James Beard, the father of American gastronomy, "I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around."
As spring took off in fits and starts a couple of seasons back, I went out to inspect my herb garden to see which plants had managed to survive the wretched winter.
And what a surprise I got. Tucked among dead leaves and the new shoots of sage, marjoram and thyme, the delicate tendrils of the previous summer’s French tarragon were starting to emerge. I was incredulous. The tender herb I’d managed to kill each summer before it could even mature had wintered over?! This was a green-thumb moment after years of hit-or-miss — mostly miss — gardening exploits. A chance to crow and, as my infant crop grew strong and full, give away generous cuttings along with volumes of unsolicited cooking suggestions.
Why make such a big deal over a few slips of tarragon?
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Well, James Beard, the dearly departed father of American gastronomy, didn’t mince words in declaring its place in the culinary kingdom: “I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around.”
Now that’s a serious endorsement — albeit an unconventional one. But Beard’s tribute not only highlights one of summer’s most distinctive herbs, it’s a directive to get some growing in the garden soon. Here’s a few other reasons:
If you believe that your name determines your fate, it’s not surprising that French tarragon, or Artemisia dracunculus, is a bewitching herb. Dracunculus, Latin for “little dragon,” reveals its feisty and startling character: a zesty, even contradictory, combination of tart sweetness bound with a tantalizing nip of anise.
French kitchens have long embraced “the little dragon,” which they call “estragon.” It’s been consecrated to the venerated culinary tradition known as fines herbes, the aromatic blend of fresh tarragon, parsley, chives and chervil. To my taste, the little dragon pulls its greatest feat in the divine Béarnaise sauce, a brasserie menu standby, which is usually drizzled over steak and fries.
Once I finally got tarragon to take up permanent residence in my garden, I had an abundance of it. So I put it to work doing what it does best: elevating the flavors of simple foods. The easiest dishes — omelets, salads, basic sauces — immediately took on a sophisticated note with a light sprinkling of fresh-picked and chopped leaves.
I didn’t stop there. Tarragon brings a distinctive zest to condiments such as mustard, vinegar and salad dressings, and raises the bar on a roast chicken, sautéed mushrooms or potato salad.
However, I soon discovered that despite a new talent for growing this herb, I still had much to learn about its culinary potential.
The key lesson — never underestimate the versatility of the little dragon — came suddenly, seductively and in a lovely cocktail glass at Crush, that chic little restaurant at the head of Madison Valley. It was the Greyhound Bust, a refreshing combination of grapefruit-infused Ketel One Vodka, a squeeze of lime, Cointreau and grapefruit muddle topped with a frothy, emerald-green tarragon foam. Sipping on the Greyhound Bust, I enjoyed my first nuzzle with tarragon’s sweet side.
I wanted to know more, so I asked Crush chef/owner Jason Wilson if he’d walk me through the finer points of cultivating the herb’s sweet notes in my own kitchen . . . or bar.
“Tarragon can almost be used as a mint,” Wilson says, and in that capacity he has lots of ways to work with it. “We use it in a cherry pie or cherry clafoutis.”
Citrus, he says, is also an excellent complement to tarragon.
Wilson describes a tarragon sorbet, which he serves both as an intermezzo and as a dessert served with a grapefruit salad: segments of grapefruit with tarragon leaves and black pepper. The sorbet and salad are well-paired flavors, Wilson adds. “They have a direct affinity.”
“For our style of cuisine, we like to use a lot of different fresh herbs,” Wilson continues, for both sweet and savory dishes. Tarragon offers a pleasing flavor for white meats such as seafood, chicken and rabbit. I seized on one of Wilson’s starter plates, Tarragon Shrimp & Crab Salad Sandwich.
If you’re shopping for fresh herbs at the market, Wilson offers an important caveat: “The herbs you buy in the store are cultivated, and this tames the flavor. Those grown in the garden are stronger, more pungent.”
Taking that advice to heart, along with Wilson’s recipe, I planted another little dragon this past summer. I figure I’ll need extra for the sorbet and cocktails.
Jacqueline Koch is a writer and photographer based in Seattle. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Recipe: Tarragon Shrimp & Crab Salad Sandwich
Makes 6 sandwiches
1 teaspoon lemon zest, chopped fine
1 teaspoon orange zest, chopped fine
2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste
½ teaspoon ground fennel seed
3 bunches tarragon leaves, stems removed
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
6 ounces crème fraîche
1 stalk celery, diced
2 shallots, chopped fine
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 pound fresh Gulf shrimp (16-to-20 count)
1 pound Dungeness crab meat
¼ cup English cucumber, peeled and diced
12 slices brioche or similar white bread with crusts removed, toasted
1. In a blender, purée the lemon and orange zest, salt, ground fennel, tarragon, mustard and crème fraîche until smooth and green.
2. In a stainless-steel sauté pan, sweat the celery and shallots in the olive oil until lightly browned, add the shrimp and cook for 4 minutes on medium heat or until the shrimp just turn opaque. Set aside to cool for 5 minutes.
3. Fold together the puréed crème fraîche and spices, the shrimp mixture, crab and cucumber. Spread the salad on the toasted bread slices to make sandwiches. Serve with warm soup or on its own.