Tasteful tarragon is one herb that no garden or kitchen should be without. The word tarragon could be derived from the Arabic, tarkhun, or from the French esdragon, meaning “little dragon”, a reference to the herb’s serpentine root structure. In herbal lore any plant with a snakelike root system is reputed to counter snakebite. The wisdom of putting this alleged remedy to the test is to be doubted. In fact, tarragon has minimal medicinal application, although in the past it has been recommended as a diuretic, to promote the menses, and for insomnia, fatigue, toothache, rheumatism, flatulence and colic.
The botanical name, Artemisia, is derived from Artemis (Diana to the Romans), the Greek goddess of the forest and the hunt, daughter of Zeus and twin sister of Apollo. Artemis was an early feminist, not taking any nonsense from men. When Actaeon spied upon her bathing naked, Artemis responded by having him turned into a stag, whereupon he was torn to pieces by his own hounds. The image insinuates an unhappy fate for those who don’t control their emotions.
In the magical realm, tarragon is sacred to the feminine aspect of the Universe. The herb is used to invoke Lillith (allegedly Adam’s first wife before Eve was created) and in kitchen magic induces tranquility and compassion amongst the guests. This is presumably contingent upon their being welcome in the first place.
In the kitchen tarragon’s mild licorice flavor wonderfully enhances almost any food, but it is especially good with chicken and fish. It is one of the four herbs in the French combination known as fines herbes, the others being parsley, chervil and chives. Tarragon’s delicate flavor does not combine well with muscular herbs like thyme, rosemary and sage.
In the garden tarragon is a semi-hardy perennial that needs a sunny, well-drained spot in alkaline soil. The herb probably originated in Southern Russia or Asia and requires a period of dormancy in winter. It is believed that the invading Mongols brought tarragon to Spain in the 10th-century. Mulch the herb to protect the roots from frost. This will also prevent it from resuscitating prematurely during a mid-winter warm spell. French tarragon – the only species worth bothering with – will not grow from seed, only from cuttings or root division. Be wary of “tarragon seeds” as these are likely Russian tarragon, a more vigorous species with coarser foliage and deficient aroma and flavor. Mexican tarragon is not tarragon at all, but Sweet Marigold. It has tarragon-like although inferior taste, but it makes a good substitute in warmer climes where French tarragon will not grow.
When you’re ready to preserve tarragon, try freezing the herb or making herbal vinegar with it. Although dried tarragon is perfectly satisfactory in the kitchen, drying tends to emphasize the anise-like taste at the expense of the herb’s natural complexity.
Here’s a recipe for:
Fill the bottle loosely with the tarragon, lemon rind and clove. Then fill the bottle with vinegar. Keep for one month, shaking the bottle occasionally. Strain and re-bottle, adding a fresh spring of tarragon and enough vinegar to fill the second bottle.
I like to add fresh or dried tarragon to rice when it’s an accompaniment to fish. When fresh tarragon is available, try tucking sprigs of the herb under the skin of a chicken when roasting.
Here’s a simple recipe for two for:
Dissolve the bouillon cube in the heated milk. Sauté the onion in the olive oil until translucent, and then add the garlic. While stirring the onion and garlic add the flour to form a roux. Slowly add the milk to form a rich sauce. Add the white wine according to desired taste and consistency. Place the chicken thighs in the pan along with the tarragon, cover and cook until well done, 20-30 minutes according to the size of the chicken thighs. Before serving, add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Serve over rice.
Tarragon’s unique taste blends well with berry fruit. It’s also the perfect herb to accompany poultry, so game birds such as duck, goose or pheasant with a berry sauce cry out for tarragon seasoning. Here’s a recipe for duck, but it can be tailored for any poultry dish.
Duck with Orange Blueberry Tarragon Sauce
Remove the neck and giblets from the duck’s cavity and place in a pot. Cut off the wings and excess fat from around the cavity then add to the pot. Cover with water and simmer for about one hour. Sprinkle the duck inside and outside with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cut slices into the duck’s skin and insert pieces of the tarragon sprigs. Place one tarragon sprig into the duck’s cavity. Place the duck in a large roasting pan and place into a preheated 450F oven. Reduce the heat immediately to 375F. After 30 minutes, skim off the excess fat and arrange the potatoes and onions around the duck. Sprinkle the potatoes and onions with salt and pepper and return to oven. After one hour, pour off the additional accumulated fat, leaving a little to allow the potatoes and onions to brown nicely. Return to the oven. Reduce the heat if you’re concerned about overcooking.
Personally I like all the elements of this dish to be well-cooked. After allowing the stock pot to cool a little, strain the stock and use a fat separator to separate the fat. Pour one cup of the stock – reserving the rest for another use – into a different pan. Add the blueberries, orange juice and chopped tarragon to the stock. Stir over medium-high heat until reduced to about one cup. Check for seasoning. Sauce may be thickened with arrowroot or cornstarch if desired. Take the duck from the oven and allow it to sit for 15-20 minutes before carving. Carve slices off the breast and legs and pour the sauce over the meat just before serving. Serve with the potatoes and onions, which should be nicely browned, along with a green vegetable such as spinach or broccoli. Garnish with the extra tarragon springs.
Bruce Burnett, has won four Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Gold awards for travel journalism. Read more of Bruce Burnett's writing on his websites: