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Flavors of the World: Tarragon of France
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It Begins in Paris
The City of Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements (municipal districts). Each district has its unique histories, architecture, and tourist treasures. Of the 20 areas, my favorite is the 7th.
There you will find the Eiffel Tower, world-famous museums (such as the Musée d'Orsay), Napoleon’s resting place, and (best of all) Rue Cler.
What is Rue Clere?
Rue Cler (Cler Street in English) is not a grand tree-lined boulevard. This short, cobblestone-lined pedestrian street is Heaven on earth for people who love good food.
This is where the locals go to buy their favorite ingredients or where they meet friends at an outdoor café and simply watch the world go by.
So, put on your walking shoes, grab a shopping bag, and stroll with me. In just two short blocks you will find:
- Halles Bosquet – one of four fruit and vegetable stands.
- Darius Rotisserie – they prepare flame-roasted chicken and braised chicken breasts and thighs.
- Les Floralies – a prominent flower stand that creates beautiful, low-cost bouquets.
- La Fermette Fromagerie – cheese shop.
- Boucheries Coucaud – butcher shop.
- Davoli-La Maison du Jambon – Italian delicatessen (olives and pasta anyone?)
- La Sablaise Poissonerie – fish merchant.
- Famille Mary-Miel et Nature – a nature store specializing in honeys.
- Bacchus – what a great name for a wine shop!
- Charcuterie Jeusselin – maker of fine sausages and cold cuts.
- Leonotre – pastries
- Leonidas Chocolatier – chocolate, of course
And amidst these, at the corner of Rue du champ du Mars and Rue Cler is Café du Maché
Why Am I Telling You This?
(Be patient--we're almost there).
My family and I arrived in Paris in mid-afternoon—famished and desperately wanting food and drink. Shopping for our evening meal would have to wait.
We knew that Café du Marché would treat us to a wonderful meal at a reasonable price. My husband and daughters ordered sandwiches, and I chose a special of the day from the blackboard--Poulet à l'estragon salade (a chicken tarragon salad).
And so I was introduced to fresh tarragon.
Now, of course, I don't have the actual recipe from the café, but I have done my best to recreate that salad for you.
That recipe (Poulet à l'estragon salade), and a few more that feature tarragon, are given below.
But First, You Want to Learn a Bit More About Tarragon, Right?
French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus sativa) did not originate in France. Its origins can be traced to Siberia—but please don’t confuse it with Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus inodora). French tarragon has smooth, glossy dark-green leaves and a sweet anise flavor. On the other hand, Russian tarragon is a showy imposter--larger, coarser, and lacking in aroma and flavor. Russian tarragon might take a striking pose in your herb garden, but never allow it to enter your kitchen.
How to Grow Tarragon
- Plant type: Perennial
- Hardiness: Hardiness zones 4 – 7. Tarragon is not completely hardy, so cover the plants with straw, or grass clippings in autumn after the foliage has died down. Place containers in a greenhouse or shed to overwinter.
- Height: 24 to 36 inches.
- Width: 24 inches
- Light: Full Sun is best, but can tolerate small amounts of shade.
- Soil: Although most species tolerate poor dry soils, results are best if the plants are grown in a fertile, sandy, well-drained loam with a pH of 6.9. Also grows well in soilless peat based mixtures (in containers).
- Pests: No known pest issues.
- Diseases: Root rot and mildew. Tarragon can tolerate poor dry soils, as well as lack of water. However, it will not tolerate excessively wet roots. When in doubt, grow in containers.
- Propagation: Plant propagates itself via underground runners. If you need to propagate new plants, do so by taking cuttings of rooted shoots, or by dividing your existing root stock.
- Companion planting: This aromatic herb generally enhances the growth of other plants, including most vegetables.
The English word tarragon is a corruption of the French word estragon, or little dragon. I always thought that the name referred to the plant’s pointed, slender green leaves which resemble the jagged crest running down a dragon’s back. But no; most reference books state that it has to do with the herb’s serpentine root system. (I also think it might have something to do with its medieval reputation of being a curative for venomous stings and bites).
Chicken Tarragon Salad
Poulet à l'estragon salade (Chicken Tarragon Salad)
Prep time: 40 minutes (includes 30 minutes chilling time)
- 3 cups cooked chicken breast, diced
- 1 cup celery heart (the tender inner portion), finely diced
- 2 tablespoons minced red onion
- 1 cup homemade tarragon mayonnaise, (see recipe below)
- 3 cups garden lettuces: small oak leaf, red leaf, arugula, mâche, and any other tender lettuce greens, washed and dried well
- 1/2 cup red raspberries
- 3/4 cup walnuts, finely chopped
- 2 ounces of quality Roquefort Cheese, crumbled
- freshly ground black peppercorns
- Combine chicken, celery heart, and minced red onion in a large mixing bowl. Stir in mayonnaise and gently toss to coat. Cover and chill at least 30 minutes.
- Serve on chilled plates lined with salad greens. Garnish with raspberries, walnuts, and cheese and freshly ground black pepper as desired.
Homemade Tarragon Mayonnaise
- 2 large egg yolks
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 3/4 cup olive oil
- 3 teaspoons fresh minced tarragon
- Place the egg yolks, salt, and lemon juice in the bowl of a blender.
- Process until the egg yolk and juice are well-combined and the yolks begin to turn to a lighter shade of yellow.
- Remove the fill cap (central portion of the lid).
- Place the olive oil in a glass measuring cup with a lip suitable for pouring.
- With the blender running, begin adding the oil to the yolk/lemon juice mixture. Start with just one drop at a time and increase to a steady but very slow stream as the oil is absorbed.
- Stir in tarragon.
Chicken with Tarragon Cream Sauce
- One 4 pound whole chicken
- salt and pepper
- 4 large fresh sprigs of tarragon
- 2 tablespoons butter at room temperature
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup dry vermouth or dry white wine
- 3/4 cup whipping cream or crème fraiche
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Rinse chicken thoroughly inside and out. Pat dry with paper towels. Sprinkle inside with salt and pepper. Place tarragon sprigs in cavity. Rub butter all over outside of chicken. Place chicken in roasting pan. Pour 1/2 cup water into roasting pan.
- Roast, uncovered, in preheated oven, basting occasionally with pan juices. Cook until internal temperature (in thickest part of thigh) registers 175 degrees F. and juices run clear when thigh is pierced--about 1 hour.
- Transfer chicken to platter; tent with foil to keep warm while making the sauce.
- Transfer pan juices to medium saucepan. Freeze until fat rises to top--about minutes. Spoon off fat and discard. Add vermouth to pan juices in saucepan. Boil until slightly reduce, about 3 minutes.
- Add cream and tarragon and boil until mixture thickens to sauce consistency, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Julia Child's Fish Stew with White Wine and Tarragon
- 1 large tomato
- 1 carrot, peeled and sliced
- 1 leek, white and pale green parts only, halved lengthwise and sliced
- 1 celery stalk, preferably with leaves, sliced (leaves chopped)
- 1 medium onion, sliced
- 1-1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 generous teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon leaves (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
- 1-1/4 cup chardonnay, plus 1 tablespoon (or other dry white wine)
- 3/4 cup chicken broth
- 1/2 cup water
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1/2 pound sole sliced into bite-sized pieces
- 1 egg yolk
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- First blanch the tomato. Cut a cross in the bottom (blossom end). Drop tomato into a medium pot of boiling water. After 30 seconds, remove the tomato with a strainer and set aside to cool. You need the tomato near the end of the recipe, so during a break in the action, peel it, core it, and scoop out the seeds. Then dice the tomato; you should have about 3/4 cup.
- Melt the butter in a large, heavy pot over low to medium heat. Add carrot, leek, celery and onion and toss to coat with butter. Cover pot and sweat vegetables for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Do not allow to brown; reduce heat if necessary.
- Add tarragon, 1-1/4 cups wine, broth and water. Season with salt and pepper and simmer uncovered for 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Combine cornstarch and remaining tablespoon of white wine in a small bowl, stirring until cornstarch is completely dissolved. Slowly drizzle 1/2 cup of heated broth/wine mixture into cornstarch and wine, stirring constantly to keep it from forming clumps. Blend back into pot and simmer over low heat for 2 minutes. Fold in fish and tomato and bring to a simmer. Taste and adjust seasonings.
- Meanwhile, mix egg yolk and sour cream in a medium bowl. Slowly drizzle 1/2 cup of heated broth/wine mixture into it, stirring to combine. Gently fold into pot.
- Ladle stew into shallow soup plates and serve with a crusty bread.
Serves 2 generously as dinner, 3 as a light lunch
One Final Word
I cannot leave without sharing with you a famous quote from James Beard. He was at the very least an author, teacher, TV personality and syndicated columnist. But he was so much more than that. James Beard was a champion of American cuisine; he taught and mentored generations of professional chefs and food enthusiasts. His legacy lives on in twenty books, countless newspaper and periodical writings, and his foundation's annual James Beard awards.
Although I cannot agree with Mr. Beard's pronouncement, I can support his love of the herb tarragon.
“I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around.”