A Taste for Tarragon

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.

| June/July 1997

  • Tarragon, a vigorous grower in early summer, doesn’t mind a little shade in the afternoon.
    Photograph by J. G. Strauch, Jr.
  • Simple and satisfying Tarragon Rice Salad is the start of a perfect summer meal.
    Photograph by Joe Coca
  • These tempting stuffed mushrooms and feta pita toasts showcase the classy flavor of tarragon.
    Photograph by Joe Coca

  • Photograph by Joe Coca

Tarragon Recipes:

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.

Well-Flavored Vegetables

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.



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