Tarragon flavors a great range of foods skillfully, even excitingly, and people of many cultures throughout the centuries have been moved to praise it highly.
Tarragon, a vigorous grower in early summer, doesn’t mind a little shade in the afternoon.
Photograph by J. G. Strauch, Jr.
• Mushrooms Stuffed with Tarragon Duxelles
• Feta Cheese and Tarragon Pita Toasts
• Leek Tarragon Frittata
• Mussel-Stuffed Sole in Tarragon Sauce
• Tarragon Chicken with Fennel
• Kohlrabi Remoulade with Tarragon-Yogurt Mayonnaise
• Tarragon Rice Salad
Taste is the primary reason tarragon has kept its place in gardens for roughly 2000 years. Tarragon flavors a great range of foods skillfully, even excitingly, and people of many cultures throughout the centuries have been moved to praise it highly. Louis XIV’s gardener, Jean de La Quintinie (1626–1688), said it was “one of the best furnishers of flavor”. William Wallace Irwin, an American writer who lived in Paris several decades ago, wrote, “After garlic, tarragon is the most precious seasoning known to this sinful but interesting world.”
It is not even far-fetched to argue that taste is the only reason why tarragon is still with us, as it is one of a handful of culinary herbs that have no strong traditions of medicinal use. In the Middle East, where its cultivation predates that in Europe by a thousand years, Arab and Persian physicians once gave their patients tarragon to chew before taking bitter herbal medicines, as large amounts can numb the palate. However, occasional claims in later European herbals that tarragon prevents fatigue or is good for the heart, lungs, and liver have not been substantiated by modern science.
The taste that has kept gardeners and cooks propagating true, or French, tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa) by cutting and division is lively and tingly in small doses, both warm and cool to the palate. Cooking brings out the warming quality to a greater degree; uncooked, tarragon’s cooling, clean, and refreshing aspects predominate. The flavor includes hints of anise, licorice, mint, hay, pine, pepper, and turpentine. This motley assortment of flavors is somehow harmonious in the herb itself.
A great number of vegetables go well with the nuances of tarragon. I like to cook tarragon with leeks and all kinds of onions in braises, sautés, or sauces. Cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi, and Brussels sprouts are congenial with it, either cooked briefly or uncooked. My family enjoys the quick, pleasant taste of a bit of butter browned to hazelnut color, some chopped tarragon, and a splash of tarragon vinegar tossed with steamed cauliflower or Brussels sprouts.
A tarragon vinaigrette made with a tablespoon each of chopped tarragon and chives, 2 or 3 tablespoons each of white wine vinegar or sherry vinegar and flavorful olive oil, and salt and pepper dresses up plain sliced tomatoes. Artichokes and tarragon are one of the great vegetable-herb matches, especially when accompanied by a glass of sauvignon blanc. Steamed artichokes and asparagus, cooked beet, carrot, and potato salads, as well as cabbage slaw all benefit from tarragon vinaigrette or tarragon mayonnaise (see recipe on page 28).
Chopped tarragon also enhances hot vegetable dishes such as roasted potatoes and onions with a little oil and balsamic vinegar or baked potatoes with parsley and chives. Boiled beets sautéed with beet greens, garlic, and tarragon are a favorite quick topping for round pasta noodles or a side dish with roast pork or chicken. I add a couple of sprigs of tarragon while cooking fresh peas or sauté them in a little butter with cooked carrots and some chopped tarragon to bring out the best in that old-fashioned vegetable mixture. Carrots and tarragon stand deliciously on their own, too.
Cooks also find tarragon’s peppery and resinous qualities a welcome addition to rich cheese appetizers, sauces, and soufflés. Brie, Camembert, Boursault, French Muenster, feta, and fresh goat cheeses are all excellent choices. Eggs and tarragon are a classic combination, whether in simple egg salad and stuffed eggs or elegant eggs in aspic. Roasted garlic and tarragon move soufflé from polite luncheon fare to the bold and bright camp. Tarragon flavors risotto wonderfully, too. A favorite spring combination is scallops or shrimp, artichokes, and green garlic.
Fish that take to tarragon particularly well include salmon, cod, and flatfish such as sole and halibut. Some people are fond of it with bluefish and mackerel. Mussels, oysters, shrimp, crab, and lobster also make delectable partners. Although shrimp, to my taste, are less interesting than other seafood, they become much more appealing when touched with tarragon. Use tarragon in sauces, salads, poaching liquids, tucked into the cavity of a whole fish, or in marinades for grilled fish.
Chicken, rabbit, and veal are traditional with tarragon, but roasted or sautéed pork loin and tenderloin are equally tasty. Boneless pork loin pounded to scallops about 1/4 inch thick, sautéed in a little butter, and served with a pan sauce of white wine, tarragon, and capers is matchless for its flavor and ease of preparation. Beef is seldom served with tarragon, but perhaps that is convention. The classic béarnaise sauce with filet mignon is delicious if expensive. A humbler yet savory French kitchen tradition is onion tarragon sauce with fresh or leftover roast beef.
Tarragon also supports other herbs felicitously, especially the traditional fines herbes mixture, which contains equal parts of tarragon, parsley, chervil, and chives. I like it in egg and tuna salad sandwich fillings, over poached fish, and with steamed vegetables. Fines herbes are excellent in tartar sauce, as is tarragon alone. In simmered dishes and roasts, tarragon combines with bay and thyme, the savories, and garlic. In salads, it works well with its fines herbes partners, as well as with cress, dill, and sorrel.
A special virtue of tarragon is that it retains much of its fresh flavor when preserved in vinegar.
The tarragon I’ve been discussing is the fresh herb, but a special virtue of tarragon is that it retains much of its fresh flavor when preserved in vinegar. (For more on herbal vinegars, see the article on page 30.) I put much of my tarragon in vinegar and am grateful for it when my plants, following the climate in my Northern California garden, are sluggish in the heat of late summer or semidormant in winter. I substitute an equal amount of preserved tarragon for the fresh herb. If the ingredients include vinegar, so much the better; if not, I pat the preserved tarragon dry before chopping it. Dried tarragon can be useful when no other form is available, but it loses its complex flavor on drying and thus requires some experimentation to find how much to use. I use about half as much as the fresh herb in cooking. If you add too much, a grassy flavor can dominate.
The French aren’t the only people to have a predilection for tarragon, which they call estragon. The specific name dracunculus is Latin for “little dragon”, because the fleshy roots resemble a tangle of snakes, but the common name, in both English and French, is derived from the Arabic tarkhun. Iranians, who call it tarkhoon, enjoy tarragon with yogurt and cucumbers; in their beloved lavish herb salads with fenugreek tops, chives, and garlic chives; and in the national soufflélike egg dish kookoo. The Georgians of the Caucasus Mountains, who use the similar name tarkhuna, are so fond of the herb they find many ways to consume it, including in meat stews, with grilled trout, in herb salads, and in a brilliant emerald syrup, to which they add carbonated water for a refreshing herbal soda. The Sienese in central Italy braise rabbit and artichokes with garlic and tarragon and make tarragon the important flavor in a green sauce to serve with boiled meat or fish.
Remember, when offered attractive tarragon plants in nurseries or catalogs, that there is only one tarragon suitable for culinary use—A. d. var. sativa—and it does not come from seed. Although the species A. dracunculus, commonly called Russian tarragon, looks much like true tarragon and even smells a bit like it when uncooked, it lacks its complex flavor. To be sure of getting true tarragon, don’t buy tarragon seed; purchase only plants whose leaves have a pronounced anise-licorice fragrance when crushed.
Tarragon tends to be rather short-lived in my garden with its long, rather hot, dry summers and cool, rainy winters but produces well in spite of no winter dormancy and my water-miserliness, born of years of California drought and my southwestern heritage. I do pay attention to some details that I could let slide in climates with wet summers or cold winters. I site plants where they—particularly their roots—get some protection from the summer sun. I also divide plants every third year in the spring to keep them producing.
Since I garden on clay that potters would kill for, all my soil is heavily amended with compost. I water my tarragon during the summer and fertilize it lightly in midsummer with worm compost or fish emulsion or other liquid fertilizer.
In the South, where gardeners have trouble keeping French tarragon alive and healthy, Mexican tarragon, or Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida), is a boon. It tastes like French tarragon, thrives in humid or dry heat, and forms ornamental upright, bushy plants with small marigoldlike flowers in fall. The leaves when stripped from their stems resemble those of French tarragon, but their perfume is more pronounced and can be released simply by brushing or rubbing rather than crushing. In my garden, T. lucida has grown in full sun to about 3 feet tall and is perennial. I fertilize it lightly in the spring and give it a good drink once a week during the hottest two months of the summer.
I find the flavor of Mexican tarragon to be less complex and interesting than that of French tarragon. It fades during cooking rather than intensifying as true tarragon does. It always has a hint of grassiness, but this is not noticeable in most dishes. I use the same quantity of it as French tarragon. I’ve never tried drying it but can report that it makes a musty- and grassy-flavored vinegar without the crispness of vinegar made with French tarragon.
The amounts of tarragon called for in the following recipes are based on the flavor of spring-harvested French tarragon. You may want to use more or less according to the kind of tarragon you have and the season.
Carolyn Dille is replanting much of her herb garden for the sheer dirt-under-the-fingernails pleasure of it. Culinary and medicinal herbs have been her special interest for many years. Her latest books are The Onion Book, with Susan Belsinger (Interweave Press, 1996), and Seasons of the Vineyard, with Robert and Margrit Mondavi (Simon and Schuster, 1996).
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