Is there a dragon in your cupboard? Maybe its because I have been reading too much Harry Potter, but when I found out recently that the word tarragon comes from the Greek drakon, I decided that this aromatic herb needed a second look. The Greeks named it thus because the roots have a serpentine quality. Perhaps that is also why the plant was used in ancient times to draw venom from snake bites.
These days, tarragon leaves are more likely to find their way into a bearnaise sauce or under the skin of a chicken breast than as part of an anti-venom poultice.
There are two main varieties of tarragon. Russian taragon is easy to grow from seeds and looks hearty but the flavour is weak. French tarragon is more delicate, grows best from cuttings, and has the strong anise flavour sought after in a classic French fine herb mixture or in a tarragon vinegar.
In fact the flavour can be overwhelming. This is one of those herbs, like coriander, which people either like a lot or not at all. It can easily overwhelm a dish. Who wants chicken to taste like licorice? However, used with a little care it gives a nice edge to a dish that might otherwise be a little bland. It also works well in a mayonmnnaise served with left over cold meats or fish.
Although herb stands at farmers markets sell it now, fresh tarragon can be hard to find by late fall. It is not as common a supermarket herb as basil or parsely. If you buy it dry, make sure that it is not stale. Keep it in a jar away from light and heat. National Food Shops (4903 Sherbrooke St. West 514-484-3541) dries their own herbs and often has freshly dried tarragon available. It is worth looking for.