Welcome to Spice World, in which Gut Check looks at overlooked spices from around the globe, introducing those you probably don't own -- and probably should.
History: What do you get when you strip oregano from its wild roots? Marjoram: It's oregano's earthy, demure next of kin, complete with a name fit for a dowdy old woman. If current baby-name trends hold, scores of Marjorams might someday soon take their places on kindergarten carpet squares next to dozens of Henrys and Olivias.
Oregano is, in fact, considered "wild" marjoram. But while they share the genus Origanum, they are classified as separate species. Of the two, marjoram is far more subtle and delicate tasting, particularly in its dried state. (Other close relatives include basil, sage and mint.) Over the years the herb and its byproducts have been credited with everything from bringing good luck to couples to curbing flatulence -- two phenomena, perhaps, that are not entirely unrelated.
Today: Egypt is the main supplier of most of the United States' imported marjoram, though it is also harvested in some European countries. It's commonly used throughout Europe, notably in French cuisine. Yet like Napoleonic hats and mineral water, marjoram has never caught on in a big way over here, though it is occasionally called for in recipes for soups, stuffings and dressings.
In Use: If you don't have marjoram on hand, you could, in theory, reach for the oregano or basil. But from there it's a short, slippery slope to subbing in parsley for cilantro and Cool Ranch Doritos for breadcrumbs.
That said, if you are going to slap down some cash for this understated herb, you're better off seeking out fresh marjoram leaves and adding them to the dish during its last moments on the cooktop. In the case of the marjoram-grilled chicken breasts with dill-chive sauce (pictured above; click for recipe), dried marjoram -- even a few tablespoons of it -- was easily overwhelmed by a couple of taps of dill and straws of garden-fresh chives.
We found marjoram at Schnucks for $5.49.
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