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Give dishes a kiss of spring with fresh tarragon

To the winter weary, tarragon is an unexpected kiss of spring, startling even the most experienced of palates.

Its bittersweet, herbaceous flavor is complex and nuanced. Notes of anise, grass, fennel and pepper give stoic winter dishes a breath of much-needed fresh air.

Incorporating this springy herb into cold-weather recipes helps bridge the gap between seasons, bringing a fresh, sophisticated flavor to our everyday meals.

Originating from Siberia and Mongolia, tarragon has been cultivated in France, Spain and Italy for the past 600 years. It is thought to have been brought to Italy in the 10th century by invading Mongols who used it as a sleep aid, breath freshener and seasoning.

Its Latin name, dracunculus, means “little dragon” and is derived from the medieval belief that the shape of a plant reflected its uses. According to the Doctrine of Signatures, tarragon was once thought to cure snake bites, due to the coiled, serpentine shape of its roots.

In France, tarragon is considered one of the “four fine herbs,” essential in French cooking – along with parsley, chive and chervil. It is often paired with eggs, chicken, fish, legumes and fresh green salads, particularly butter lettuce.

Next time you’re in the herb aisle, pick up a package and begin experimenting. Add tarragon to transform basic recipes like chicken pot pie, shepherd’s pie or chicken salad. Add some to your scrambled eggs. Toss some in your next potato salad. Use it to flavor mayonnaise, vinegars or mustards. Mix a little with cream cheese and lather up a toasted bagel, or sprinkle it over avocado toast.

Let tarragon help take your soups and salads to another level. With its vermouth-like flavor, tarragon adds a sophisticated twist to cocktails and sauces. Like many delicious things, tarragon can be an acquired taste. But I assure you, it’s one that is very much worth acquiring. Make an effort to get to know this tender herb, and you will be rewarded with its originality. It will absolutely make you a better cook.

To me, using fresh tarragon versus dried is always the better option. Remember to use it sparingly, however; a little goes a long way. Frozen tarragon is an excellent substitute for fresh, and know that you can always freeze what you don’t use, but the dried version seems to lose all its best attributes, so I don’t bother with it.

French tarragon is a member of the daisy family, a perennial herb. It is a woody, spreading plant, hardy up to minus 10 degrees, perfect for our growing area. Tarragon can grow up to 3 feet tall and likes moderate sun, preferring a little shade during the warmest part of the day. It grows well in a rich, loamy soil that holds moisture, but drains well. It propagates best through root division, rather than by seed.

Tarragon Split Pea Soup

1 medium onion, diced

1 cup diced celery

1 small fennel bulb, cored and finely diced

2 tablespoons oil

4 cups chicken broth or stock

2 cups water

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup split peas

2 cups frozen peas

1 cup water

2 tablespoons fresh tarragon

Garnish with fresh tarragon leaves, truffle oil (optional)

In a heavy-bottom pot or dutch oven, saute the onion, celery and fennel in the oil over medium heat for 10 minutes, or until tender. Add broth and water, split peas and salt. Bring to a boil.

Cover, simmer on medium low heat 1 hour and 15 minutes, checking and giving a stir after 1 hour.

In a blender, add 1 cup water, 2 cups frozen peas and the fresh tarragon, and blend until smooth. This will give the soup a bright green color.

A this point you could also blend the rest of the soup for a smooth consistency, or simply add the blended frozen pea/tarragon mixture directly into the soup pot. Taste, adjust salt.

Gently warm it up before serving, taking care not to overboil or you will loose the lovely green color.

Garnish with fresh tarragon, and a drizzle of truffle oil (optional).

Irish Stew with Tarragon

3 pounds lamb shoulder (or use beef chuck roast) cut in 2-inch chunks

Salt and pepper

3 to 4 tablespoons oil

1 pound frozen peeled cipollini onions (or use 3 medium onions, cut into wedges)

1 pound baby carrots (or about 6 medium cut in 3-inch lengths)

2 pounds baby potatoes (1 to 2 inch in diameter)

4 cups chicken broth or stock

1 large sprig thyme, or 2 bay leaves

1-2 cups frozen or fresh peas (optional, for color)

1 tablespoon fresh tarragon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Pat lamb dry and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper.

Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed oven-proof dutch oven over medium-high heat. Brown meat on all sides, working in batches, taking your time to do this well. Set meat aside and add onions and carrots to pot, lowering heat to medium. Season generously with salt and pepper and continue cooking 8 minutes.

Return the meat to pot, add the potatoes and broth and bring to a simmer. Put in thyme sprig or bay leaves. Cover tightly, and bake for 1 ½ hours or until lamb is tender when probed with knife.

Uncover, add peas, and cook 10 more minutes. Remove fat from top of broth using a ladle or spoon.

Garnish with fresh tarragon and ladle into bowls like a soup, adjusting salt if necessary.

Tarragon Chicken Salad

1 pound cooked chicken

1 cup chopped celery

¼ finely chopped onion

½ cup mayonnaise

2 teaspoons whole grain mustard

1 to 2 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves, chopped

salt and pepper to taste

Cut or shred chicken into bite-sized pieces and place in a medium bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix, incorporating all. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve over simply dressed greens, or as a sandwich on toasted bread with lettuce.

The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home, www.feastingathome.com.


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