Planning and plotting
I have a small, fenced-in garden just steps from our front porch, making it a breeze to snip a handful of chives to garnish a cherry tomato salad or grab some mint for mojitos when we want a break from margaritas. The garden is my herb heaven and haven, and the only other things grown there, with varying degrees of success, are a variety of tomatoes, usually heirloom, and cucumbers. Two years ago I planted Kirby cucumbers for the first time and was amazed at how beautifully they took off. The only caveat was that I had to keep a watchful eye on them, as they grow quickly, and no one wants to eat a Kirby that is the size of a toddler’s leg. I like them about four or five inches long and not too thick. This year I am trying the slender, thin-skinned Persian cukes that have been popping up at some farmers’ markets and the local supermarket.
I was thrilled to see my chives growing like crazy as long as a month ago, but dismayed to see that the mint originally planted in a small patch had taken over a quarter of the garden. It is no easy task to weed mint, as it has long, sturdy and wiry roots. But out it must come because I need room for rosemary; tarragon; Thai, sweet, and tiny-leafed, dwarfed bush basil; flat-leaf Italian parsley; dill; thyme; and possibly oregano and sage, if the mood strikes.
I love the names given to tomatoes: Purple Prudence, Lemon Boy, Sun Gold cherry, Umberto, Camp Joy, Wild Sweetie, Black Cherry, Russian black, Brandywine and Aunt Gertie’s gold, to name a few. And the descriptions, as well, are mouth-watering: “Luscious and savory,” “Perfect blend of sweet and tart,” “fruity,” “Well-balanced, like wine,” and “Sumptuous, rich flavor.”
Unfortunately, my luck with tomatoes is tenuous. Year after year I plant a half dozen different tomato plants of varying sizes and types only to be disappointed nearly three months later when they are finally ripe and ready to eat. I purposely plant tomatoes that are considered sweet, but inevitably I end up with fruit that is closer to tasteless. Is it the weather conditions, such as the amount of rainfall or lack of sun or too much sun? Is it the fact that it was an unusually cold summer, or is my soil lousy? I have never been able to discern what the issue is, but I continue to be hopeful. What on earth tastes better than a warm-from-the-sun, perfectly ripe, juicy, sweet, lightly salted tomato? One sprinkled with a chiffonade of basil, I suppose.
Herbs transform any dish in which they play a part. I recently discovered a new chicken entree, which is always a joy, as chicken can be dull, but it is also a great vehicle for all sorts of flavors. The new dish is made with bone-in thighs, and you can also throw in a few legs. The recipe calls for tarragon, which can sometimes be difficult to find and which not everyone grows, so I made it the other day substituting rosemary, and it was sensational. Plenty of caramelized onions, anointed with a dash of good Spanish sherry vinegar, cloak the chicken. Served with some tiny new potatoes or an interesting grain, such as Israeli couscous or quinoa, and perhaps a salad or cooked vegetable, and you have a meal fit for company. Enjoy, and may your garden grow.
Chicken with tarragon and sherry vinegar onions
(adapted from the New York Times)
Serves 3 - 4
Though the recipe calls for marinating the chicken for a minimum of six hours and up to overnight, I have made this just a couple of hours after marinating it and it was delicious. If you cannot find tarragon, rosemary makes a great substitute. If using rosemary, cut the amount to a ¼ cup, as it is stronger than tarragon.
½ cup finely chopped tarragon (leaves and tender stems), plus 4 whole sprigs
1 garlic clove, finely minced
2 Tbsps. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 ½ tsps. kosher salt, more as needed
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper, more as needed
6 – 8 bone-in (skin on) chicken thighs
2 large onions, peeled, cut in half and sliced thinly
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 an hour, but preferably for six hours, and up to overnight.
Preheat oven to 425°. Spread onions out on a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with a good amount of extra-virgin olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss well. Clear spaces on the baking pan, then place chicken pieces, skin side up, in the cleared spaces. Strew thyme and tarragon sprigs over onions and chicken.
Roast for 15 minutes, then toss the onions. Return pan to oven and continue roasting for about 20 more minutes, until chicken is cooked through and onions are tender. Run the pan under the broiler for about 3 minutes until chicken skin crisps. Remove and discard thyme and tarragon sprigs. Place chicken on a large platter. Drizzle onions with sherry vinegar and more salt and pepper if needed. Spoon onions on and around the chicken and serve.