Looking back on my childhood in the U.S., I don’t ever remember my mother using fresh herbs in cooking. She would occasionally use rosemary when cooking lamb (at Easter), but that was about it. Even my grandmother, a prolific cook and baker (she made 3 cakes from scratch every week), didn’t have fresh herbs in her cooking repertoire.
The French and Their Herbs:
It wasn’t until I moved to Paris that I saw for the first time how the families I visited used a variety of herbs in their everyday cooking. Now I realize that this is one of the French “secrets” to make simple home-cooked meals taste restaurant quality. But there’s really nothing mysterious about it at all!
What is a mystery, to me at least, is why French cuisine incorporates the widest variety of herbs in home cooking, more so than any other European cuisine. Some historians will say that several factors played a role in this:
- the influence of Catherine de Medici and the sophisticated cooks she brought with her during her reign
- the new and unusual herbs that French explorers brought back from their adventures
- the herbs (and spices) shipped from the countries France colonized
- and finally the insatiable curiosity of the great French chefs to look for inspiration beyond their borders
All these influences are believed to have trickled down and influenced everyday cooking today in France.
For example, even in a large city like Paris, any fruit and vegetable seller will have a large variety of fresh herbs on offer. French women will regularly pick up several different types of herbs, either in bunches or in small flower pots for their kitchens. Fresh herbs have a natural spot on their grocery list when shopping for produce and they know how to use them in modern and traditional recipes.
How The French Use Tarragon:
One such herb that is typically French is tarragon (“estragon”). It’s one of my favorite herbs today but one I never knew growing up. Tarragon is part of what the French call the “Fines Herbes” group along with chives, chervil, and parsely due to their delicate flavors. These herbs, due to their delicateness, are added for seasoning at the end of a dish’s preparation rather than during cooking.
Tarragon’s flavor is close to licorice and is a delight in cream sauces, vinaigrettes, and mayonnaise. It can add a magical quality to simple chicken, fish, and vegetable recipes. The French use it in cooking poultry and seafood, and also to infuse vinegar and flavor mustard.
Two French Recipes With Tarragon:
Here are two French recipes with tarragon, one an easy starter course and another a traditional main course:
1. Peas in Coconut Milk Soup with Fresh Tarragon
- 600 gr / 20 oz. of peas (fresh or frozen)
- 80 cl / 3 1/2 cups of Coconut Milk
- 4 stems of fresh Tarragon leaves
- Olive Oil
- Salt & Peper
-Cook the peas in the coconut milk on low heat for 25 minutes
-Put in a mixer or use an immersion blender
-Add salt & pepper to taste
-Drizzle olive oil lightly over the soup before serving
-Chop the fresh Tarragon and add on top.
You can also fry up a spicy sausage of your choice, chop it and add it to this dish.
2. The Traditional “Poulet de Varvannes” or Chicken in a Tarragon Cream Sauce:
(from “Food & Friends” by Simone Beck)
- 8 Tb of unsalted butter at room temperature
- Salt & Pepper
- One roasting chicken, about 4 lbs
- 2 1/2 cups of heavy cream
- 1 1/2 Tb Dijon mustard
- Bunch of fresh tarragon, plus 1 1/2 Tb of minced tarragon
-Cream the softened butter with salt & pepper and spread inside the chicken
-Add the bunch of tarragon leaves tied with butcher’s string inside the chicken as well
-Smear the outside of the chicken with more butter
-Preheat oven to 350°F
-Oil a roasting pan with a neutral oil (safflower oil)
-Roast the chicken for 25 minutes, basting every 10 minutes, rotating it to brown it evenly
-Remove from the oven and let cool slightly, then carve into 7 pieces and set aside
-Deglaze the roasting pan by pouring the cream into it, then pour the pan’s contents into a skillet and reduce slightly.
-Add half of the chopped tarragon leaves and all of the Dijon mustard
-Add the 7 chicken pieces to the skillet and finish cooking them on a low simmer in the cream sauce, adding salt and pepper to taste.
-Let simmer slowly for 15 minutes or until the chicken is done. Correct the seasoning if needed.
-Serve the chicken pieces with the cream sauce and the rest of the chopped tarragon leaves on top.
Another herb the French use for sauces – often fresh, but sometimes dried – is Dill.
You’ll be amazed at how fresh herbs can add a flavorful and healthy boost to the simplest of ingredients.
Besides fresh herbs, savvy French cooks use dried herb blends like “Herbes de Provence” or “Bouquet Garni ” to give their home cooking outstanding natural flavor.
So if you want to move away from relying on packaged, highly processed, or take-out food, becoming familiar with fresh herbs in cooking is a great start!
And now you: Do you like Tarragon? Do you use fresh herbs in preparing your meals? Are they easy to find? Leave a comment and let me know!
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