Garden variety

Nothing says summer like a just-picked vine-ripened tomato still warm from the sun, sliced, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with a little coarse salt and dressed up with a few leaves of fresh basil. To my palate, this simple pleasure tastes like sunshine on a plate.

Yesterday, I got my tomato plants into the garden and am crossing my fingers that they “take.” Each year around my birthday in March, I start getting antsy to get my hands dirty and get some seeds going. By the time the last frost date rolls around, my starts have usually gotten so big, they’re taking suicide leaps off the windowsill.

windowsill tomatoes

This year’s batch is a little leggy, but I think once they get outside for some fresh air, sun and rain, they’ll be just fine. My garden tomatoes have been hit or miss the past few years. The first year I planted them, they were GORGEOUS. Seriously, they were so pretty, my neighbor said they could have been used in a magazine layout. And they tasted great. The next year? The few late bloomers I was able to harvest didn’t have much flavor, I’m sad to say. Not sure what makes such a big difference in them year to year when I use the same starting methods and the same garden patch.

For my 2011 crop, I’ve got beefsteaks, cherry tomatoes and something called German tomatoes. One of my dad’s friends in Richmond got me hooked on those last year – he’d come across them somewhere and cultivated them in his own garden because they are a low-acid variation. They’re kind of strange to look at (they’re actually kind of ugly, truth be told), slightly bigger than Romas and almost square in shape. The first one I sliced into almost resembled salami inside, and I thought “Hm. Okaaaaaay…” My expectations weren’t high, and then I took a bite. For as weird as they look, these little gems pack a mighty punch of juicy summer tomato flavor. My dad and I went back several times for more, and I kept some of the seeds to try for myself this year. So far, so good. Can’t wait to see how they get along in my own backyard.

In addition to tomatoes, I have a ledge at the back of my driveway that has turned into a pretty kick-ass perennial herb garden. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, and then some. One of my favorite things to do in season is to stroll out there, specially devoted herb scissors in hand, and cut a veritable bouquet of sprigs to use in my cooking. Not to brag, but I make a mean mixed-herb pesto.

the ledge o' herbs

Here’s what I’ve learned about herb gardening – oregano, parsley and chives grow like crazy without much attention. I love fresh dill and cilantro, but they’re really not worth the effort it takes to garner a small useable amount. Still trying to figure out what it is that keeps eating little holes in my basil.

So, plants are in. Now we wait. Bring on the Caprese.

Random Paris food observations

A few thoughts on items I’ve eaten in the last few days. In no particular order:

The food here hasn’t been quite as good as I seem to remember in some respects, particularly for dinners. Maybe we just haven’t chosen the right bistros.

For instance, on our last visit, I remembered having a stellar roast chicken and wanted to return to the particular restaurant that served it to me. So we did. However, when I ordered it this time, the portion was smaller, and it came with a cup of pomme frites. The fries were ok, nothing tremendous. I dove into the chicken (a quarter, leg and thigh). Not bad. Not fantastic. The savory jus under the chicken was the best part of the plate.

I was a few bites in when I realized the meat was pretty pink. Not bloody pink, but pink enough to make the hypochondriac in me kick into overdrive. Hubby had ordered the exact same thing, and said his seemed overcooked and slightly dry. I can’t imagine how two pieces of chicken that look exactly the same and are cooked in the exact same way could turn out so differently. Hubby intervened for me and had the chicken sent back to the kitchen for a little further cooking. This, after we’d already sent back my mother-in-law’s steak when it came out a little too pink for her taste. That waitress must have hated us.

The remains of my chicken came back steaming hot and I finished it, trying not to worry myself into a frenzy about food poisoning. As it turned out, I was fine, thank goodness.

We fared much better with a rotisserie bird from a local butcher. You occasionally see a rotisserie stand outside butcheries and at the street markets, spinning their delectable poultry like a ferris wheel, the delicious juices dripping down to flavor sliced potatoes roasting in the bottom of the machine. YUM. At 10 – 15 euros a pop, these chickens don’t come cheap, but they are worth every penny.


Needing a break from expensive café fare, hubby and I ventured out last night in the rain to purchase one such chicken last night, along with a fresh-baked baguette from the boulangerie and cheeses from the grocery store. Some cherry tomatoes, grapes and chocolate cookies rounded out the meal. We spread everything out on the table in the rental apartment, cracked open a 4-euro bottle of Cotes du Rhone and dug in. It was a fabulous rainy-day indoor picnic.

We also decided to save a few euros on breakfast this morning by eating in as well – having picked up some fresh fruit from the produce stand and huge buttery croissants from the same bakery where I got the baguette. Along with hot tea, yogurt and milk, it was a breakfast of champions.

My spirits have been a little low today because of all the rain, so I went out for a long solo walk and some unsuccessful souvenir shopping. Needing to warm up, I had my heart set on a café crème and a slice of tarte tatin (apple tart). Snagging a seat at a bustling place called Les Philosophes, I ordered and waited for hubby to come join me. The coffee did the trick to take off the chill, and the cake was ok, but not as good as the one I had last time around.

I want to try to recreate this recipe at home – doesn’t look too terribly hard. Sliced apples layered in a baking dish, drizzled with a caramel sauce and topped a layer of puff pastry. The whole thing is then baked until brown and bubbly and turned out onto a serving plate, sort of an apple version of pineapple upside-down cake. If you’re lucky, you can find it served with a little side dish of crème fraiche, a tangy cross between cream cheese and sour cream, and a pleasant alternative to whipped cream.

While I’m on the subject of sweet treats, I’ve got one word for you. Macarons. Oh. My. Goodness. You see these little gem-like confections in pastry shops everywhere you look, and oh man, are they delicious. Like the chickens, you pay dearly for these little mouthfuls at a euro each or more. But, if you’re looking for a splurge, they are a great way to go. Around the size of a 50-cent piece, the little feather-light meringues give way at the slightest bite to reveal rich fillings like chocolate ganache, fruit or cream. Swoon. We purchased half a dozen to share from a bakery around the corner in a rainbow of flavors —lemon, vanilla, chocolate, blueberry, almond, pistachio. Delectable.

This is our last night in the City of Lights before leaving on the train tomorrow afternoon for Provence. (Hubby insisted on making the ticket arrangements this time around. Can’t imagine why…) The weather has really prevented us from taking full advantage of all the gloriousness this lovely town has to offer, but I imagine we’ll be back again at some point. I’m already planning my next itinerary.