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American culinary godfather James Beard once quipped, "I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around."

Presumably, he never had to test his theory. But the sentiment says a mouthful about the praise this herb has garnered.

Tarragon's name comes from the French word estragon, or "little dragon," probably a reference to its coiling, serpentine roots -- tarragon will literally strangle itself if not properly divided. For ancient people, a plant's appearance suggested its medicinal use; hence tarragon became an antidote for snakebite. Chewing on a tarragon leaf can numb the mouth, so it also became a go-to remedy for toothache.

Tarragon is probably best loved by the French: It's essential in the traditional seasoning blend fines herbes and gives bearnaise sauce its characteristic flavor. Tarragon's anise-like taste complements fish, poultry, beef and a variety of vegetables, notably peas. It's classic in vinaigrettes and herb butters. Mix it with mayo for a quick sauce for fish. But use it judiciously -- tarragon's assertive taste can overwhelm culinary wallflowers.

This herb is a faithful perennial in the southern United States, if it is divided every couple of years to avoid that nasty habit of self-inflicted strangulation. Tarragon vinegar is a great way to preserve its flavor. Freezing it is also a handy option. Remove leaves from stem and freeze leaves individually on a cookie sheet. When frozen, transfer to an airtight container.

>Cold Shrimp Salad

2 tablespoons olive oil

40 large uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 medium red onion, very thinly sliced

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/2 cup mayonnaise

3 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons finely chopped tarragon or minced fresh dill

2 tablespoons capers, drained

2/3 cup finely chopped fresh parsley

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced

Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet over high heat. Add shrimp and saute until done. Reduce heat to low, add garlic, and stir and cook about 30 seconds or until fragrant. Cool and refrigerate at least1 hour.

Combine onion and salt in a colander; let stand 15 minutes or until wilted. Rinse and dry with paper towels.

Whisk mayonnaise and remaining ingredients in a large bowl. Add shrimp and onion; mix to coat shrimp with dressing. Serves 4.

This recipe is adapted from "Simply Shrimp: With 80 Globally Inspired Recipes by James Peterson" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2007).

Per serving: 320 calories, 27 g fat, 15 g protein, 5 g carbohydrates, 1 g fiber, 1,380 mg sodium.

Look for Relish magazine the first Thursday of each month in The Buffalo News.