Tarragon is one of those herbs that I have seen frequently on lists of “top herbs and spices to have in your kitchen” or included as part of an 18-bottle spice rack combo pack. It is one of the cornerstones of French cooking (according to the Internet), and yet until recently I don’t believe I’d ever used the stuff. I bought it because I thought I was supposed to, and then let it sit on the shelf collecting dust until all of the flavor in the dried flakes had eked away. I’ve wasted several bottles of the stuff this way over the years, kicking myself every time, so when I saw tarragon seedlings at my local nursery, I thought, “Aha! I’ll *grow* it.” My rationale was that if I had poured time and energy and sweat into nurturing the herb, I’d be more inclined to use it. And anyway, if it was growing in my garden, it would be there, still fresh, whenever I got around to using it. Notice that these two ways of thinking cancel one another out rather nicely. So of course, I bought not one, but *two* plants.
One thing I’ve noticed when it comes to gardening: the ingredients I’m good at cooking with are not necessarily the ingredients I am good at growing. It took me years to get the feel for producing tomatoes, one of the easiest crops to work with, and I’ve had little luck with cucumbers, carrots, squash, or even spinach, but herbs I had few uses for would overrun the entire patio if given half a chance.
Initially I found this frustrating, but I’ve since learned to roll with it and to see it as an invitation to learn how to use each new, insanely prolific ingredient. So in the face of more tarragon than I quite literally knew what to do with, I decided to make it the criteria for my May Cookbook challenge.
As with previous challenges where I started my search with a specific ingredient or dish in mind, finding a recipe that worked proved more difficult than I would have thought. Ooooh how I was tempted to simply Google the herb and browse the hundreds of results I know the search engine would have returned. I was good, though, and sat patiently, paging through index after index. For a so-called cornerstone ingredient, I found surprisingly few recipes that called for including tarragon in anything more complicated than a compound butter. Thankfully, my search was ultimately rewarded when I came across this beauty:
Poached Breast of Chicken with Tarragon Sauce
YIELD: 8 Servings
I found the above in a giant tome called, “On Cooking,” one of two lumbering cooking school textbooks I bought second-hand on Amazon back when I was researching culinary school curriculums for Getting Schooled.
I LOVE this book. Both it and its shelf-companion, CIA book, “The Professional Chef” have become my go-tos, not so much for the recipes (a lot of them are for cooking en masse, and so would have to be scaled WAY down), but more often just for basic knowledge. Believe it or not, there *are* times when it’s more trouble to Google something and sift through the results than to quickly open a textbook and flip a few pages. And when I wanted to learn to bone a whole, raw chicken, it was FAR more convenient to just have the book sitting open next to my cutting board rather than having to figure out how to scroll through web-based steps without finger painting my laptop with chicken juice and salmonella.
4 chicken breasts, boneless, skinless, approx. 8 oz. (250 g) each
1-1/2 oz. whole butter
TT* salt and white pepper
4 oz. white wine
1 pt. chicken Stock
1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried tarragon
1 oz. flour
4 oz. cream, 35%
Fresh tarragon sprigs, as needed
As you can see, this recipe calls for dried Tarragon, as well as fresh, so I snipped a few twigs of the stuff off one of my plants and hung it in a bunch upside down in my kitchen with a bit of twine. I’d seen it done with floral bouquets, so I figured it would work just as well with herbs.
Et voila! A couple of weeks later, and we had a pretty, little bunch of dried tarragon.
I crumbled some of it up and added the dried thyme.
1. Trim any rib meat and fat from the breasts. Cut the breasts into two pieces, removing the strip of cartilage that joins the halves.
2. Select a pan that will just hold the breasts when they are placed close together. Rub the pan with approximately 1/2 ounce (15 g) of butter.
3. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper and arrange them in the buttered pan, presentation side up.
“Presentation side” is cheffy talk for the side that will be facing up, visible, when the dish is served. It’s the pretty side. Given that “On Cooking” is a text book, we were probably meant to have learned that in a class at some point before attempting this recipe. Thankfully, while you’ll see it requires a boatload of techniques, there aren’t too many stumpers (I think).
4. Add the white wine, stock, bay leaf, thyme and dried tarragon.
5. Cut and butter a piece of parchment paper and cover the chicken breasts.
6. Bring the liquid to a simmer and reduce the temperature to poach the chicken.
7. Make a blond roux with 1 ounce (30 g) of butter and 1 ounce (30 g) of flour; set aside to cool.
8. When the breasts are done, remove them from the liquid. Thicken the liquid with the roux. Add the cream. Simmer and reduce to the desired consistency.
As you eagle-eyed readers have probably spotted, I did this the wrong way around, putting the cream in the roux and then adding the mixture to the broth. I clearly didn’t read the recipe closely enough. Ah well, doesn’t seem to have done any harm.
9. Strain the sauce through cheesecloth and adjust the seasonings.
10. Serve each half breast napped** with approximately 2 ounces (60 mL) of sauce; garnish each portion with a sprig of fresh tarragon.
Ta da! It needed a bit more salt for my taste, but otherwise it was super yummy, with the tarragon giving the sauce a light hint of herby sweetness that was a nice balance to the savory chicken broth. I’m happy to say that I have now successfully used some of that crazy plant growing my patio, but if I’m honest, I think I’ll try to find another recipe to use the rest. This one is a bit too involved to make on anything like a regular basis, what with all the different techniques required. In fact, while fun, it felt a little like some kind of pop quiz, which I suppose is appropriate, given that it came from a text book.
That’s it for this month, kiddos! See you in “June”!
*To taste **Don’t worry if you had to look this word up; I did, too. On the other hand, if you already knew that “nappe” means to thinly coat something with sauce, then go you, with your badass culinary vocabulary!