Fresh tarragon enhances certain foods like no other herb. Its refreshing aniselike flavor complements salads, lightly cooked vegetables and grilled chicken, meat or fish.
The long, slender dark-green leaves traditionally are used in Bernaise sauce and chicken tarragon. But minced, fresh tarragon also adds zest to potato salad and deviled eggs, as well.
M. F. K. Fisher once described tarragon as having a "faintly licorice flavor," but food authority Waverly Root disagrees, describing it as "a tart, subtle but strong flavor, which is opposite the namby-pamby almost sickly flavor of licorice."
Mr. Root suggests the essential oil contained in the tarragon smells like anise but doesn't taste like it. Whatever words you choose to describe it, the taste, when combined with the season's best vine-ripened tomatoes or tuna hot off the grill, is hard to beat.
There are two kinds of tarragon -- French and Russian. Only French tarragon is worth using. The Russian variety has a bitter flavor and practically no scent. The Southern California climate seems perfect for growing tarragon. The growing season typically lasts from May to October, but the herb is available year-round from growers using greenhouse facilities. Commercially grown tarragon is now sold in the produce sections of most supermarkets.
Sales of tarragon and other fresh herbs are increasing as cooks learn to use them to add flavor to food without adding salt or fat. But there are some tricks to cooking with herbs.
Heat can change or destroy the flavor of tarragon, as well as that of many other fresh herbs. Be sure to add it to hot or warm dishes as the last step in their preparation -- to maintain fragrance, flavor and color.
Store fresh, washed tarragon in the refrigerator, first patting it dry and wrapping it loosely in plastic wrap or a plastic bag. It will keep up to one week, refrigerated.
Making flavored oils and vinegars (recipes to follow), is both a practical and beautiful way to preserve tarragon. Stored in attractive bottles and jars, they make lovely gifts from the kitchen.
To preserve tarragon for use in sauces, soups and dressings, finely mince the leaves (either by hand or in a mini-chop); combine with a small amount of oil to cover (either olive oil or safflower oil, or a combination of both) and place in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Tarragon preserved in oil will keep several weeks in the refrigerator.
If you prefer, store tarragon in a jar or tin layered with kosher salt. The leaves will darken when exposed to light but remain fragrant and flavorful.
Minced tarragon also can be blended into butter or margarine, wrapped in plastic wrap and frozen for later use to flavor chicken, fish or vegetables.
One last word of advice: Don't bother with tarragon in its dry form. The taste bears little resemblance to the fresh product. Dried tarragon, and for that matter many dried herbs, smell a little like dried hay. Salade Nicoise napped with tarragon vinaigrette is a favorite dish with home cooks in the south of France. If you prefer, substitute leftover cooked fish, chicken or beef for canned tuna.
*Serves 4 to 6.
tarragon vinaigrette, recipe follows
3 cups fresh green beans, trimmed
2 pounds russet or Idaho potatoes
4 tablespoons dry white wine
1 head Boston-type lettuce
1 cup tuna, drained
4 tomatoes, cut into wedges
1/2 cup black olives
3 hard-cooked eggs, cold, peeled and quartered
4 to 6 sprigs fresh tarragon for garnish
6 to 12 anchovy fillets, drained, for optional garnish
Prepare vinaigrette (recipe to follow); set aside.
Cook green beans in large pot of rapidly boiling water until tender-crisp; this will take about 5 minutes, depending on the diameter of the beans. To test doneness, remove one bean and run cold water over it. It should be tender, but crunchy as well. When desired degree of doneness is reached, drain beans and refresh in ice water (this brings out the green color). Drain and wrap in clean kitchen towel. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Scrub potatoes and drop them into large pot of boiling salted water to cover; boil until potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork. Drain, peel and cut into slices; place in bowl and pour 4 tablespoons dry white wine over top.
Toss gently. Set aside for 5 minutes so the potatoes absorb the wine. Pour about 1/2 cup of the vinaigrette over potatoes; toss gently. Cover and refrigerate.
Just before serving, toss green beans with about 1/2 cup vinaigrette. Line a large platter with lettuce. Arrange tuna, tomatoes, black olives, green beans, potatoes and hard-cooked eggs on top of lettuce. Garnish with anchovies, if desired. Garnish with sprigs of fresh tarragon. All preparations for this salad can be done in advance and then assembled just before serving. Serve with crusty French bread.
*Makes 3 cups of dressing.
4 tablespoons minced shallots
2 tablespoons dry mustard
5 shakes hot pepper sauce
fresh black pepper
1 tablespoon salt
5 tablespoons red-wine vinegar (or more to taste)