Imagine it's the Middle Ages. You're a pilgrim--one of Chaucer's, say--walking to Canterbury. There are miles of road behind you and miles more to come. You're feet--ooh, your feet--well, they've been whimpering ever since Southwark. The Wife of Bath, that dear, offers you some tarragon. Not for flavoring your food; for slipping into your shoes to ease those aching feet.
Hey, it's the Middle Ages--Dr. Scholl's but a twinkle in his double-deca-great-grandpa's eye. You're on your own when it comes to podiatry, and tarragon does have mild antifungal properties, something any well-traveled foot--modern or medieval--can appreciate.
Today, tarragon is more likely to be found on the table than under it. Its shiny narrow leaves have an aroma similar to licorice with a hint of vanilla. It's much milder than those overpowering black jelly beans, though, so if you haven't used it, don't be afraid to try.
Tarragon tangoed into the American kitchen as a part of various French cookery fashions, but it is widely used all over Europe. You wouldn't recognize it by the names it's called there though--say them out loud and you'll recognize the root of the Italian dragoncello," the French "l-estragon," the German "Estragon" and the Greek "drakonteion." The roots of the plants coil around and back on themselves like a serpent's tail, thus the dragoniferous names. We probably get our word "tarragon" from the Arabic word for the plant--"tarkhun."
Tarragon combines amazingly well with a number of foods despite its assertive flavor. It's a splendid match with garlic, chives and onion, as well as the traditional fines herbs blend of chervil, thyme, parsley and tarragon. Try it with fish and shellfish, pork, beef, lamb and poultry whether they're grilled, sautéed or roasted.
It's good with vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, asparagus, peas and beets, too, not to mention tangy fruit like lemons, oranges, and mangos. Use it in sauces for grains like rice and barley or add it in the last fifteen minutes when cooking soups and stews. You can also stir some leaves into sour cream or yogurt and use the mixture to top vegetables, soups or your next baked potato. Tarragon also makes a flavorful herb butter that perks up the flavor and moistness of grilled meat and fish:
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon leaves
1/2 cup butter, softened
Mix the tarragon leaves and the butter together. If you don't have fresh leaves, soak 1/2 tablespoon of dried leaves in wine or water for half an hour and use those instead. Spread the tarragon butter on the food to be grilled before, during and after grilling.
Now that you know how versatile tarragon is, it's time to stake out a sunny spot in your garden and grow your own. It's easy to do from plants or cuttings and tarragon will come back every year once it's established, growing two to three feet high and topped with small yellow flowers in early fall. Make sure you buy French tarragon, though, (Artemesia dranunculus) and not Russian (Artemesia dranunculoides), because the Russian is virtually flavorless.
Tarragon likes a loamy soil but not damp feet, so plant it in a well-drained bed--I grow it in a raised bed on a hillside where it's thrived for several years among other perennials. If you live in a hot climate, provide your tarragon with a little shade during the hottest part of the day if you can for the best results. In northern zones, mulch it well in the winter to help protect its shallow roots from the cold.
Harvest tarragon anytime you need a few leaves. I cut the whole plant back just before the first frost and dry the leaves for use all winter long. Tarragon also keeps its flavor well when frozen or can be preserved in vinegar.
This recipe takes advantage of an enticing flavor combination: chicken with plenty of tarragon, garlic and orange. It's no dragon to make; just a delight to eat.
Orange Dragon Chicken
4 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts
4 cloves peeled garlic
1 cup loosely packed fresh tarragon leaves or 1/4 cup dried
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt Zest from 2 medium oranges
Chop the garlic and tarragon together finely, then stir in the oil, salt and orange zest to make a coarse paste. Rub about a tablespoon of the paste under the skin and on the underside of each breast and pull the skin back over the meat. Let the flavor soak in for several hours or overnight, then bake covered at 375 degrees for 30 minutes before uncovering and baking another fifteen minutes to brown. You can use the now-flavored pan drippings to make a simple sauce or just spoon them over rice or vegetables.
For a twist on the familiar farmer's salad of cucumber and onion soaked in vinegar, add a little fresh tarragon. Of course, you could use tarragon vinegar to make the salad--it's probably the most famous use for tarragon, and it's easy to make. Combine 2 cups of white wine vinegar and 1/2 cup fresh tarragon. Bring to a boil, steep for two weeks, then strain and enjoy.
For a more spirited tarragon-flavored elixir, try combining one quart of vodka with 1/2 cup of fresh tarragon, five black peppercorns and two teaspoons of sugar. Let it stand for a week before sipping--ice cold, of course.
And before that walking tour of Ante-bellum Atlanta, Pike's Peak, or the Mall of America, slip a few leaves into your sneakers. Who knows? It couldn't hurt.
About the AuthorSyndicated cooking columnist Leigh Abernathy has been an avid gardener for over 10 years and has been writing about eating what she grows for over five. Her articles have served as the inspiration for everything from family activities to half-a-dozen junior high science fair projects and as research for a masters candidate's thesis. When not playing in her gardens or kitchen, she's working on her cookbook or coaching judo at a local college.