Wednesday, August 28, 2013

tarragon summer

Have you ever noticed that food has fashion?  When I was a kid, chocolate mousse dominated the runway of restaurant desert menus.  I have to admit, I wouldn't mind if that trend found itself suddenly back in vogue.  The "chocolate mousse cake" that replaced it isn't worth the raspberry-swirled plate it usually comes on. 

Regardless, on the lightly whipped heels of the mousse I loved so much, came potato skins - remember those cheesy, bacon-bit laden little boats of perfect bar food we scarfed down after too many beers in college? (or was that just me).  And after college, chicken wings flapped their way into the Friday night happy hours of our twenties, with curly fries hot on their trail.  Perhaps I used to drink and then eat too much?!).

At some point, I grew up, stopped eating in bars, and became a more committed vegetarian (the kind that turns her nose up at imitation bacon bits).  Still, there was food fashion to be found, even in a home cooked meal.  In the 1990s, Gourmet and Bon Appetit would not be satisfied until they'd incorporated Italian basil and balsamic vinegar into each and every one of their recipes.  Once the food editors tired of that, we got cilantro and lime followed by sesame oil, ginger and Thai Basil.  Then, sometime before the restaurant became a thing, the chipotle pepper took over our cuisine. 

I happily rode these waves of food fashion, adapting to them far more easily than I did to the idea I should change out my Tivas for something more edgy.   But that ended about ten years ago when I began to cook seasonally. I quickly grew disillusioned with the cooking magazines that asked me, in the cold of winter, to make a Christmas veggie platter out of fresh broccoli and cherry tomatoes.  Further complicating my relationship to food, we discovered Olivia's food allergies.  The imperative that I cook without wheat, gluten, dairy, eggs, and peanuts sent me suddenly adrift, thrust into my own world where I invented new recipes and adapted old ones according to the limits of both season and diet. 

I'm sure there is something new and ever so fashionable in food right now, but I'm no longer privy to such trends.  Instead, my exposure to cooking magazines starts and stops with Living Without (a magazine for people with food allergies that I highly recommend if you are so in need).  I use recipes out of it occasionally, but mostly, I just read the articles (Ha!  We've all heard that before).  This leaves me largely to my own odd devices.  That, my friends, is how I've ended up in a summer where, around our house, the unlikely pairing of tarragon and jalapeño peppers hit runway pay dirt. 

Perhaps I'm no better at the fashion of food than of shoes, or perhaps it's just that bounty rather than trendy determines what lands on our plates these days.  You see, my basil did poorly this year.  Usually I have enough to stuff a mattress, but this year it languished (did I water it too much? too little? at all?  Maybe it didn't like the unusually cool weather?) Regardless, I haven't had much basil to work with.  But the tarragon was happy, and the peppers were plentiful, so why not? 

I used to think I didn't like Tarragon.  Not because I thought it tasted bad, but because I thought it had no flavor at all.  I grew the stuff years ago.  I planted it, watered it, weeded around it, cultivated it.  But I couldn't taste it.  Still, I persisted, dutifully putting it in salads and marinades.  No matter what I did, however, it always disappointed.  Then one summer at the farmer's market, I came across a woman selling tarragon plants.  "Huh."  I said, sort of moronically. "Your tarragon doesn't look anything like mine." 

You have to remember that I'm a plant killer, a gardener of ill-repute, as it were.  It's one thing to kill your plants, but it's quite another, isn't it, to lose track of your plant in the weeds, causing you to mistakenly cultivate the wrong thing! 

I think that at some point in the growing of my tarragon, I mistook it for a weed, pulled it out, and began caring for an impostor.  For two summers, I tended to...something.  I watered it, weeded around it, cut it fresh, dried it for winter, and fed it to my family in various forms.

Yes.  I fed my family a weed! (Not to be mistaken with: "I fed my family weed," which is how I keep reading that sentence).  Is it technically still a weed if you eat it?  I guess I'm just grateful that I didn't have any wild and poisonous hemlock lingering around in my herb garden like a snake, waiting to strike at the first opportunity.

Would you know the difference?

Mexican tarragon

  poisonous hemlock


It's been quite a few years since I began growing real tarragon, despite my horticultural challenges.  Still, until this summer, I hadn't cooked with it much.  Perhaps my years of eating a weed left a bad taste in my mouth?  But this summer, in the absence of plentiful basil, I found myself turning more and more often to this subtle little gem.  And since I had more jalapeños than we could eat, I just kept throwing them in the same bowl.  In salad.  On beets.  In pasta.  On meats.  

Do the two go well together?  Sure.  I'm not going to write a cookbook about it or anything, but I've enjoyed all the spicy hot, tarragon-laden foods we've been eating.  This is how regional foods evolve, right?  Not through fashion trends set out by the whims of traveling food editors, but through availability.  You cook with what you have.  If I'd been lucky enough that bounty and circumstance had brought lemons, olives and mint to my kitchen table in the same summer, I just may have written a cookbook about it.  However, I also can't complain.  I could have been the person to whom the butcher said, "Sorry, there's a Depression out there, I only have cow tongue on the block today" (please don't let that ever happen to me).  And what if my weed had been flavorful? I would have made a great discovery indeed!

Regardless of what the season brings, then, eating locally and seasonally connects you to your region:  the thrivings and failings of its plant life, the labor and luck of its farmers, the whims of its weather, the lurkings of its fungus, the creepy crawlings of its insects, and the work you did, or didn't do, in your own garden (no matter how misguided!).  In this way, food becomes part of your story, your history, and not just an incidental purchase, made for fashion under fluorescent lights at the grocery store. 

So this summer will be the one that was too cool for basil. The summer when Olivia caught pneumonia, when Gareth learned to drive, when the AC stayed quiet, and no one went swimming.  The summer we didn't eat weeds.  The tarragon summer. 


  1. I rolled along joyfully, reading the post, mouth watering and ready to invite myself to dinner with no mystery meat, then I was stopped in my tracks by...."Gareth learned to drive." I'm still reeling from the college drop off. :\ Ahhh.

    1. I can imagine. it's such a huge step! I'm glad he's doing so well, though. :)