Lacking the sun-drenched allure of basil and the practical ubiquity of parsley, tarragon will never win any herbal popularity contests in the United States.
It’s not that we don’t like its earthy, licorice flavor. It’s just that most of us don’t think to use it, at least not to the degree that cooks in Europe do. This is especially true in France, where tarragon is everywhere: simmered into soups, steeped in vinegars and mustards, strewed on fish, tossed with salads of soft lettuces.
But perhaps its most constant companion is chicken. The tarragon perfumes the bird’s flesh and mingles with its meaty juices. In many French chicken recipes, the tarragon is whisked into the pan drippings along with butter or cream to create a sauce.
This is a different take, starting with the fact that there is no sauce whatsoever.
Instead, the tarragon flavor infuses the chicken through lengthy marinating. Plan on at least six hours. Or better, start marinating the chicken the night before. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours and just gets more delicious as it sits in the pungent mix of tarragon and grated garlic.
That’s just about it for the prep, all done in advance. The only chopping left to do is slicing a couple of onions just before cooking, which makes this an ideal after-work meal if you’ve done a little planning.
Those onions are roasted in the same pan as the chicken, benefiting both parties. The onions soak up the rendering chicken fat; the chicken absorbs the heady onion steam. A few thyme sprigs scattered on top add their woodsy perfume.
As the chicken skin crisps, the onions caramelize, turning golden and very sweet. To balance out their sweetness, add a little acid before serving; that will sharpen things up. You could reach for tarragon vinegar if you have some on hand, and stay within the tarragon theme. But I prefer sherry vinegar, which adds a subtle nuttiness along with the tang. Lemon or lime juices are also nice, adding a clean, fruity sharpness. Then you can use the same vinegar or citrus juice to dress whatever kind of salad you serve alongside the chicken.
While you could substitute basil or rosemary here, try this with the tarragon at least once. Then maybe this delightful herb will come to mind a little more often.
And to drink …
Ordinarily, chicken thighs imbued with the mild anise flavor of tarragon would be a good candidate for reds or whites. But the vinegar tang of the onions suggests that a white may work better. A good restrained chardonnay or white Burgundy; an herbal, minerally sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley; a fine white Bordeaux, with its waxy texture; or a dry chenin blanc from Savennières or South Africa would be delicious. If you do prefer a red, I would suggest a St.-Joseph or Crozes-Hermitage, syrah wines from the northern Rhône Valley; an Oregon pinot noir; or perhaps a nebbiolo from the alpine regions of northern Italy, like Valtellina or Carema. Sherry lovers will know that a fine amontillado would also be a great choice.
Tarragon chicken with sherry vinegar onions
Total time: 1 hour, plus 6 hours’ marinating
1/2 cup finely chopped tarragon (leaves and tender stems), plus 4 whole sprigs
2 garlic cloves, finely grated or minced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, more for drizzling
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, more as needed
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, more as needed
3 pounds bone-in chicken thighs (skin on)
2 large onions, peeled and sliced (about 4 cups)
4 thyme sprigs
Sherry vinegar, to taste
In a large bowl, stir together tarragon, garlic, oil, salt and pepper. Add chicken thighs and toss to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 6 hours, and up to overnight.
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Spread onions out on a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss well. Clear spaces on the baking pan, then place chicken pieces in the cleared spaces so the onions surround the chicken. Strew thyme and tarragon sprigs over onions and chicken.
Roast, tossing the onions after 15 minutes, until chicken is cooked through and the onions tender, 25 to 35 minutes. If the chicken skin or onions are not as brown as you’d like, run pan under the broiler for 1 to 2 minutes at the end of cooking.
Place chicken on a platter. Drizzle onions with sherry vinegar and more salt and pepper if needed. Spoon onions around the chicken and serve.