One of the least used herbs residing in my garden is oregano. For years it has thrived behind the shed, returning each summer more vigorous than ever. On one hand, I don’t feel that bad about neglecting it, seeing as we started the plant from seed years ago and it doesn’t require much in terms of care. A couple of dollars invested on the seed packet have surely paid off by now.
It’s about this time each summer that vibrant purple flowers bloom from the overgrown stems. The herb is still fine to use and the flowers help attract pollinators to the yard. That alone makes the herb worth keeping around, even if it rarely ends up on our plates. We do cut some of the flowers to add to the vase on our kitchen table, but we’re also sure to leave plenty behind, as we need all of the pollinators we can get.
On the other hand, it does feel wasteful letting a perfectly good culinary herb sit unused. It has a way of making you feel like both a bad cook and gardener to let anything edible go to waste. That’s why by the end of the summer I always find myself cutting back the oregano and instead of composting it, I’ll hang it in the shed to dry and later crumble it up into jars. You know, just in case we need half a pound of dried oregano over the winter.
Pungent and earthy, oregano is a prominent flavor of Mediterranean cooking. The name oregano is actually Greek for “joy of the mountain.” Though common in pizza and tomato sauce, it still feels generally underappreciated — hence my lack of use. Just think, when’s the last time you saw fresh oregano on an ingredient list in a recipe?
Yet, like basil, fresh oregano pairs well with summer tomatoes. We picked our first tomatoes of the season last week and despite the other vegetables, herbs, and fruits flourishing in our yard, there’s just something particularly satisfying when you pick the first red tomatoes of the summer. Though what I find even more satisfying is being able to take multiple ingredients from the garden and pair them up to create a cohesive meal.
Using our homegrown oregano, basil, garlic, and tomatoes, plus lemons, feta, and red onion, I shaped a simple dinner inspired by common Greek flavors. I marinated shrimp with the lemons and oregano that take just minutes to cook while skewered on the grill. In the meantime, I put together a flavorful pilaf that is just as good at any temperature. Fresh herbs, salty feta, and those satisfying bits of tomato are tossed with orzo, a rice-like pasta. It makes plenty, which is good because I think it’s even better eaten cold the next day.
As we sat in the sun, eating dinner on our new patio — one of many home projects accomplished during quarantine — we thought about our canceled travel plans to the Greek island of Santorini, with its beautiful blue-domed buildings and rugged cliffs. Perhaps we’ll get there next year. For now, the views of the garden will do just fine.
Grilled Lemon Shrimp with Greek Orzo Pilaf
2 pounds jumbo shrimp
2 lemons, juiced and zested
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 medium red onion
4 ounces feta cheese
8 ounces fresh tomatoes
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
12 ounces orzo pasta
2½ cups vegetable broth
Devein the shrimp. You can remove the tails or leave them on for a nicer presentation for serving. In a large dish, toss the shrimp with the lemon juice and half of the zest, 2 tablespoons olive oil, half of the garlic, the oregano, and a ½ teaspoon kosher salt. Put the dish in the fridge to marinate anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. If planning to use wooden skewers, put several in a dish of water to soak while the shrimp marinates.
Meanwhile, make the orzo pilaf. Chop the onion and set aside. Chop the feta and tomato into small pieces and place together in a bowl with the basil. Heat a large pan over medium-low heat with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When hot, add the other half of the garlic and the red onion. Cook, stirring often, until the onion is soft, about 5 minutes or so. Add in the orzo and stir to coat in the oil and toast in the pan for a couple of minutes. Pour in the broth and adjust the heat so you have a gentle simmer. Stir frequently to prevent the orzo from sticking and add a little water to the pan if it starts to dry out or stick. It should take about 10 minutes until the orzo is tender. When done, remove from the heat and set aside to cool for a few minutes.
When the shrimp is done marinating, thread them onto the skewers. Heat your grill to medium-high heat and cook the skewers about 2-3 minutes per side or until the shrimp is no longer pink.
Gently stir the feta, tomato, and basil into the orzo along with the remaining lemon zest and salt. Serve together with the shrimp and perhaps a side of summer vegetables.