In France, estragon (tarragon) is known as the king (roi) of herbs. I imagine this is in deference to its pronounced flavour, which can subjugate other ingredients, or because, when used expertly, its contribution to a dish is sans pareil.
I first came across tarragon, as a dried herb, more than 30 years ago. I had bought some to use in a chicken dish that I was preparing for the first time. What I didn’t notice, was that the recipe intended that the cook use fresh tarragon. By using the dried herb, I rendered the chicken inedible; my palate resolved that it would NOT go anywhere near tarragon again!
About 25 years later, I became one of the tens of thousands of Australians who owned a copy of Stephanie Alexander’s encyclopaedic book, The Cook’s Companion. One of the recipes that caught my eye was for a carpaccio of salmon served with a salsa of fresh herbs and tomato; tarragon was one of the four herbs to be used. Fresh salmon – farmed off the coast of Tasmania – had only been available in Australia for about a decade and I was one of many who was relishing the opportunity to cook with it. Hence my interest in the carpaccio recipe, despite the tarragon. Once I had impressed friends with the dish, I was converted and added tarragon to the range of herbs I would try to grow in my own garden.
One of the best known concoctions that has introduced tarragon to a vast audience is bearnaise sauce. Chopped tarragon and tarragon-infused white wine vinegar are both essential ingredients in this condiment, most frequently served with a beef steak that has been grilled or pan-fried. It took us until very recently to buy some tarragon vinegar for our pantry – as an owner of grocery lines and batterie de cuisine I am a minimalist – but we finally made bearnaise sauce for the first time earlier this week. We had some with a light lunch of ham and fresh asparagus; the bearnaise was good but hollandaise sauce is superior as a companion for asparagus. The balance of the bearnaise will be consumed this evening, when we will be barbecuing two thick steaks of beef rump.
My personal favourite destiny for fresh tarragon is as one of three herbs – parsley and chives being the others – that I use in my version of a meurniere sauce to accompany a serve of pan-fried delicate white fish. (The recipe for the sauce was provided in last month’s post A fish dish to celebrate our baby kipflers.)
And I have just eaten another tarragon-flavoured dish which I prepare regularly for my lunch. I call it my French omelet.
The ingredients are: 2 x 60g eggs, 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard, generous pinch of salt, 3 or 4 grinds of black pepper, 30g of well-smoked ham roughly chopped and 1 tsp each of finely chopped tarragon and parsley. I add the mustard to the bowl before I beat the eggs to ensure full incorporation in the mixture. If Maggie is on the list of diners, I am lobbied to add some grated cheese but I prefer to reserve the cheese for an omelet I make with sauteed mushrooms and chopped parsley.