The long, gray oppression of winter is finally getting to me, the piercing chill, the overcast skies, the near-constant gloom.
The time has come to brighten things up, to welcome spring maybe even before it arrives. We can trick ourselves into feeling just a little more spring-like by cooking with that most vernal of ingredients, tarragon.
At this point, we should probably note that, because of deadlines, this story was written a week ago. The weather in March is notoriously unpredictable, as many lions and more than a few lambs have discovered. For all we know, you could be reading this outdoors in short sleeves, sunglasses shielding your eyes from the blazing sun, a glass of cool iced tea in your hand. But when we started doing the cooking for this article, it was snowing.
Anyway: tarragon. Available fresh year-round in most supermarkets, it is the brightest and freshest-tasting of all herbs, standing out from other flavors in a meal with a ringing clarity, like a single bell heard in an orchestra. It is a bold flavor, but not brash, tasting of the early sun. It has hints of an anise flavor — licorice — but not strongly; many people who do not like anise still crave the taste of tarragon.
The flavor is deceptively strong, and too much tarragon can ruin a dish. But when used judiciously, a little tarragon is like springtime on a plate. It adds bounce to salad dressings, and it pairs well with all phases of chicken — that is, both the chicken and the egg.
One of the best things I know to do with tarragon is to put it in a Turkish dish with chicken, bulgur, tomatoes, and peppers. In Turkish, it’s called domatesli bugurlu piliç, which is why we’ll call it chicken with bulgur, tomatoes, peppers, and tarragon.
The genius of this dish is that it is a paradox. It takes the fresh, spring-like taste of tarragon and cooks it in a slow-cooking cold-weather meal that is warming, heavy, and sticks to your ribs. In other words, it’s perfect for March. The chicken, bulgur, tomatoes, and peppers, all cooked together in chicken stock, would be a marvelous and filling meal on its own, but the tarragon adds a contrasting, soaring note that makes this dish a classic.
Even easier to cook is the French staple poulet au pot, or chicken in a pot, a popular meal that is said to date back half a millennium. It is half chicken stew, half chicken soup that benefits immeasurably from just a small, barely perceptible amount of both fresh tarragon and fresh thyme (dried versions of the herbs would also work well here).
The delicious recipe we used comes from Laura Calder, who gives the dish a light sweetness through leeks, pearl onions, carrots, celery, and parsnips. Although the dish is full-flavored, especially if you use a high-quality chicken stock, this flavor is a bit delicate, so it is best to eat the night you make it. Stewed beef might be even better on the second day, but stewed chicken (not to mention tarragon) is at its peak when it is freshest. This poulet au pot is by no means bad on Day Two, it just isn’t quite as good.
If we are working our way from the chicken dish that is the hardest to make — and it’s still pretty easy — to the least, we arrive at last at Jacques Pepin’s grilled chicken with tarragon butter. Even people who can’t cook can cook this: Simply grill the chicken and top it with dollops of tarragon butter that you make by putting tarragon, butter, olive oil, lemon juice, and salt in a blender and whirring it all together. The tarragon butter more or less replicates the flavor of a classic bearnaise sauce, a classic pairing with any grilled meat.
Tarragon is additionally always welcome in a salad. A few chopped leaves will brighten any salad on which you would put a vinaigrette, or you could also add them to the vinaigrette itself. One amazing dressing comes from the 1995 book The Complete Book of Dressings, which also recommends using it as a sauce over asparagus. Creamy tarragon-Dijon dressing is basically a standard vinaigrette with Dijon mustard and some mayonnaise and a little bit of tarragon mixed in. It is ridiculously easy to make (whisk everything together), which means it scores a particularly high flavor-to-effort-effort ratio.
And if you have any tarragon left over, one of our favorite things to do with it is to snip a couple of leaves over a poached egg. Cut the leaves in several places to avoid making the flavor too strong with any one bite of the egg. To add a subtle tarragon flavor to the egg itself, simply put a sprig in the simmering water as you poach it.
It’s the perfect thing to eat on a cold, blustery, snowy, wintery day. Or whenever.
Contact Daniel Neman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.
Poule au Pot (Chicken in a Pot)
1 chicken (3 pounds)
8 cups chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 tarragon sprig
6 garlic cloves, peeled
2 large or 4 small leeks, white and light green parts only, washed and thickly sliced
Salt and pepper
12 pearl onions, peeled
4 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
3 celery stalks, cut into finger lengths
1/2 small turnip, sliced
3 parsnips, peeled and sliced
Wrap the chicken in cheesecloth and tie the edges with twine, or truss the chicken with twine (tie it in such a way as to keep the wings and legs close to the body). Put the chicken into a big pot, breast side up, and pour over the chicken stock. Bring to a boil. Skim off the foam that rises until no more forms, about 30 minutes. Add the bay leaf, thyme, tarragon, garlic, leeks, salt, and pepper. Turn the chicken breast-side down. Cover, and simmer gently about 20 minutes more.
Add the pearl onions, carrots, celery, turnip, and parsnips. Continue cooking until the juices in the chicken run clear and the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes longer. The chicken will pull apart easily when it’s done.
Fish out the bay leaf and herb sprigs. Remove the cheesecloth or twine. Carve the chicken, removing the skin if you like, and arrange on a platter with the vegetables and with some broth pooled around.
Yield: 4 servings
Source: French Taste, by Laura Calder
Chicken with Bulgur, Tomatoes, Peppers, and Tarragon
1 3/4 cups finely chopped onions
1 chicken, cut into 8 serving pieces (thighs, legs, breasts cut in half)
1 cup seeded and chopped long green peppers OR red bell peppers OR green bell peppers OR a combination
1-2 red OR green jalapenos
3 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves OR 1 tablespoon dried tarragon
2 ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
Salt and pepper
2 cups bulgur
3 1/2 cups chicken stock
Heat the butter in a heavy pan and cook the onions until they turn almost reddish brown. Remove onions from the pan, add the chicken pieces, and sauté until golden on all sides. Push the chicken to one side, add the peppers and tarragon and cook, stirring for 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper; combine all the ingredients, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.
Wash and drain the bulgur. Heat the stock. Remove the chicken pieces to a plate, stir in the bulgur, and toss it with the vegetables and sauce for 3 minutes until it is well coated with the sauce. Add the hot chicken stock, let boil 1 minute, replace the chicken pieces except the breasts, cover, and simmer over low heat for about 15 minutes until all the liquid is absorbed. Add the breast pieces to the pan, remove from heat, and keep covered in a warm spot for 10 minutes. Stir once and serve.
Yield: 4 servings
Source: Adapted from Classical Turkish Cooking, by Ayla Algar
Grilled Chicken with Tarragon Butter
1 chicken (about 3 pounds), quartered, drumsticks and thighs separated
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
For direct heat: Heat a grill medium hot and preheat oven to 160 degrees. For indirect heat: Heat a grill medium hot with gas on one side of grill or coals stacked on opposite sides of grill.
Sprinkle the chicken pieces with the salt and oil. For direct heat: Grill the breasts for about 20 minutes and the leg pieces for about 30 minutes, turning occasionally, until nicely browned all over; transfer to a tray and put them in the warm oven until ready to serve. For indirect heat: Put the chicken pieces on the side of the grill away from the gas or on the space between the piles of coals; cook for 50 minutes, turning once after 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, for the tarragon butter: Put all the ingredients in a blender or food processor and process until smooth.
Divide the chicken among four individual plates, dot each serving with about 1 tablespoon of the tarragon butter (you will have about half of the butter left over), and serve.
Yield: 4 servings
Source: Adapted from Essential Pepin, by Jacques Pepin
Creamy Tarragon-Dijon Dressing
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon (or 1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon)
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, or to taste
In a small bowl, whisk together all ingredients. Taste; adjust seasonings. Stir or shake before serving. If using dried tarragon, allow the dressing to stand 15-30 minutes before serving. This dressing will keep for 2 days in a tightly closed container in the refrigerator.
Yield: 1/2 cup
Source: The Complete Book of Dressings, by Paulette Mitchell