Friday, January 11, 2013

Lemon Tarragon Chicken - A Lesson in Restraint

While cooking my latest recipe, I couldn't get this song out of my head.

My brother once said that the problem with the band Blues Traveler is that John Popper's harmonica playing is relentless and dominant in every song.  Sure he's a great harmonica player, but he doesn't need to show it off so forcefully in every song the band performs.

Here we have Popper as a guest on a Dar Williams song and sure enough, the song seems to be all about his harmonica.  When I listen to this song with headphones (which I do often since it's a great workout song) I have to lower the volume because the harmonica just kind of shrieks in my ears.  At one point Popper's backup vocals even drown out Williams. 

As I prepared the meal, I realized that the song is a great metaphor for cooking.  How often do I let a background ingredient become too forceful, or even dominant, over the main event?

I have a terrible habit of overdoing it when working with lemons.  It's not intentional, it's just laziness.  When I want to include a lemon in a recipe, I often just juice and zest the whole fruit, and then dump whatever I extract from it into the pan.  This often makes a dish overly sour or acidic, particularly when I'm using both lemons and wine.

The chicken I had at Bar Harbor restaurant last week was delicious and I was anxious to to try imitate it.  It was described as lemon-tarragon chicken, but it was not overtly sour or citrusy. It was creamy, herbaceous, intensely chickeny, and a bit salty.  The lemon just provided a bit more brightness to the flavor. The sauce did not jump out at the eater screaming, "I'm made of lemons!"  Whatever the incompetence of the service was that night, the chef knew what he was doing.  The dish reminded me of chicken dishes I had in Paris like the buttery boneless chicken breast I had for lunch at Versailles or the Poulet Estragon I ate in a random corner bistro near my hotel - well prepared, but served inelegantly with french fries. 

When I began to develop my sauce, I started with chicken stock and carefully tested the amounts of salt I used.  I needed enough salt to intensify the flavor of the stock, without making it seem salty.  I zested and squeezed a lemon, but this time I was judicious about adding it.  I carefully added lemon juice to the stock a teaspoon at a time, tasting after each addition.  By the time I had three teaspoons, I was satisfied with the intensity of the lemon flavor.  Once I added the wine to the mix I worried that it was becoming overly acidic, so I added a bit more stock and a bit more salt. 

I used boneless, skinless chicken breasts this time due to their ease of cooking and their thickness.  My sauce wasn't exactly like what I had in the restaurant, but I think that's a happy event.  While I wanted to replicate a dish I enjoyed, that was another cook's dish. This dish was my own.

I did need to taste it before adding all the tarragon though.  That was the overpowering ingredient this time.  Just because the package says, "singles" doesn't mean you should put it all in one dish.

I served it sliced on the bias with the sauce and a simple mixed green salad on the side.

Chicken in Tarragon Lemon Cream Sauce

  • 4-6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 1 Tbl olive oil and 1Tbl butter for frying
  • Salt and pepper for sprinkling
  • 1 1/2 cups chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 1 Tbl lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbl chopped fresh tarragon
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
Sprinkle chicken on both sides with salt and pepper.  Heat olive oil and butter in a large frying pan over medium heat.  Place chicken in the pan and brown well on both sides.  Remove from pan keep warm.

Combine chicken broth, wine, lemon juice, salt, and zest.  Add to the pan.  Bring to a boil, scraping up any brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan.  Boil two minutes. 

Reduce to a simmer.  Add the tarragon to the pan and then return the chicken.  Simmer an additional 15 minutes or until chicken is cooked through.  Remove chicken from pan and keep warm.  Add the cream to the pan and bring to a boil for two minutes more.  Serve sauce over chicken.


sian8470 said...

The sauce did not jump out at the eater screaming, "I'm made of lemons!"

Greatest. Visual. Ever.

bellini said...

There are many components that make this a great dish including the tarragon.

Rosemary said...

You're right, it can be easy to get carried away with lemon. And you want just a hint. (So what do you do with the rest?) I love lemon tarragon chicken. I will try -- and be restrained.

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

Exactly! It always makes sense to just use the whole lemon because you don't want to be stuck with extra/waste it.