Friday 6 January 2012

Sorting Tarragons as Herbs

Information on the Various Tarragons

Culinarily, there are two main types of tarragon, French Tarragon and Russian Tarragon. They are both actually cultivars of the same species, Artemisia dracunculus and are members of the Asteraceae (daisy) family of flowering plants.

French Tarragon is sweet and aromatic, reminiscent to fennel, anise and licorice. In contrast, Russian Tarragon, is not at all fragrant and tastes slightly bitter.

Russian tarragon is closer to the wild form of the plant (originating in Central Asia) and though many recipes state that it can be substituted for French tarragon, this is not really true. Russian tarragon is not really culinarily worthwhile. The only reason it is cultivated is that it is frost resistant and can withstand northern European winters to grow the following spring.

In the development of French tarragon, though the plant's aromatic qualities were much improved, it also became much less hardy. Anwyere there are low winter temperatures, it can only be grown as an annual (unless it is brought indoors or grown under glass). However, I have found that if you take root cuttings, plant these before the first frosts and bring them into the house, they will give you a supply of new plants to place in your garden for the following spring.

If you are looking at tarragon flavour, then an excellent substitute is Mexican Tarragon (also known as Winter Tarragon). This is not acutally a tarragon at all, as the species is Tagetes lucida which is actually a marigold, belogning to the Asteracea (aster/daisy) family. The plant is native to Mexico and the southern USA though it can be obtained as seed from many specialist nurseries. The plant is a half-hardy semi-woody sub-shrub that looks like a spindly marigold (growing to some 50cm) with small brightly-coloured flowers and elongated (often variegated) opposed leaves.

The flavour profile of the leaves is almost exactly the same as those of French tarragon, though stronger and Mexican Tarragon makes an excellent substitute for French tarragon in any recipe (though you should halve the quantities).

Typically tarragon is used for flavouring vinegars and sauces such as Hollandaise and Bechamel. But the mild aniseedy flavour of this herb makes it an excellent addition to fish dishes, chicken dishes (it goes particularly well in stuffings) and even tomato-based stews and sauces.

Below is a classic bean soup recipe using winter tarragon as a flavouring (though it works just as well with French tarragon).

Haricot Bean and Mexican Tarragon Soup

250g white haricot beans
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 small fennel bulb, diced
2 tbsp freshly-grated lemon zest
2 garlic cloves, minced
1.6l chicken stock (or strong vegetable stock)
1 tbsp fresh Mexican tarragon (Winter tarragon) leaves, finely chopped (or substitute twice the amount of French Tarragon)
3 tbsp thinly-sliced ham, cut into julienne strips
salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste

Pick over the beans, place in a large bowl then cover with plenty of water and set aside to soak over night.

The following day, drain off all the water and set the beans aside. Add the oil to a large pan over medium heat. When hot, add the onion and fennel. Fry for about 10 minutes, or until golden brown then stir in the lemon zest and garlic. Fry for 1 minute more then stir in the stock.

Add the drained beans then bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover the pot and cook gently for about 60 minutes, or until the beans are tender. Uncover the pot then stir in the winter tarragon leaves (reserve 1/2 tsp for garnish). Now add the ham then adjust the seasonings to taste.

Divide the soup between four warmed soup bowls, garnish with the reserved tarragon leaves and serve immediately.

Notice, in the recipe above, how the tarragon is added towards the very end of the cooking time. This is because the compound that give tarragon its distinctive taste and aroma are very volatile, they disappear quickly if the herbs is over cooked. Tarragon also displays the same problem if it is dried and the dried herb has little of the flavour of the fresh. This is the same problem as encountered with many herbs (except, notably, for celery leaves).

For more information on tarragons, please visit the following pages:

Gernot Katzer's tarragon information page

and as part of the Celtnet Guide to Herbs:
Celtnet Herb Guide Tarragon Page
Celtnet Herb Guide Mexican Tarragon page

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