There is no such thing as too much tarragon, right? I certainly don’t think so. Well, I suppose it is possible to have too much of any one flavor. Or perhaps you’re thinking “Tarragon, yuck! That tastes like licorice!” at which point the chef groans and gives up on pleasing you. Flavor associations can be strong and are hard to remove from people’s heads, which is very unfortunate for the delightfully sweet and complex flavor of tarragon. We’re given a black licorice stick or some cheap jelly beans as a kid and forever scarred to the flavors of tarragon, anise, and fennel. There are some flavors you will never learn to like; there are many others you simply need to give a second chance.
A few weeks back I made chicken noodle soup at work. I cook for a retirement community where approximately 100-150 residents and staff eat every day, so , needless to say, it is never possible to please every single person. On the day I made the chicken noodle soup, a resident, whom I happen to know because we attend the same church, came up to me and said, “the chicken noodle soup was…” then proceeded to stick out her tongue and make a thumbs-down gesture. One of the first things you learn as a cook is that many people have the idea that it is there God-given right and duty to tell you how horrible your food is and how you can make it better. You quickly learn to have a thick skin and dream of the day when you are rich and cranky enough yourself to tell them exactly what you think right back.
She proceeded to tell me that the soup had no flavor and that her mother (another thing you learn as a cook is that many people have an unhealthy obsession with their mothers’ cooking) put anise in her chicken noodle soup.
Anise in chicken noodle soup! I could immediately hear every other resident wailing “Why does my chicken noodle soup taste like licorice!” Later, when I was no longer busy keeping pans full and counters clean, I started to wonder how her mother went about putting anise in her soup. Did she use anise seeds or anise extract? Both would lend a very strong flavor. Anise extract was my first thought because there is a popular Christmas cookie in our area, the peppernut, that often uses anise extract. I have seen older peppernut recipes that use ground anise seeds. Perhaps her mother used tarragon. French tarragon would lend a more delicate, sweeter anise flavor to the soup, but it would still be fairly prevalent. Using some chopped fennel and cooking it into the mirepoix would be the best option. Cooking fennel mellows and sweetens its flavor even more, but fennel seems unlikely. Someday I need to ask her when I have the chance.
A bit on these similarly flavored but vastly different plants:
-Anise: we usually use the seeds from this plant which is in the parsley family, but the leaves are flavored as well. Anise seeds are the main flavor ingredient in the New Mexico state cookie, biscochito. They are simple and very good; I suggest you try them.
-Fennel: fennel closely resembles celery and is sometimes mislabeled as “sweet anise.” Florence fennel grows a bulb which can be sliced and used along with the stalks and dill-like leaves. Common fennel does not grow a bulb and is grown more for its seeds, which are used to flavor Italian sausage and many other things. Toast fennel seeds before crushing for a smoky, nutty flavor.
-Licorice: licorice is grown for its root (think ginger, horseradish, turmeric). The extract from its root has long been used in medicines and candies.
-Tarragon: tarragon is an herb with long, thin leaves. There are two major varieties: French tarragon has thinner, sweeter leaves; Texas (or Mexican) tarragon has broader leaves and a stronger flavor. Add tarragon to hollandaise sauce for the classic bearnaise sauce. It’s also great in many fish and chicken dishes, or try it on some cheese:
Too-Much-Tarragon Brie with shallots and golden raisins
1 tbsp Butter
3-4 Shallots, sliced thin
1/3 cup Golden Raisins
1/2 cup fresh Tarragon Leaves
1. Set the brie on a serving plate and cut into several pieces, you can do 6, 8, 12, whatever you want.
2. Melt the butter in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and cook until tender, only a couple of minutes.
3. Add the golden raisins to the shallots and cook a few minutes more until they are heated through.
4. Stir in about half of the tarragon with the shallots and raisins and immediatly remove from the heat.
5. Pour the shallot mixture over the brie and top with the rest of the fresh tarragon.
6. Serve with crackers.