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The herb guide: tarragon

Ed Smith, author of The Borough Market Cookbook, looks in depth at the many fresh herbs available in the Market. This time: tarragon

“DESPITE MY LOVE FOR IT, I OFTEN FIND HALF A BUNCH OF TARRAGON WASTING AWAY IN MY HERB BOX”

Image: Ed Smith

I came to tarragon quite late in life. Not because we didn’t eat it when I was a child. Rather, I just don’t think I appreciated the anise notes until my taste buds ‘matured’.

The turning point was at a wine tasting event, which served a huge bowl of purple sprouting drenched in butter and more than a generous sprinkling of tarragon. Totally divine. I’ve not looked back, and I’d probably use this herb on every green vegetable I eat, if I wasn’t worried about overkill.

So, yes, this long leaved green herb has strong hints of anise, but also a little vanilla too. Which makes it the perfect match for white fish, chicken and eggs, among other things.

Despite my love for it, I often find half a bunch of tarragon wasting away in my herb box – it’s so powerful and dominant that you don’t need to use much at once; and unless you make a conscious effort to use the originally intended use, time can run out for much of it.

So have a read of the suggestions below, and see if you can make the most of your next bunch. 


Storage

Tarragon is a soft green herb and relatively fragile. Don’t leave it out or it’ll dry and wilt; and don’t freeze it or it’ll go soggy and black. It last for about a week in the fridge if wrapped in a damp towel.

Theoretically you can wrap tarragon in damp paper towels, place in a sealable bag and put in the freezer. But I personally haven’t found that to be a great preservation technique – most of the flavour goes and the leaves appear bruised. Similarly, while you can dry tarragon, it’s not nearly as good dehydrated as the likes of rosemary and thyme.

You’d be much better off tapping five or six stems with the back of a knife to release some of the oils, and infusing olive oil, sugar syrup or vodka with this herb.


Cooking tips

In most recipes, it’s the leaves that you’ll use. Pick them from the stems until you’ve got enough (they can be ‘stripped’ relatively easily if you run two fingers in the opposite direction of growth). Then roughly chop. The leaves are soft and could be left whole, but a little slicing seems to extract more flavour.

The stems are, however, well scented. Which means that on occasion they’ll be useful, not least if you’re infusing a liquid with tarragon as mentioned above. The woodiest sprigs also retain a little power when cooked. Whereas the soft leaf is, as a general rule, best added at the last minute, so as to remain fresh or just wilt under latent heat, tarragon stems can handle higher temperatures, so you could add to casseroles or when steaming, without wasting the herb.


Cooking uses

Tarragon has a number of classic (mostly French) partners. Chicken and tarragon are best friends. The most traditional of the recipes is tarragon chicken blanquette – poached chicken with an egg yolk thickened tarragon, cream and button mushroom sauce. I remember making this at catering college and thinking, whilst cooking, that it was just another old, dated, slightly naff dish. But the results are timeless.

The same was true when we made baked tarragon eggs – individual egg ramekins finished with a little cream, cheese and tarragon. So old school. So indulgent. So good.

Any number of chicken and tarragon and chicken and egg dishes can be added to those examples. The flavours work incredibly well. If you want to modernise, how about buttermilk fried chick pieces with a tarragon mayo dip? Or luxurious, creamy, tarragon scrambled eggs on brioche toast? I understand the Balkan states often ‘ferment’ sprigs of tarragon for a few days in salt, then use this to flavour pancakes and omelettes.

Other favourable flavour combinations and tarragon tricks do exist, though. I like the double layering of anise when you match tarragon with fennel: finely slice fennel bulbs, toss with lemon juice, a little olive oil, chopped tarragon and serve with baked white fish.

On which note: tarragon and any white fish works very well. If the chopped herb through sliced fennel trick is too subtle for you, make a tarragon heavy green sauce by blitzing it with lots of olive oil, perhaps bulking with a little fresh parsley, some capers, garlic, lemon juice.

It’s a match for red meat, too. The classic (possibly best?) steak sauce is béarnaise – basically clarified butter, egg yolk and chopped tarragon.

And tarragon goes extremely well with rabbit – chopped through a rabbit pie or terrine, perhaps?

Moving away from traditional matches, as implied earlier on, you can totally put tarragon in a cocktail, thanks to those anise and vanilla qualities.

Finally, you’ll be relieved to know that tarragon works in desserts too. Strawberries are a particularly favourable match – macerate some with sugar and tarragon before using in a trifle or fool. I’ve also used a few sprigs to flavour milk before adding that to an anise and vanilla custard, match with almond flavoured desserts. Or, if you really want to educate your friends in slightly savoury desserts, just sprinkle some chopped tarragon and sea salt over vanilla ice cream, followed by a good drizzle of peppery olive oil.


Market herb hero

A few mentions here. First for Fitz Fine Foods, which stocks an excellent tarragon vinegar. Then The Olive Oil Co and Oliveology, from whom you should buy some quality (but not overbearing) olive oil, bash and handful of tarragon sprig, and infuse into the oil, to use as a dressing or simply to dip your bread in at a later date.


A recipe suggestion

While it was tempting to suggest a recipe for one of the odder dishes mentioned above (that ice cream or custard idea?), sometimes the smartest thing to do is stick to tradition. Well, mostly.

A classic chicken and tarragon blanquette requires the cook to ensure there’s absolutely no colour on the meat. So you effectively poach a portioned chicken until tender, and keep the cream sauce as pure and white as possible.

But there’s so much flavour that comes from browning a chicken that it seems remiss not to. This easy recipe does that, starting the process in a frying pan and finishing it in the oven. It just uses thigh meat, so it’s affordable and fairly fool proof. Appropriately for this series, there’s tarragon at pretty much every stage: as the chicken cooks, in the sauce, and as a garnish at the end.

Should help you get through much of your bunch. Don’t waste the rest.

See Ed’s recipe for chicken thighs with tarragon creme fraiche sauce.