a test kitchen dossier
I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around.
– James Beard
Etymology: From the Medieval Latin tragonia and tarchon
Area of Origin: Southern Russia and Eastern Europe
As spring slips slowly towards us (taking its own sweet time in some parts of the world), we find ourselves reveling in anything fresh and new. Though substantial stews, juicy roasts and warming casseroles certainly got us through the winter, spring menus quickly become greener, lighter and cooler; fresh herbs are one of many wonderful ways to celebrate the return of spring, and tarragon is the ideal herb with which to begin. Some of us know tarragon only as a bottle of green flakes with a dusty odor, for dry tarragon lacks the aroma and flavor gifted to its younger, fresher sibling. But once you’ve nibbled on the long, thin leaf of true, fresh tarragon, you will find yourself constantly craving its subtle licorice-flavor. Don’t hold back.
Tarragon — the secret weapon of many a chef — pairs beautifully with all kinds of foods: It can be tossed raw with salads, added at the last minute to soups, infused into vinegar, or slipped under the skin of a roast chicken along with a few pats of butter. One word of caution: If tarragon is exposed to too much heat, its qualities will dissipate, so be careful. As temperatures rise and layers of clothing are shed, turn down your stove and embrace quick, flavorful preparations bursting with the flavors of the season.
Tarragon appeared in Europe in the 1500s, was known in England by the 1600s, and was brought to America in the 1800s; but only in France (and of course the GF test kitchen) has tarragon been treated with the respect and even awe that it so rightly deserves (we’re speaking of the herb, incidentally, and not that filthy-tempered kitchen elf).
The French most often use tarragon combined with parsley, chives and chervil as fines herbes, tossed in everything from simple omelets to beef bourguignon. The reason the French sometimes refer to tarragon as the “king of the herbs” is most likely its starring role in Sauce Béarnaise — essentially a hollandaise sauce with the addition of a tarragon and vinegar reduction — one of the most famous of all classical French sauces.
Varieties of Tarragon
French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus)
Confusingly, both French and Russian tarragon originate in Russia. French tarragon denominates a strain with a strong but pleasant anise flavor, which Russian tarragon lacks. French tarragon is also more expensive and more difficult to grow, as it can only be reproduced from fresh cuttings of the leaves, and not from seeds.
Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculoides)
This hardier but lesser species can be distinguished by its thinner, rougher leaves. Russian tarragon is often sold as “true” (French) tarragon, especially at nurseries, but trust your senses and don’t allow yourself to be fooled.
Also known as Mexican marigold, Mexican tarragon is a totally unrelated plant which happens to mimic the aroma and taste of French tarragon almost perfectly, while growing easily from seeds. If you have a patch of ground, and the good sense (and talent) to fill it with herbs, you might consider adding this versatile flower, which will not only contrast colorfully with your herbage, but will also save you from the confusion of distinguishing it from “true” tarragon.
Don’t bother, as its aroma and flavor can’t even come close.
Note: Tarragon vinegar is lovely and useful; use it in salad dressings, marinades, sauces, or even to deglaze a pan. Try making your own by infusing your vinegar with a few leaves and storing it in a cool, dry place.
Roasted Asparagus with Tarragon Butter Sauce
Steamed Artichokes with Lemon Herb Mayonnaise
Tropical Fruit Salad with Tarragon Cream
Almond Tarragon Cake
Blood Brothers Cocktail
Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages
Dossier by China Millman
Photo: Monica Glass