French tarragon is the variety generally considered best for the kitchen. Russian tarragon can be grown from seed but is much weaker in flavour when compared to the French variety.
It seems to be one of the least familiar of the culinary herbs that is commonly found in dried and fresh forms in grocery stores. French Tarragon is easily grown in many climates and has a wonderful anise flavour similar in some ways to basil but unlike basil will come back year after year.
Tarragon is a versatile herb that in addition to being a great herb to accompany fish dishes, appears to contain preventative substances for cancer and possibly some viruses.
French tarragon’s generic name, Artemisia, comes from the Greek goddess Artemis, goddess of the moon. Many of the plants in that family, Dusty Miller and Sagebush for example, have a soft, silvery color, as if bathed in moonbeams. The common name, tarragon, is thought to be a corruption of the Arabic word “tarkhum” meaning little dragon.
Although tarragon is most closely associated with French and European cuisine, it was not cultivated in Europe until the late 1500’s, when the Tudor family introduced it into the royal gardens, from its origins in Siberia. Later, when the colonists settled in America, they brought along tarragon for their kitchen gardens, along with burnett to flavor ale, horehound for cough syrup and chamomile for soothing tea and insect repellent.
French Tarragon rarely sets seed so it is best to cultivate by root division or to purchase a plant. Some care must be taken to ensure that true French tarragon is purchased. When you see tarragon seed packets they are generally not French Tarragon (sometimes Russian Tarragon -A. dracunculoides L.) and will not have the wonderful flavor and aroma of French Tarragon. Do not fret if you have or grow Russian Tarragon it is a far more hardy and vigorous plant and produces many more leaves from early spring onwards that are mild and good in salads and cooked food.
It likes a hot, sunny spot, without excessive watering. A perennial, it normally goes dormant in winter. Since French Tarragon is related to sagebrush it can have a wild look to it. Plant French Tarragon in sun in well drained soil either in the ground or in a pot. French Tarragon can get quite large (2′ x 2′ or more) but since you will be trimming it regularly for use the growth can be easily controlled. I do often refer to it as a tasty, ugly plant and due to its height and appearance tent to recommend planting it at the back of the garden where the tall branches covered with thin ovate leaves will make a nice contrast to bushier leafier herbs. The leaves also have a dark green rather than bright green color. The scent and taste of tarragon is disliked by many garden pests, making it useful for intercropping as a companion plant, to protect its garden mates. It is also reputed to be a nurse plant, enhancing growth and flavor of companion crops
When tarragon is dried, the oils dissipate. Thus, fresh tarragon has a much more intense flavor than dried, and should be used sparingly.
French Tarragon goes well with poultry, fish, meats, salads, and salad dressings, and is often used to make herbal vinegars and oils. Tarragon is an ingredient in fines herbes and Béarnaise sauce. French Tarragon is also helpful for digestion and do to its numbing effect when chewed has been used for toothache. Tarragon can also be used in place of salt for people on salt-restricted diets.
Tarragon vinegar is easy to make and popular to use in cooking. To make it, just put fresh tarragon sprigs into a sterilized bottle and cover with distilled white vinegar or white wine vinegar. Continue steeping until it suits your taste, but at least a week or two. Once desired strength is achieved, remove the sprigs, strain the vinegar and place in a new clean sterilize bottle and use within 18 months.
Since it does not hold its flavor well when dried it is best to use French Tarragon fresh or freeze for later use. Pesto can be made with a many herbs other than basil – including French Tarragon. Just replace the basil with French Tarragon. Pesto can be made ahead and frozen for later use although some recommend adding the garlic just before use.
Fines Herbes is a traditional French blend is a combination of equal parts tarragon, chives, chervil and parsley. The light flavor makes it a great blend to use on eggs.
While most herbs have a long history of use as medicines, and an equally long list of the ailments they were supposed to cure, tarragon’s list is relatively short. This is most likely due to the fact that tarragon loses its aromatic volatile oils as the herb dries.
Tarragon is effective for eliminating intestinal worms in children. Follow the directions for Herbal Teas and give 2 cups per day. Teas can also be used for menstrual cramps, stomach cramps, digestive problems, fatigue, nerves, and to promote the appetite. For toothaches, try chewing on a couple of Tarragon leaves for relief. Crushed Tarragon leaves can be used on minor rashes and skin irritations for relief of the symptoms.
It can be made into a Tea that is particularly effective when used with Lemon Balm for treatment and some say prevention of the flu or herpes. Make a tea with Lemon Balm and then add one teaspoon of dried Tarragon. Let this steep for 15 minutes or so before drinking. Take up to 3 cups per day.
White Bean and Winter Tarragon Soup serves 4
8 ounces Great Northern white beans
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 small fennel bulb, diced, about one cup
2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
2 cloves garlic, minced
7 cups chicken stock
1 Tablespoons fresh French tarragon leaves, chopped
3 Tablespoons thinly sliced ham, julienned
salt and pepper to taste
Sort through the beans to remove rocks and other items. Put in a container and cover with four inches of water. Soak overnight. Drain off the water.
In a stainless steel saucepan, heat the olive oil. Sauté the onion and the fennel until golden. Add the grated lemon peel and the garlic. Cook for one minute to release the flavors. Add the stock, cover the pot and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook the beans until soft, about one hour.
Stir in the tarragon, reserving 1/2 teaspoon to use for garnish. Add the ham, stirring to blend all flavors. Add salt and pepper to taste. Ladle into decorative soup bowls and garnish with the remaining tarragon.
Sage and Tarragon Chicken Salad
This is a terrific sandwich spread to serve on top of whole wheat herb bread.
One (10 ounce) can chicken breast
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup finely diced celery hearts
2 teaspoons fresh sage – chopped fine
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves – chopped fine
salt & pepper – optional
Drain the liquid from the can of chicken breast. Flake with a fork and add to a medium size bowl. Add the mayonnaise, celery hearts, sage and tarragon and mix well. Add salt and pepper if desired
This classic French sauce is made from a reduction of butter, vinegar, and wine mixed with tarragon and thickened with egg yolks. It is served with meat, fish, eggs, and vegetables. Makes 1 ½ cups
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
4 shallots, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves
4 white peppercorns, crushed
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/3 cup dry white wine
4 large egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch of cayenne
Heat the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat just to melt. Boil shallots, tarragon, and peppercorns in vinegar and wine in a nonreactive medium-size saucepan over medium heat until reduced to about 1/4 cup. Strain into the top of a double boiler. Whisk in the egg yolks. Place the top over the bottom of the double boiler containing simmering water. Make sure that the top of the water is below the bottom of the upper part of the double boiler. Whisk constantly. The second that the yolk mixture begins to thicken slightly, remove the top of the double boiler from above the hot water and continue whisking. Turn off the heat. Add four ice cubes to the bottom of the double boiler to cool the hot water a little. Put the pan of yolks back above the hot water. Whisk in the melted butter, drizzling it in very slowly. If at any time the sauce looks as if it is about to boil, remove the top and continue whisking to cool it down or whisk in 1 teaspoon cold water. With constant whisking, whisk in the salt and cayenne. When all the butter is incorporated, taste and add more salt or cayenne as needed.