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Chicken with tarragon

Don't like gardening? Think you've got a "black thumb" that kills growing things on contact? Me too!

But here's my advice, as spring moves on toward summer and we're starting to enjoy the bounty of a backyard garden tended by my long-suffering bride, whose thumb is as green as an Irish shamrock: Even if you're not into growing your own tomatoes, zucchini and such, it's well worth the effort to nurture a small collection of fresh herbs. Even if you lack garden space, it's entirely possible to enjoy a decent herb garden in pots on an apartment balcony.

For anyone who loves cooking, there are few simple joys to compare with the pleasure I get from stepping out the side door to snip a little parsley, sage, rosemary or thyme from our dooryard herb garden. Or fresh basil by the basket in season, or aromatic dillweed, or spicy oregano. Or best of all, tarragon, possibly my favorite fresh herb of them all, and one that's surprisingly difficult to find at the supermarket.

If smells were colors, tarragon ("estragon" in French) would be dark, forest green. Its aroma is subtly reminiscent of anise, but licorice-haters need not fear: This is a delicate, complex aroma that pleases but does not overwhelm. It goes brilliantly with chicken and finds just as natural a match with fish. You can add sprigs of it to infuse a vinaigrette, or steep a little in cream sauces to add a haunting herbal flavor.

If you haven't yet discovered tarragon, I urge you to give it a try. And if you already know what I'm talking about, then what are you waiting for? Here's a delicious, simple chicken dish designed to showcase the flavor of tarragon, and you needn't be shy about using the herb in bountiful amounts.

I've made variations on this dish a couple of times recently, since this year's tarragon plants grew large enough to start snipping. I first tried it as a traditional Poulet Sauté, browning the chicken, deglazing the pan, then allowing the chicken pieces to cook with sprigs of tarragon in only the fat in the pan and their own juices until they were cooked through; only fashioning the sauce with minced tarragon, a little broth and the pan juices after the chicken was done. For a second try, I switched over to a fricassee method, browning the chicken pieces and then offering them a long, gentle hot bath in broth with tarragon. I found this method more to my liking because it yielded tender, falling-off-the-bone chicken deeply infused with tarragon flavor. This is the method given in the recipe below.

Finally, note that this dish is a celebration of herbs, so you want to use plenty of tarragon, and you want it to be fresh. If you have to use dried, I recommend doing something different for dinner instead.

INGREDIENTS: (serves 2)

One 3-pound (1.5-kilo) chicken
Black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 or 2 garlic cloves
10 sprigs of fresh tarragon
1/4 cup dry vermouth or white wine
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 lemon


1. Cut up the chicken - I like to divide it into 10 parts (two wings, two legs and two thighs plus the two breasts each cut into halves) - or assemble the equivalent in cut-up parts to your liking. As a dark-meat fancier, I'll often make chicken dishes with all thighs, for example. Season the pieces with salt and freshly ground pepper.

2. Put the olive oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter in a skillet or saute pan (large enough to hold all the chicken in one layer) over medium-high heat. Peel and smash the garlic cloves and put them in. When the butter foam subsides and the garlic is aromatic, put in the chicken pieces and brown them well on all sides, about five minutes. For the last minute or two of browning, add a couple of good-size sprigs of the fresh tarragon.

3. Pour in the vermouth or white wine and stir, scraping the bottom to pick up any browned bits, and continue cooking over medium-high heat, turning the chicken pieces once or twice, until the wine has reduced to a syrup. Remove and discard the garlic and tarragon leaves, pour in the chicken stock, add about four more sprigs of fresh tarragon, and as soon as the liquid returns to a boil, reduce heat to low and cover. Cook on a gentle simmer for 20 minutes or so, turning the chicken occasionally, until the chicken pieces are tender and infused with tarragon flavor.

4. While the chicken is cooking, mince the remaining tarragon sprigs. Remove the cooked chicken from the pan and keep it warm. Stir the minced tarragon, the juice of the squeezed half-lemon and the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter into the liquid in the pan; raise heat to high, and cook briefly until it reduces and thickens slightly. For a refined, classic haut cuisine dish you can put the liquid through a fine strainer or chinois before serving it over the chicken. I don't bother.

MATCHING WINE: A dry white wine is called for, with extra points for herbal/herbaceous character. A grassy Sancerre or other cool-weather Sauvignon Blanc would be fine; the Botromagno 2003 Gravina featured in yesterday's 30 Second Wine Advisor was excellent with one version of this dish; a poulet saute variation another night went just as well with a richer white, an E. Guigal 2000 Hermitage Blanc to be featured in a future Wine Advisor Premium Edition.

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of this recipe, suitable for printing, online at

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Chicken with tarragon,"

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Thursday, May 26, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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