Sunday, May 21, 2006

The King is in the House!

A week off from herbal adventures for , sponsored by . But sometimes, simple is best.

This week, Tarragon. King of herbs. Critical to ‘Fines Herbs’, often included in ‘Herbs de Provence’, and the basis for an array of classic sauces.

I think tarragon got sort of a poor reputation in American cooking because of its association with classic French cuisine. The perception of being associated with things heavy and fatty, as well as difficult to prepare at home, doesn’t win popularity contests these days. Not to mention that the vast majority of the population in the US came from other places – Poland, Ireland, Italy, Russia, Germany, China, etc. Places that were not so focused on tarragon as a cornerstone of their cuisine.

Too bad for us.

Although I appreciate tarragon in combination with more subtle dishes, I like it best in a simple vinaigrette with a fresh tomato salad. Somehow, to me, the combination of the sweet, anise-like flavor of the tarragon balances the acidity of the tomatoes perfectly. My tongue is in ecstasy with every bite.

It turns out, I am probably enjoying a variety of tarragon know as Mexican tarragon. Which is a bit sweeter than the traditional French tarragon. Both of which are apparently more flavorful than the original Siberian tarragon. Unbelievably, despite its delicate flavor, the herb grows best in poor soils and harsh conditions.

Looking into the history books (or history Web pages, rather), tarragon, so closely associated with classic French cooking, did not even arrive in France until the 1600s. Coming by way of England. It made a big impact when it finally arrived, however!

It was know to the ancient Greeks as both a flavoring and a medicinal herb. Known as a mild anesthetic, especially for toothaches. And seems to have been known in the middle east as well.

I like the name in French and German – Estragon, stemming possibly from a form of the word for Dragon in Greek – ‘Drakon’ (if you leave the e off the French name, you can see this pretty easily). Tarragon stems from the Genus Artemisia, which derives its name from Artemis, Greek goddess of the moon. A reference to the somewhat soft, silvery color of the leaves of many plants of that family. Leaves that have the appearance of being bathed in moonlight.

Critical to the use of tarragon are two things. Always use it fresh, as its essential oils breakdown quickly and it does not retain its flavor after being dried. And always add it at the very end of cooking, as the flavor is destroyed by even moderate cooking.

Using tarragon fresh is a bit of a problem, as tarragon is notoriously difficult to keep in its fresh state for more than a few days. This always makes using tarragon sort of an addictive tease. If you can find fresh tarragon, the tomatoes might be terrible. And if you finally get some good tomatoes, or wait for the tomatoes to redden up a bit (in the ol’ paper bag), the tarragon is likely long gone. Getting the two to peak at the same time is a rare but supremely satisfying experience.

Here are a few additional links:

So call me non-conventional. I don’t sauce my food heavily. I don’t use the herb in too many of the classic ways. But I follow the most important two rules in my tomato salad with tarragon dressing – the tarragon is always fresh, and it is never cooked. The flavor is simply delicious!

Tomato Salad with Tarragon Dressing
Recipe by surfindaave

3 cups grape tomatoes, cut in half
3-4 tbsp fresh tarragon leaves, removed from stem, chopped roughly
1 shallot, minced
2 tbsp rice vinegar, or to taste
salt, pepper
olive oil

In a small bowl, whisk together all ingredients except the olive oil. Whisking, drizzle in the olive oil to taste. The dressing does not have to emulsify – I prefer it with less oil, so that the tarragon flavor really stands out.

Toss the tomatoes with the dressing and serve immediately. Enjoy!

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Blogger ilva said...

Sounds really nice! It's so difficult to find tarragon here, maybe I'll get some seeds in Sweden this summer so that I can grow it for next summer. Love the pics!

1:29 AM  
Blogger Kalyn said...

This does sound really great. I'm going out to look for some lavendar to plant, so maybe I'll see if I can find a Mexican tarragon plant too. Seems like growing your own is a good way to have the tomatoes and tarragon both fresh at the same time.

3:46 AM  
Blogger MM said...

That is a fantastic post - so informative! I've only encountered fresh tarragon when I am in UK. You're right, it's a lovely herb.

3:39 PM  
Blogger surfindaave said...

Thanks for the comments!

I guess we are lucky with the tarragon. I can almost always find some fresh if I go to the right market. Tomatoes - that's a different questiosn!

6:57 PM  
Anonymous sher said...

Those are lovely pictures! I never liked tarrogon because I only used the dried variety, but now that my store has fresh tarragon, I'm rediscovering it, and enjoy it very much! Thanks for the information about the different varieties. I may try to grow it.

3:23 PM  

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