Wednesday, September 5, 2007


French tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus 'Sativa', is related to absinthe, Artemisia absinthium, and both are considered wormwoods. The straight species originated in SE Russia and is unpleasantly pungent compared to the culinary cultivar. It's possible Arabs introduced it to Europe in the late 1600s, using it for its medicinal properties. Tarragon has numbing effects thus used to treat snakebites and its roots are gnarled which may be why Europeans considered it to be an herb of the dragons.

Tarragon is a subtle plant. Its leaves are similar to lavender in shape, but a truer green. A pinch of its leaves reveals a scent similar to fennel bulb. Like most herbs, it likes quick draining soil and full sun. Seed-grown tarragon is not for cooking, but the not-so-tasty straight species. French tarragon is propagated by stem or root cuttings.

A bird's eye view of Artemisia dracunculus 'Sativa'.

Now for the recipes! Eldon and I loved the simple salad dressing at the Crepe Bistro when we were attending UC Davis. We claimed it was practically drinkable! He was able to figure out a close version. I don't have exact measurements. I leave it up to you to create the balance of ingredients that you like best. Be frugal with the vinegar and Dijon mustard as a little goes a long way.

French-style dressing:

Champagne vinegar--a good red wine vinegar is a fine substitute
1 clove garlic chopped
Dijon mustard (the easiest to find is Maille)
Fresh ground pepper
Chopped tarragon (~1/2 tsp--add more to taste)
Quality extra virgin olive oil

Combine all the ingredients except the olive oil in a small bowl. Taste and adjust ingredients if needed. Slowly add olive oil in a continuous stream while whisking, creating an emulsion. The amount you add will depend on the amount of ingredients you started with. Taste and add more oil if needed, or if there is too much oil, add more mustard and/or vinegar. Drizzle dressing over butter lettuce or your favorite salad mix.

A favorite summer meal is poached ling cod using white wine, salt and a few sprigs of tarragon. While the fish is poaching, I prepare a soft boiled egg and combine that with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and chopped tarragon. Once the fish is ready, I remove it from the poaching liquid and place on a large plate. The egg mixture is poured over the fish and chilled for an hour. I will either serve it with water crackers or ficelle (skinnier than baguette). It's a light-tasting dish that is perfect on a warm summer day or evening.

Potato salad can be hum-drum and overly mayonnaisey. Try this the next time you have to make it for the company picnic. Prepare small red potatoes as you would for any potato salad. Instead of mayonnaise from the jar, make your own combining 2 egg yolks, a few tablespoons champagne vinegar (or white wine vinegar), 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard, salt and fresh ground pepper to taste, and 1-2 teaspoon lemon juice. Add olive oil to your liking in a steady stream while whisking to create an emulsion. Once you have your homemade mayonnaise, add it to the bowl of cooled, quartered potatoes, add a small shallot (peeled and minced), a few tablespoons of fresh tarragon, and salt and pepper to taste.

Give an old salad recipe or your pickling cucumbers some French flair by adding a little tarragon. Bon apetit!

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