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Tarragon of virtue

Most herbs defy easy description. Trying to discuss the flavor of thyme or oregano leads only to vague adjectives. Calling rosemary “woody” doesn’t quite cut it.

But tarragon is easy. Tarragon tastes sort of like licorice.

It does not taste entirely like licorice; if it did, people would just put licorice in their food and that would be gross. But tarragon is certainly reminiscent of it, in a mild way.

Tarragon can be used as a bright punctuation to chicken, such as in this grilled or baked chicken with Dijon mustard and fresh tarragon. (Roberto Rodriguez/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

Tarragon can be used as a bright punctuation to chicken, such as in this grilled or baked chicken with Dijon mustard and fresh tarragon. (Roberto Rodriguez/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

This is not to say that tarragon itself is mild. It is quite strong; a little goes a long way. But when that little bit is applied to the right dishes, the result can be divine.

Most frequently, it is used as a bright punctuation to chicken, both in its later form (chicken) and its early one (eggs). Snip a few tarragon leaves over scrambled eggs and you have instantly elevated your breakfast. Mix a bit into chicken salad or egg salad and you have turned lunch from ordinary to grand.

Tarragon is also used frequently to bring out the best in seafood. A little tarragon added to shrimp, olive oil, shallots and garlic makes an outstanding topping for pasta. Most fin fish, too, benefit by being lightly blessed with tarragon.

And what about the other white meat? Pork is paired less frequently with tarragon, but the herb is an excellent complement to it. And you can even find respectable recipes for tarragon sauces to be served with big-flavored beef, though you won’t find them here. What you will find here are two recipes for chicken, one for pork and one for salmon.

The recipes for chicken are not just among my favorite recipes for tarragon and not even just among my favorite recipes for chicken. They are among my favorite recipes, ever.

The first comes from the Trellis restaurant in Williamsburg, Va., which used to be great until the chef became famous and then the quality of the cooking dropped considerably (I haven’t been in years so I don’t know how it is now). While it was still great, they came up with a grilled chicken dish with Dijon mustard and tarragon.

Here is how easy it is: You take a chicken and coat it with a mixture of mustard, wine and tarragon. You wait 24 hours. Then you grill it.

It is easily among the best grilled chicken you will ever have. It is certainly among the best grilled chicken I have ever had. And the genius of the recipe is you don’t even have to grill it. It makes a great baked chicken or pan-sautéed chicken. Or you could do what I did and combine each of these methods. I put the chicken on a hot, cast-iron grill pan to get some of the flavor of a grill, flipped it over and then finished it off in the oven.

It was outstanding.

The other favorite chicken-and-tarragon recipe comes from Turkey. What makes it so outstanding is that the flavors all get trapped in bulgur, which adds a nutty taste of its own.

Also, there is a lot of butter. The butter helps. The butter also gets trapped in the bulgur. Yum. There, it also mixes with onions, tomatoes, green peppers and chicken stock. As I said, yum.

The bulgur makes the dish stick-to-your-ribs filling, so I often make it in the winter. But it is so deliriously good you will want to make it year-round. Though the flavors are bold, they are light enough to make it a perfect meal for the summer, too.

For a dish with fish, I went the salmon-with-mayonnaise route. A dollop of mayonnaise mixed with herbs is a delicious way to add elegance to poached salmon, and tarragon goes with mayonnaise the way peanut butter goes with jelly.

Then, I found an additional element online that, frankly, I would not have thought to do. I did not poach the salmon in water, stock or wine, or any combination of them. I poached it in beer.

As it turns out, salmon and beer go together like, well, tarragon and mayonnaise. And the creaminess of the tarragon mayo makes a perfect foil for the flavor of the beer.

The tarragon is also part of the sauce for the pork dish, Pork Chops With Mushroom-Tarragon Sauce. Mushrooms, tarragon and wine make up one of those classic gravies that can be paired with any number of dishes.

In this case, we did it with pork chops. The mildness of the meaty chops really allowed the flavor of the tarragon to come through. And also the flavors of the mushrooms and wine.

Tarragon. It goes with everything.

Tarragon brings its slightly licorice-y flavor to this chicken with bulgur, tomatoes and peppers. (Roberto Rodriguez/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

Tarragon brings its slightly licorice-y flavor to this chicken with bulgur, tomatoes and peppers. (Roberto Rodriguez/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

CHICKEN WITH BULGUR, TOMATOES, PEPPERS AND TARRAGON

Serves 4

1 chicken

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1¾ cups finely chopped onions

1 cup seeded and chopped red and/or green bell peppers

1 or 2 red or green jalapeños

3 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves

2 ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped

Salt and pepper

2 cups bulgur

3½ cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)

Cut chicken into 8 serving pieces: thighs, legs, each breast cut in half.

Melt the butter in a large, heavy pan on medium heat 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. Stir in the tomatoes and reserved onions. Season with salt and pepper. Combine all the ingredients, cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

While the chicken mixture is simmering, heat chicken stock until hot. Wash and drain the bulgur.

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 of the liquid is absorbed. Add the breast pieces to the pan, remove from heat, and keep covered in a warm spot for 10 minutes. Serve with a salad.

PER SERVING: 885 calories; 42 g fat; 18 g saturated fat; 180 mg cholesterol; 57 g protein; 71 g carbohydrate; 9 g sugar; 16 g fiber; 435 g sodium; 100 mg calcium.

– From “Classical Turkish Cooking” by Ayla Algar

GRILLED OR BAKED CHICKEN WITH DIJON MUSTARD AND FRESH TARRAGON

Serves 4

½ cup Dijon mustard

¼ cup dry white wine

1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon

Salt and pepper

2 (3-pound) chickens, halved

About 24 hours before serving, whisk together the mustard, wine and tarragon in a large stainless-steel bowl. Season with salt and pepper, and combine thoroughly. Coat the chicken halves with the mustard marinade. Individually plastic-wrap them and refrigerate for 24 hours before cooking.

If grilling: Season the chicken halves with salt and pepper. Set up the grill for indirect heat. Grill over indirect heat, beginning skin-side down and flipping once, 50 minutes to 1 hour, until done.

If grilling on a grill with no cover: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grill chicken directly over the coals, flipping frequently to avoid overcharring. When chicken looks like it will soon become too charred, transfer to a baking sheet and finish baking in oven, 30-45 minutes, until done.

If baking: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Season the chicken halves with salt and pepper. Bake about 1 hour, until done.

If using grill pan: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Season the chicken halves with salt and pepper. Spray grill pan with nonstick spray and heat on high heat until nearly smoking. Add chicken, skin-side down. Cook until skin has dark grill marks. Flip chicken and place pan in oven. Bake about 55 minutes, until done.

PER SERVING: 825 calories; 31 g fat; 9 g saturated fat; 335 mg cholesterol; 118 g protein; 6 g carbohydrate; no sugar; no fiber; 1005 g sodium; 60 mg calcium.

– Adapted from “The Trellis Cookbook,” by Marcel Desaulniers

BEER-POACHED SALMON WITH TARRAGON MAYONNAISE

Serves 4

½ cup mayonnaise (low-fat is fine)

¼ teaspoon dried tarragon

1 teaspoon minced chives

1 teaspoon chopped green onions

1 teaspoon minced parsley

12 ounces beer

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 medium onion, chopped

1 rib celery, chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1 bay leaf

4 whole peppercorns

4 (6-ounce) salmon fillets, 1 inch thick

Combine mayonnaise, tarragon, chives, green onions and parsley in a small bowl. Chill until ready to serve.

In a large skillet, combine beer, lemon juice, onion, celery, salt, bay leaf and peppercorns. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer 10 minutes. Add salmon fillets. If the liquid does not cover the fish, add more beer or water to just cover. Lightly simmer 10 minutes or until fish flakes easily with a fork.

Serve fish with a dollop of mayonnaise on each.

PER SERVING: 560 calories; 36 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 130 mg cholesterol; 44 g protein; 6 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 845 g sodium; 40 mg calcium.

Adapted from recipegirl.com

Tarragon can be used as an excellent complement to pork, such as in pork chops with mushroom-tarragon sauce. (Roberto Rodriguez/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

Tarragon can be used as an excellent complement to pork, such as in pork chops with mushroom-tarragon sauce. (Roberto Rodriguez/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

PORK CHOPS WITH MUSHROOM-TARRAGON SAUCE

Serves 4

4 pork chops, ¾-inch thick and 6 ounces each

¼ teaspoon garlic salt

¼ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

2 teaspoons olive oil, divided

12 ounces sliced fresh mushrooms

1 medium onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/3 cup white wine, see note

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 cup chicken broth

2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon (see note)

2 teaspoons butter

Sprinkle pork chops with garlic salt and pepper. Spray a large nonstick skillet with cooking spray, heat over medium-high heat, and add 1 teaspoon oil. Sear the pork chops until brown on both sides. Remove pork and keep warm.

Add remaining 1 teaspoon oil, and sauté mushrooms and onion until almost tender. Add garlic; cook 1 minute longer. Stir in wine. Bring to a boil, and cook until liquid is almost evaporated. Combine flour and broth until smooth in a small bowl. Stir into pan. Bring to a boil; cook and stir 2 minutes or until thickened.

Return pork chops to pan and add tarragon. Cover and cook 6 to 8 minutes, until done, 145 degrees for medium rare, 150 degrees for medium or 160 degrees for well done. Stir in butter.

If cooked until medium rare, allow meat to rest 3 minutes before serving.

COOK’S NOTE: If you prefer not to cook with wine, use chicken broth. If you do not have fresh tarragon, use ½ teaspoon dried tarragon.

PER SERVING: 350 calories; 18 g fat; 7 g saturated fat; 90 mg cholesterol; 32 g protein; 11 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 360 g sodium; 85 mg calcium.

– Adapted from Taste of Home

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