Thursday, May 26, 2011

ingredient: OREGANO

I seem to be the only person I know who makes use of those plastic containers of oregano that come gratis at NYC pizza places. My dining companions are with me with the spicy red pepper flakes, and sometimes they're even asking me to hand over the pseudo parmesan. But oregano? Here I'm alone.

Oregano has a particular earthy flavor that is not to everyone's taste. I urge those people to buy a fresh container of dried oregano and keep it in their fridge. Those same old-as-dirt shakers at pizza places are misleading (though clearly not enough to deter me) because the herbs inside are usually so dead and dried out that it's like shaking flavored dust onto your pizza. Good quality dried oregano, particularly of the Greek or Mexican varieties, has a piney, slightly minty flavor that pairs perfectly with spicy food. Another good move is to do as the Turks do and accompany dried oregano with grilled meat. And the old classics are worth repeating: oregano is key in Greek salads and adds panache to creamy stewed white beans.

Not convinced that this herb deserves a place beyond the slice? On a per gram fresh weight basis, oregano has 42 times more antioxidants than apples. It's also a great source of fiber and vitamin C.

Greek Stuffed Eggplants

These kind of look like eggplant boats and I love the idea of sailing away in one. I'm joking but I'm also serious, because I love eggplant so much that I would be happy not sad if I found myself Shanghaied in a boat made out of eggplant. Well, until I ate my vessel and drowned.

More to the point, if you've never stuffed vegetables with other vegetables and eaten them, you're missing out. I do a lot of stuffed tomatoes and stuffed red bell peppers , and they're delicious. What's great about eggplant is that just one big purple beauty will feed about two people (if you have something like grilled sausages or shrimp on the side) or, for vegetable-lovers, one eggplant per person makes an incredibly satisfying meal. In short: it's a delicious, cheap dinner for a group.

I particularly enjoy making eggplant this way because the filling includes some of my favorite herbs and spices (oregano, red pepper flakes, cumin, parsley) and anytime that you finish a dish by adding a layer salty, crumbly feta cheese, well, it's hard to go wrong.

serves 8 as a side or 4 as a main
4 medium eggplants

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling
1 large or two small onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped

3 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon dried oregano, plus more for sprinkling
1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

1 1/2 cups canned chopped tomatoes

1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 cup feta, crumbled


Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Slice each eggplant in half lengthwise. Score with a knife and drizzle with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Bake until center is almost completely cooked, about 30 minutes.

When eggplants have cooled enough to handle, scoop out the flesh and reserve the shells. Roughly chop eggplant meat.

In a large saute pan over medium high heat, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil. Saute onions until turning translucent, about 8 minutes. Add garlic, cumin, hot pepper flakes, 1 tablespoon oregano, and eggplant meat. Cook until eggplant is fully cooked, about 5 minutes. Take off heat. Add tomatoes, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. (As a note, when you see that "salt and pepper to taste" comes in early in a recipe like this it means, "this is your chance to season the hell out of your filling. There won't be another." So grab that shaker and don't be shy).

Stir eggplant mixture to make sure it's fully combined. Place eggplant shells in a large baking dish. Fill each shell with mixture.

Pour just enough water to cover the bottom of the baking dish and cook for 18 minutes. Sprinkle tops of eggplant with feta cheese and continue to bake until starting to melt, 2 minutes.

Serve eggplants with an extra sprinkle of oregano over the top.

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