Van Gogh, a lover of absinthe, was familiar with many herbs, including green anise, fennel, tarragon, wormwood, and angelica, all of which contribute to the outstanding drink’s green color and tempting fragrance.
Recipe: Chicken Braised with Tarragon and Lemon Verbena
By random planting, this year I got my tarragon and lemon verbena growing together in the same pot. Seeing them swaying together in the city breeze reminded me of that overused farm-to-table saying, “What grows together goes together.” Would that be true even if I had forced them on each other? Could their arranged marriage work out on the plate? I found the answer the other day when I made an impulsive culinary choice.
I didn’t start out loving tarragon. I didn’t grow up with it, and it’s not used much in Italian cooking. My Italian teacher wasn’t even familiar with the Italian word for it, dragoncella, meaning little dragon. Italian cooks are more likely to use fennel seed, basil, or anise seed, which all, like tarragon, have an anise tone to them. I was forced to confront tarragon head-on when I got my first cooking job, which happened to be at a French bistro. What I thought of as a soapy and gag-inducing aroma and taste turned alluring when I started making tarragon butter sauce for sole, tarragon mustard vinaigrette, and tarragon chicken with shallots and white wine.
It’s strange the way our tastes change, but it’s even stranger how old taste memories can come flooding back, interrupting a new norm. The other day I was picking tarragon, and I brought some to my nose, and there was that old soapy, gaggy aroma from days gone by. What was going on? I thought I had evolved. My dinner of tarragon chicken suddenly turned to poison, in my mind.
I had to do something about that, and quick. I decided to grab some lemon verbena and add it to the dish. That amazing herb brightened the slight soapiness of the tarragon, imparting the sweetest essence of lemon from my dreams. It’s a good combination. You must try it. Lemon verbena leaves are a bit tough, so make sure to chop them well.
Extra-virgin olive oil
5 chicken legs, separated into thighs and drumsticks
1 large shallot, cut into small dice
1 tender, inner celery stalk, cut into small dice
2 summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
½ teaspoon ground anise seed
¼ cup dry vermouth
¾ cup chicken broth
A handful of tarragon leaves, chopped, plus sprigs for garnish
A smaller handful of lemon verbena leaves, well chopped, plus sprigs for garnish
A tiny splash of tarragon vinegar
A handful of green olives (picholines are a good choice)
Choose a large, heavy-bottomed skillet, and get it hot over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon or so of olive oil and 1 of butter. When bubbling, add the chicken, seasoning it well with salt and black pepper. Brown the chicken on both sides, and then lift it from the skillet. Pour off any excess fat (you’ll want to leave in at least 2 tablespoons, for flavor and for a silky sauce). Add the shallot and the celery, and sauté until tender, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, and sauté a few seconds, just to release its aroma.
Put the chicken back in the skillet. Sprinkle on the anise. Add the vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add the broth. Bring to a boil. Now turn the heat to low, cover the skillet, and braise until the chicken is tender, about 15 minutes.
Pull the chicken from the skillet and place it on a serving platter.
Add the tarragon and lemon verbena to the skillet, and cook the sauce down to reduce it a bit. Turn off the heat, and add a drizzle of tarragon vinegar, the olives, and a tablespoon of fresh butter. Add a sprinkling of salt and a few more turns of black pepper. Pour the sauce over the chicken. Garnish with tarragon and lemon verbena sprigs.
I love this dressed simply with olive oil and a little salt and served with wheat berries, emmer, or faro.