dish. Insert 2 slivers of garlic in each half; sprinkle with chopped oregano, olive oil, salt and pepper. Broil about 5 minutes and serve.

Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expatsfeatured on CNBC and MarketWatch. She has lived in Mexico since 2006. You can find her on Instagram at @thejanetblaser.

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