What is Tarragon?
Tarragon’s name is derived from the French esdragon, meaning “little dragon.” The dragonlike roots may strangle the plant if it is not divided often. In medicinal lore and legend, any plant with a serpentine root system is given credit for treating snakebite, and tarragon is no exception. The Roman scholar Pliny said it could prevent fatigue and pilgrims of the Middle Ages put sprigs of it in their shoes before beginning long trips on foot. Thomas Jefferson was an early distributor of tarragon in the fledgling United States. In a letter to the President, written in 1809, General John Mason reported that the plant Jefferson had given him “has flourished well in the open air-and will in Spring afford plenty of slips.”
This aromatic perennial is grown for its distinctively flavoured leaves. Flowers: Yellow or greenish white; small, globe-shaped; in terminal panicles; rarely fully open and usually sterile. Leaves: Linear to lanceolate, undivided; 1-4 in. long; borne singly at top of plant, in groups of three below. Fruit: Achenes. Height: 2 ft. Native to the Caspian Sea area and Siberia; widely cultivated in Europe, Asia, and the United States.
Cooking with Tarragon
Among cooks, this herb is popularly associated with vinegar and fish. Its aniselike character is particularly suited to both, but tarragon deserves a wider role in the kitchen. Tarragon has a somewhat mysterious property as well; chew on a leaf, and you may notice a numb feeling on your tongue.
Although it is one of the French fines herbes, tarragon can be dominating and overshadow or fight with other flavours. Use the leaves fresh in salads, as garnishes, or in such classic applications as remoulade sauce, tartar sauce, béarnaise sauce, French dressing, and veal Marengo. In general, don’t add this herb with a heavy hand, and avoid bringing out its bitter side by cooking it too long.
French tarragon lends its unique flavour profile to French sauces such as tartare and bernaise and is an essential component along with chives, chervil and parsley in the subtle blend of herbs known as fines herbes.
Tarragon has a particular ability to flavour vinegar, achieved by placing a complete, washed stem with leaves in a bottle of good quality, white wine vinegar for a few weeks. Tarragon vinegar then becomes a useful ingredient for salad dressings and when making homemade mustards.
Tarragon complements fish and shellfish, chicken, turkey, game and veal and most egg dishes. The chopped leaves (or rehydrated dry ones) are attractive and tasty in mayonnaise, melted butter sauce and French dressing. Tarragon enhances fish, shellfish, pork, beef, lamb, game, poultry, pâtés, leeks, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, onions, artichokes, asparagus, mushrooms, cauliflower, broccoli, beets, peas, parsley, chervil, garlic, chives, lemons, oranges, rice, and barley. Use it in flavored vinegars, herbed mayonnaise, herbed butters, cream sauces, and soups, and with cheeses, eggs, sour cream, and yogurt. For maximum flavor, add tarragon to long-cooking soups and stews during the last 15 minutes only.
Substitute for Tarragon
Equivalents 1 oz dried = 1 cup 1/2 oz fresh = 1/3 cup
Frozen tarragon and tarragon stored in vinegar are superior in flavour to the dried.
Tarragon Health Benefits
Although chiefly a culinary herb, tarragon has been used to stimulate the appetite, relieve flatulence and colic, and cure rheumatism. There appears to be no scientific basis for any of these practices, but tarragon can protect foodstuffs as an antioxidant. Tarragon is also used in perfumes, soaps, and cosmetics, and in condiments and liqueurs. It may be useful as an antifungal as well.It was once believed that Tarragon Leaf could cure insect stings and snakebites, as well as the bites of rabid dogs. A tea made with Tarragon and Chamomile has been used to induce sleep. Tarragon is also a mild diuretic. The herb was used in Ancient Greece to relieve toothache as a sort of local anesthetic, which makes sense due to its containing eugenol, a natural anesthetic.
Although not a visually stunning plant, tarragon was at one time restricted to the formal gardens of the European nobility. Take note before buying tarragon seeds: They are apt to be of the less-versatile Russian tarragon, a variety that lacks the aromatic oils of the classical French tarragon (Artemisia Dracunculus var. sativa).
Most gardeners acquire tarragon as seedlings, divisions, or cuttings. Take divisions in the early spring as the new growth comes up. Take cuttings in autumn or, in the North, preferably in the spring. Set plants 2 feet apart. Tarragon must be mulched in the winter to protect it from frost. You can bring it inside for a potted winter vacation, but it may transplant poorly and does require lots of light. Even in warm climates, the plants should be divided every two or three years to assure vigor and flavor.
Tarragon most often fails from having been planted in a wet or acid soil. It needs well-drained loam. The clump will always be larger in the second year, with shoots appearing in the late spring. All flower stems should be removed to keep the plant productive.
You can have fresh tarragon year-round by placing plants in pots for the sunny windowsill. See that the roots get good drainage. You can even force tarragon in the winter. In the summer, place a mature plant in a good-size pot, cut it down to the base, wrap the pot in plastic, and place it in the refrigerator until fall to bring the tarragon into dormancy. Then unwrap the pot and place it in a south-facing window to break dormancy and cause the plant to sprout. Take a sprig or two as needed throughout the cold months.
A popular stand-in as a potted herb is the mint marigold (Tagetes lucida) from Mexico.
Harvesting and storage:
Two harvests can generally be made each year, the first six to eight weeks after setting out. When harvesting, handle the leaves gently, as they bruise easily. Tarragon is best frozen or preserved in white vinegar, but it can be dried as well. Hang the plants upside down in bunches in a warm, dry place out of the sun. It will brown some in drying. Store in an airtight container.
Artemisia Dracunculus Fam: Compositae