Think of today’s recipe as the soup version of the classic Provençal dish Poulet à l’Estragon. Traditionally, the French dish is comprised of chicken parts, simmered in a lardon and mushroom sauce finished with creme fraiche and, of course, fresh tarragon. It’s easily one of my favorite dishes. Today’s Creamy Chicken Tarragon Soup is very much inspired by this timeless classic but it has a second muse: a can of condensed soup. Confused yet? Don’t worry, all will be revealed and no, no cans of soup were harmed in the making of this, well, soup. Let’s dive right in!
Every year my partner Sunny makes me Tarragon Chicken for my birthday. Yes, the man I live with is no slouch in the kitchen either. Sometimes I think it’s unfair that we partnered up. Sometimes I think culinary skills should be shared not concentrated in a single household. But an extra slice of homemade bread usually banishes this line of thinking. Naturally, given the warm and fuzzy feelings I have associated with this classic piece of Provençal cuisine, I think about it a lot. Like a lot a lot. The second the weather turns even the slightest bit chilly, boom! There the craving is.
There is some tension when two devoted home cooks live together. It’s not all extravagant dinners and bespoke cocktails. Sometimes there are turf wars. And due to the nature of my job, I usually win. Generally, we have to eat what I cook because the leftovers associated with recipe testing and subsequent shooting are fairly overwhelming. This is particularly true when you live in a two-person household. So there are a few dishes I don’t touch. Dishes only he makes like bucatini all’amatriciana, smoked brisket, and of course chicken tarragon.
Now, I realize today’s recipe may seem like I’m going back on my promise. In fact, it may make me look a bit childish and impatient. My birthday is only a couple of months away after all. But you see, me making this Creamy Chicken Tarragon Soup technically isn’t cheating. It’s not technically Chicken Tarragon, it’s merely inspired by Chicken Tarragon. And it has another source of inspiration as well. Although, it is far less lofty.
Growing up in the 90s exposed me to a lot of recipes that made use of a certain brand of condensed soup. Cream of celery, cream of mushroom, and cream of chicken all made frequent appearances in nearly every casserole I tucked into prior to 1999…and probably more than a few after that. Today, it strikes me as odd that we ever relied so heavily on these tins when we can achieve the same effect through a basic roux.
I think I deploy a roux more often than anything else in my culinary arsenal. But before I get to the why, let’s talk about what roux is. A roux is equal parts flour and fat whisked together. It’s used as a thickener for sauces, such as bechamel. A roux is formed in the bottom of a pan and a liquid of some kind is introduced to generate a sauce. In the case of bechamel, that liquid is milk while Velouté uses stock. How much you add to each ingredient will control the viscosity of the finished sauce. Basically, a can of condensed soup is just a really thick sauce. And, I ask you, is whisking butter and flour together so much harder than opening a can of soup? Plus when you make your own strong velouté or bechamel, you have so much more control over the flavor.
So that’s precisely what we’re going to do to make this Creamy Chicken Tarragon Soup. Now, the recipe below calls for poaching a whole chicken, which is low-effort and most definitely worth it. But if you’re low on time or patience, I wouldn’t recommend it. If you would like an express or a weeknight-friendly version of this recipe, shred a rotisserie chicken and buy a couple of jars of high-quality chicken stock. It has to be high-quality because this soup hinges on the flavor of the chicken.
Basically, you’re going to pile some aromatics and veg into a pot with a raw well-salted chicken and cover it with cold water. Simmer the chicken over low heat for 1 hour before removing it and setting it aside. While the chicken cools, continue to simmer the stock for an extra 40 minutes. This deepens the flavor. Then you just shred the chicken and strain the stock and you have quality chicken meat and broth ready to go.
From here everything is really simple. Form a roux using equal parts butter and flour and slowly whisk in some of that marvelous stock. Add a little milk, the chicken meat, and a heaping tablespoon of Dijon mustard. And that’s really it! Finish with tarragon oil and a pile of watercress and serve with crusty bread. You could add a dollop of creme fraiche to the soup as a further nod to Poulet à l’Estragon but I did that last week, so I abstained.
And speaking of the tarragon oil, it looks intimidating, doesn’t it? It’s really not! You just blanch the herbs for 30 seconds, blitz them with some olive oil, and strain them. And you have herb oil for weeks. You can use this method for any tender herb that might be getting a little gnarly in your crisper. It really extends the shelf life of your herbs, so it’s a method worth learning.
And that’s everything you need to know about this Creamy Chicken Tarragon Soup. A rich and comforting alternative to chicken noodle finished with a drizzle of jewel-toned tarragon oil and a mountain of peppery watercress.
Creamy Chicken Tarragon Soup with Watercress
- 1 large heavy bottom pot
- 1 blender or food processor
- 1 small saucepan
- 28g (1oz) fresh tarragon
- ½ cup olive oil
Creamy Chicken Soup
- 1 whole chicken **
- 3 carrots peeled, coarsely chopped
- 3 stalks celery coarsely chopped
- 1 head garlic
- 1 yellow onion quartered
- 8 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 tbsp salt
- ½ cup unsalted butter
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- 1 cup milk I used 2%
- 1 tbsp Dijon mustard heaping
- ½ lemon juiced
- Tarragon oil for drizzling
- 1 cup fresh watercress
- Bring a small saucepan of water up to a boil. Take it off of the heat and immediately add the tarragon stems and all. Let sit for 30 seconds, before transferring to an ice bath.28g (1oz) fresh tarragon
- Pat the tarragon dry and transfer it to a food processor or blender. Set the blender to low and stream in the oil. Increase the speed until the herbs are thoroughly blitzed.½ cup olive oil
- Line a fine mesh strainer with cheese cloth and place it over a jar. Pour the herb oil into the cheesecloth and form it into a bundle. Squeeze the bundle to extract the oil. Seal and transfer the oil to the fridge. The tarragon oil will keep for 2-4 weeks.
For the Soup
- Season the chicken liberally all over with salt. *** Set the chicken in a large heavy bottom pot and add the carrots, onion, celery, and thyme.1 whole chicken **, 3 carrots, 3 stalks celery, 1 yellow onion, 8 sprigs fresh thyme
- Lop the top off of the head of garlic and add it to the pot as well. Pour cold water into the pot until the chicken is fully immersed. Place the pot over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and add the salt. Let simmer uncovered for 1 hour.1 head garlic, 1 tbsp salt
- After the hour has past, remove the chicken and set it aside to cool. Leave the broth to simmer for another 40 minutes to deepen in flavor. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, shred the meat and set it aside.
- Once 40 minutes has past, taste and season the stock accordingly with salt. Drain the stock and discard the solids.
- Return the pot to the heat and add the butter. Once the butter has melted, whisk in the flour to make a roux. While whisking constantly, slowly ladle in six cups of the chicken stock followed by the milk. Stir in the Dijon mustard and the shredded chicken. Let simmer for 15 minutes.½ cup unsalted butter, ½ cup all-purpose flour, 1 cup milk, 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
- Take the soup off of the heat and stir in the lemon juice. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with the tarragon oil and the watercress. Serve immediately.Tarragon oil, 1 cup fresh watercress, ½ lemon