Spring always seems rushed. It’s as if we spend months climbing a mountain called winter, and when we finally reach the peak, we’re so grateful that we run as fast as we can down the other side — past spring and directly into summer. It’s even true for the vegetables we’re attracted to — the fleeting cool weather crops that are harvested and eaten before spring has truly begun.
Asparagus, fresh peas, and favas are a magic trick that Mother Nature pulls out of her hat. And, like any good parlor sleight of hand, they inspire awe and applause from our kitchens. These vegetables follow the law of diminishing returns: They vanish before we have time to tire of them — which is probably why we clamor for them so.
These vegetables draw your attention away from the nuts and bolts of cooking so much that it’s easy to overlook some of the other real treasures of the spring garden: the first fresh herbs.
Take tarragon, the bellwether of my kitchen garden, tucked away in the corner of a raised bed just outside my door. Every day, starting in early April, I descend the back porch steps to that corner in hopes of spotting the first green tips of spring.
I then pinch off the first shoots with glee and crush the tender leaves between my thumb and forefinger, staining them with chlorophyll. The smell is a magical anise elixir, packed with the promise of the other herbs that will follow close behind: lovage, savory, chervil, and chives.
Maybe it’s tarragon’s longevity, but as the seasons progress, it is the quiet friend that is always there with a helping hand. It lifts Green Goddess dressing, carries Béarnaise, mellows white wine vinegar, and is the secret ingredient to French fines herbes. I like tarragon with my tomatoes just as much as I do basil. It’s delicious with fish, and it elevates tender butter leaf lettuce when tossed with a simple, mustardy red wine vinaigrette. Without tarragon’s balanced hand, many a seafood bisque would be nothing more than a briny shot of sherry.
In Poulet à l’ Estragon — a classic French dish that at first glance looks heavy — the herb actually makes way for lighter times (and taste). It is without question one of my favorite tarragon pairings, and it makes for a classic Sunday dinner fit for any dining room.
Notes: There are lots of ways to make this dish. You could use whole fresh tomatoes, you could eliminate the cream and you could make it complicated by using multiple pans. I haven’t done any of these but what I have done is keep the recipe simple and straight forward which in the end creates a rewarding and satisfying comfort food. I rarely cook anything other then a whole chicken, whether left whole or cut into pieces. Thighs would be great for this as would (I have put my hands over my eyes ) boneless skinless chicken breasts. If you use the breasts be very mindful of your cooking time or you will dry them out.
Serves 4 to 6
1 chicken, 3 1/2 to 4 pounds, cut into 8 pieces
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 cups chicken stock or water
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 shallots, trimmed, peeled and julienned
1/3 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons tarragon, minced, plus four sprigs
1/2 cup dry white wine
1. Season the chicken with salt and white pepper. Place a heavy bottom 12″ skillet over medium high heat. When the pan is hot add enough olive oil to form a thin film on the bottom of the pan.
2. Add the chicken skin side down. Brown the chicken to your liking. When the chicken is brown quickly remove it to a plate.
3. Add the butter and the shallots to the sauté pan. Saute the shallots until golden.
4. Deglaze the pan with the white wine and let the wine reduce to a tablespoon or so. Add the chicken stock, tomato paste and the sprigs of tarragon. Place the chicken back into the pan and let the sauce come to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer.
5. Place a lid on the pan and simmer the chicken until tender. About thirty minutes. Mean while heat the oven broiler.
6. When the chicken is tender remove the lid from the pan. Carefully place the pan into the oven under the broiler and broil it for 3 to 5 minutes or however much time it takes to crisp up the skin.
7. Remove from the oven. Remove the chicken to a platter. Place the pan over high heat. Add the cream and stir it in. Add the chopped tarragon. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning. Stir and bring to a boil.
8. Sauce the chicken and serve over rice with extra sauce on the side.