Sweet marjoram has a delicate flavor redolent of lavender and sage with faint piney undertones. Though it can be mistaken for its cousin oregano, this all but forgotten herb is far more versatile in the kitchen.
As of this morning a single thuggish marjoram plant has overrun one quadrant of our herb garden. It survived the mild winter, along with the French tarragon and lemon verbena, but is now trying to smother every herb in its path with vast sprawling branches and abundant leaves.
So I’m looking for ways to use it up. A lot of it. And fast.
But who even uses marjoram anymore? Hasn't it been all but forgotten?
At first I thought we had oregano on steroids, a permissible mistake since marjoram and oregano belong to the same species. The white-flowered marjoram used in cooking is known as Origanum majorana but there are several other varieties too, including a wild purple-flowered type known as Origanum vulgare.
But once I tasted its velvety soft leaf, I knew this garden thug was nothing like its loud-mouthed cousin. Sweet marjoram has a light but spicy flavor—some say minty, though, like spice merchant Tony Hill, I taste lavender and sage when I nibble its delicate foliage. There’s also a hint of pine or camphor.
Fresh oregano, on the other hand, is strong and pungent. Even the mannerly Italian variety makes my tongue burn whenever I chew a leaf. Both herbs are native to the Mediterranean and both are part of the much larger Lamiaceae family which includes many other culinary herbs such as mint, rosemary, thyme and basil.
The single marjoram plant in our herb garden not only survived the winter, but is now so abundant that it threatens to smother the lemon verbena and other nearby herbs.
Centuries ago marjoram was known as the “cheerful” herb. The name of its botanical species, Origanum, comes from the Greek words oros and ganum, which together mean “joy of the mountain,” a name which conjures up fragrant hillsides covered in blooming herbs.
In A Brief History of Thyme and Other Herbs, the British writer Miranda Seymour says that “….the ancient Greeks warmed to marjoram as the British do to gorse and heather…” It was used in cooking, but also woven into wedding wreathes and laid in a daughter’s bridal chest to perfume linens. In days when rushes covered earthen floors, marjoram branches were used underfoot to keep home sweetly fragrant.
Marjoram was also part of the herbal medicine chest. According to Seymour, Aristotle observed that tortoises nibbled at the plant after killing snakes, presumably to neutralize their venom. The ancient Greeks, she says, used it to cure narcotic poisoning as well as rheumatism and depression. In later years it was made into a tea with honey to soothe sore throats.
The herb even found its way into the works of Shakespeare and Dryden. In All’s Well That Ends Well, for instance, the playwright refers to one character as “the marjoram in a salad.” A saucy leaf, perhaps, in a bowl of duller greens.
Which bring us to marjoram in the kitchen. Although many recipes call for dried marjoram in combination with other herbs, few seem to take full advantage of its happy flavors, especially when fresh.
The Flavor Bible, my go-to book when I’m trying to figure out how to use an ingredient, cites marjoram’s special affinity for salads, especially green salads, but also for fresh goat cheese and mozzarella, chicken, eggs and egg dishes, fish, grilled meats, mushrooms, pasta, soups, spinach, summer squash and tomatoes, as well as other herbs such as basil, parsley, rosemary, thyme and yes, oregano.
In The Herbfarm Cookbook and The Herbal Kitchen, Jerry Traunfeld offers many marjoram-scented recipes, including Herb Garden Lasagna (with basil and parsley), Smoky Tomato-Bean Soup (with bacon and smoked paprika) and Grilled Corn (mixed with butter). In fact Traunfeld's garden plan recommends 6 marjoram plants, which gives you the idea that he uses it rather often.
To dip your toe in marjoram-scented waters, you might start with the French blend known as fines herbes. Sweet marjoram is delicate enough to be mixed with the usual tarragon, chervil, parsley and chives and you might use it to flavor vinaigrettes and softly scrambled eggs. In Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, Elizabeth David suggests making a bouquet garni composed of dried basil, thyme, marjoram, savory, bay leaf and peppercorns. Make a cheesecloth bundle of the seasonings and use it to flavor soups and stews.
But it doesn’t have to be that complicated. A simple marjoram vinaigrette, made with shallots and white wine vinegar, would give an unexpected and very appealing flavor to a salad made with freshly dug potatoes. A similar vinaigrette might be delicious over roasted vegetables such as carrots, onions and tomatoes.
Tonight I’m grilling chicken thighs marinated in lemon, garlic, olive oil and chopped marjoram over woody branches of the herb strewn over the coals. And there will be summer tomato sandwiches on bread spread with butter or goat cheese, strewn with a few leaves of marjoram. Whole fish stuffed with marjoram and grilled over hot coals. Summer squash tossed with basil, marjoram and corn, and certainly that potato salad seasoned with marjoram and shallot vinaigrette…
In short, this forgotten herb can be used all summer long in a more ways than a cook can count.
I feel a marjoram weekend coming on…let’s see where it goes!
Do you use marjoram? I’d love to hear your ideas.