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At a holiday party, one of the guests regaled us with stories about her neighbor, a famed pastry chef at the French Embassy in Washington. Arnaud Herodet had chucked his glamorous career after tiring of being on call at all hours for M and Mme Ambassador and opened a catering business out of his home.

Here was the clincher: Arno also sells his classic French pastries every weekend at a roadside stand at Gilbert’s Corner, a notch in the road (U.S. 50) half way between Washington and Middleburg. This called for a road trip.

So today Chris and I drove out to Arno’s stand, a couple of tables stacked with pastry cases beneath an awning – open to the bracing 45-degree weather and downwind from the BBQ smokers that also sell on the corner. (Arno says the lobster stand there will re-open in March, followed by a produce stand in April)

Arno stood alone behind his glorious offerings, and told us about each pastry as we oohed and aahed. It was almost too painful to choose, but between the two of us, we pretty much got one of each. French pastries always sound sexier in French, so I’ll crib liberally from Arno’s brochure.

  • Tarte Citron Meringue (lemon tart with a brulee’d meringue)
  • Tarte aux Fruits Frais (tart topped with custard and fresh fruits)
  • Tarte Linzer ala Confiture de Framboise (tart with custard topped with raspberries)
  • Choux au Caramel (Pastry filled with rum cream topped with caramel)
  • Tarte Boudaloue aux Peches (tart filled with cream topped with peaches)
  • Tarte aux Noix de Pecan et Rhum (tart topped with pecans and rum-soaked raisins)

There were another dozen varieties – all painstakingly constructed pastry masterpieces. My mouth was watering as I picked out five. As Arno placed them carefully in a box and I pondered the remaining empty space in the box, Arno gently pointed out that I had neglected the chocolate offerings. Ah! So a piece of the Tarte Chocolat Pistache (chocolate crust filled with pistachio chocolate cream topped with chocolate curls and whipped cream) joined the crowded box.

amazing pastries aux Arno

amazing pastries aux Arno

Then Chris picked out her boxful of exquisite pastries along with two bags of macarons (too many flavors for me to even recall).

The gallant Arno showed us his Facebook page, chatted about his business, and sent us away with brochures describing his catering service. You can find him every Saturday and Sunday at Gilbert’s Corner, selling pastries to the Middleburg elite and just plain hungry folks like us. Oh, they were delicious!

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

Claude Monet’s art has always struck a chord with me, especially the paintings of his gardens. So when we decided to go to France, a visit to Giverny was tops on my list.

It was in this small village, an hour from Paris, where Monet painted some of his iconic works of art. Smitten by the light, Monet painted his wife with her parasol beside the River Seine and his son toddling through the gardens.

The gardens that inspired him are a work of art in themselves. I consider myself a decent flower gardener (not a master gardener like my friend Ruth, but above-average). But Monet’s gardens are a masterpiece – a cacophony of color in outsize proportions. No tidy English cottage garden for him – these are wild swaths of colorful flowers from the ground reaching high to the arches and trellises. Gravel paths mark the way through the floral tapestry.

Perhaps I’ll just let the flowers speak for themselves.

sunflowerRainbow of color

pink mums

pink mums

Arches

Arches

We spent hours walking through the gardens and then toured Monet’s house, where hundreds of artworks hang. CRR counted 53 on the walls of Monet’s studio alone. Even the upstairs bedrooms and hallway walls feature paintings by Renoir and Cezanne and Pissarro, fellow advocates of the Impressionist school who often visited Giverny.That evening we ate dinner at ancient Restaurant Baudy, where these master painters hung out in the 19th century. They’ll be my inspiration when I plot my 2014 flower gardens.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening. 

 

I just got off the phone with my mom, who asked about this week’s blog post. I told her I was just too dispirited to write about the garden, which is shaping up as the worst we’ve ever had.

We’re normally tired of tomatoes by now, and this year we’ve barely eked out enough for us and a handful of select friends (you know who you are). I’ve put away exactly three pints of tomato sauce for the winter. It appears we’ll be buying 99-cent canned tomatoes like the rest of America.

Those fancy grafted tomatoes we bought from Oregon? No better than anything we bought locally, and in fact, one has already gone belly up. It might be a sign – why buy tomato plants from Oregon, where the climate is far different from ours, rather than tomato plants hardened locally. Never again.

I bought some broccoli seedlings while CRR frowned – and sure enough, they’ve turned brown and dried up.

Even the horseradish is suffering.

It hasn’t been a complete bust. We had a decent beet crop. The peppers have dutifully produced (though not a single jalapeno yet!). The “mystery” volunteer plant turned out to be pumpkin, which has produced two promising fruits. We’ve got a second beet crop coming along, about two inches tall.

Come to think of it, there are still some promising signs. And maybe next weekend, we’ll sow some lettuce and spinach for a fall harvest.

A gardener, like a farmer, is ever the optimist. The next best crop is just around the corner.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

A guest post from my husband, Chuck Raasch, affectionately known in this blog as CRR. He recently traveled cross-country with our son.

Political handicappers in the nation’s capital expressed surprise last month  when former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, seen as the Democrats’ best hope to  hold on to the seat of retiring Sen. Max Baucus — and with it, possibly keep  control of the Senate — decided not to run next year.

But in Big Sky country there wasn’t much surprise when Schweitzer said: “This  is my home, not Washington, D.C. I don’t want a job where I have to wear a suit  and my dog isn’t welcome.”

After compiling bylines from 49 states in my career, I’m convinced that you  cannot even begin to understand what you don’t know about this country until you  have driven across it, probed its byways, sat in its cafes, and listened to its  local radio. This was my third cross-country trip, fourth if you count the one  from the Lower 48 to Alaska via the Alcan Highway. This time, I came away with a  much different feeling than on any previous trip.

There’s a growing indifference toward Washington in Flyover Country. Not in  any naïve sense that it has lost power over people’s lives, but more of a  feeling that anger, hope, insurgency, and change have not really changed how the  town works. So why bother? It’s no wonder Mr. Schweitzer is not coming to  Washington.

Most Americans I talked to along the way were still in love with the ideal of  America, and you can understand why. It is a great country, despite our problems  and self-doubts. We reveled in both the grandeur and garishness of Flyover  Country.

We hiked to the summit of the 10,243-foot Mount Washburn in Yellowstone  National Park; from there you can see 50 miles in any direction. In the stunning  proportions of Glacier National Park, we trekked above the tree line to a  pristine alpine meadow whose beauty forced an appreciation of Teddy Roosevelt’s  activist Republicanism.

After paying $20 to see a mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota being  carved into the purported image of Crazy Horse, we pondered the objections the  great Sioux leader was raising, in spirit. We paid homage to the agrarian Oz — the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. We drove the Herbert Hoover Highway in Iowa,  where locals are not nearly as down on the Depression president as are  historians. We took a two-day journey across a green sea of corn and soybeans  that stretched from Minnesota to Ohio. West Virginia’s mountains at dusk are  just as beautiful and majestic as anything Out West.

corn palace

corn palace

I called it our “Those Towns” journey, what seemed like a logical response to  the snarky tweets I was seeing about “This Town,” Mark Leibovich’s gossipy  takedown of Washington. No index — take that, D.C. social climbers! People are  getting rich by trading on their influence, acting cravenly, or sucking up! The  new guys who promised change haven’t changed much at all! Names were named!

The naming of names was big inside the Beltway, but in Those Towns, “This  Town” seemed yawningly familiar. A tale of inside trading written for the  insiders.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Those Towns, and observed some of the great  movements of the last 40 years through them. I had a grassroots view of the rise  of the religious right in the late 1970s while covering George McGovern’s last  Senate race in ’80. I watched people running in the parking lot of a California  mall to sign a Perot-for-president petition in ’92, and saw others crying at  Obama events in rural Iowa in ’08. Anyone who was paying any attention to  Flyover Country in the early 2000s knew that Tea Party antipathy to  business-as-usual had been brewing long before it was given a name.

Yet so many of the big stories in Flyover Country are happening irrespective  of what D.C. does. Detroit went bust, despite a thriving auto industry that not  long ago needed a federal boost. North Dakota’s energy boom is spilling into  neighboring states despite the lack of a coherent national energy policy that  merges the economy and the environment, and people there think the boom is going  to last. Despite lingering pockets of drought and Congress’ struggle to come up  with a new farm bill, the Farm Belt is about to deliver a potentially record  corn and soybean crop this fall. On farm radio stations, Brazilian soybean  yields or Japan’s latest wheat purchase are as important as anything out of  Washington.

During a brief stop in Hungry Horse, Mont., I emailed a former boss back in  D.C., saying that the capital seemed a lot further away than the 2,300 miles  that separated us. Literally, it feels so.

Social media’s “me-ism” ethic is deleterious to the tenets of a journalism  that seeks the unfamiliar and explains the unknowns of a larger world. The  economic pressures it has brought to traditional media and the celebrity-as-news  movement have made it harder to do the explanatory and oversight journalism that  once brought Washington and the provinces closer.

Local and regional newspapers and TV stations have shuttered or stripped down  their Washington bureaus. Coastal-centric national cable networks and news  organizations have devalued original, explanatory and expensive reporting on  Flyover Country in favor of drive-by disaster coverage or the same endless-loop  ideological arguments from people who, you suspect, not only have never been to  places they are talking about, but have absolutely no desire to go to Those  Towns.

As a consummate newsie, I am always attuned to local coverage when I travel.  I have learned more from any random local weekly than any episode of “Crossfire.” And over two weeks and nearly 3,000 meandering miles, I can’t  remember picking up a paper or listening to a radio news program that ran an  interesting, local-impact story about doings in Washington. Except, of course,  the one about Schweitzer’s desire to keep his dog far, far away from This  Town.

Chuck Raasch is a former national reporter for USA Today.

Seduced by Indigo Rose.

I was headed for Capitol Hill, in a rush, as is everyone who has business with Congress. As I walked up the escalator (like I said, everyone is in a faux-hurry in Washington), I almost tumbled into the person behind me.

What stopped me in my tracks was a beacon: A sign for Dangerously Delicious Pies. Amid the awful food court offerings in Union Station was a small stall that offered the thing-I-can’t-resist.

I quickly calibrated my Hill trip. Get my business over with, hie straight back to the DDP, and call it lunch.

After carefully considering the possibilities, I ordered a piece of strawberry-rhubarb pie. Warmed up? No thanks. A good pie stands up to room temperature. With whipped cream? NO. I might have succumbed to a quenelle of ice cream but whipped cream has no business topping a fruit pie.

I took my $6 slice to a nearby table and poised my fork.

It was heavenly. The fruit filling was amazing, the tart rhubarb softening the sweetness of small whole berries, held together with exactly the right ratio of fruity binding. Delicate crust. I savored every delicious bite.

Then I went up to the counter and told the two clerks that their pie was the best pie I’d ever had — outside my mother’s kitchen.

My mother, Mavis Marie Benner Johnson, is a pie queen. She claims she didn’t know how to cook as a newlywed bride, but along the way she learned how to make the best darned pie in the world. Her crust, flaky by the graces of pork lard, is legendary. Her command of the pie genre is without peer.

She is the reason one of my childhood nicknames was PieHead.Image

Cherry, apple, blueberry, rhubarb, peach, raspberries, rhubarb. Of those, her apple is my favorite, scented with a hint of cinnamon. And oh lord the cream pies: tart lemon meringue, pumpkin, chocolate cream, banana cream, coconut cream, butterscotch. I’m sure I’m forgetting some of her repertoire.

The Johnson children could always count on a pie for Sunday dinner. (This is one of the few times I ever wished there were fewer sibs – a pie split eight ways is a mere taste. We still fight over Mom’s pies when we get together. JJJ—get outta the way!)

My mother’s butterscotch pie remains my all-time favorite. Her recipe was passed down from her mother, from a 1950s cookbook. Once when we were home, she made it for my children. My son, Will, said the filling tickled his tummy. Exactly as it did when I was a child…and still does.

In tribute to my grandmother, Eva, and my mother, Mavis: queens for a day on Mother’s Day. I love you Mom.

Butterscotch Pie

1 cup brown sugar, packed                        3 eggs, separated

3 tablespoons flour                                     3 tablespoons butter

4½  teaspoons cornstarch                          ¾ teaspoon vanilla

½ teaspoon salt                                             baked pie shell

1 ½ c. scalded milk                                       whipped cream or meringue

Mix sugar, flour, cornstarch and salt thoroughly in top of double boiler. Add ¾ c. of the hot milk and stir over direct heat until smooth. Add remaining milk, then place over boiling water and cook, stirring frequently for 15 minutes. Beat egg yolks thoroughly. Stir in a little of the hot mixture, and pour back into the double boiler. Cook for 3 minutes longer, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, add butter and vanilla and stir until mixed. (optional: While mixture cools, beat egg whites until stiff and fold into the warm filling) Pour immediately into cooled pie shell. Either top with meringue and bake further, or serve with whipped cream with cool.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

Oh my aching back. That’s a sure sign that Garden 2013 is underway.

The Black Seeded Simpson and Mesclun lettuce went in first, along with Teton spinach. The first lettuce should be on our dinner plates in 30 days. The spinach will follow in two more weeks. My calendar is marked.

After that, we settle in for the Long Wait.

We planted two kinds of carrots. Yaya and Sweetness III are variations on Nantes carrots, the hybrid that we like for its sweetness and long cylinder shape (none of that tapering tip!)

We planted a whole row of Detroit Supreme red beets, a traditional deep red varietal with a high yield. Then we threw the dice with a blend that promises Golden beets as well as Chioggia, the beautiful magenta and white striped beets. Close your eyes and visualize the gorgeous salad these three beets will produce.

beet salad

beet salad

For the first time, we planted parsnips, the Harris Model, which Jung vows will be “heavy-shouldered” and creamy white.

We aren’t giving up on cucumbers, bewildered at our inability to produce crunchy cukes when our gardening neighbor enjoys a bonanza. This year we went with Muncher. “Strong vigorous vines are prolific yielders.” We shall see. I planted nine hills next to steel posts and netting, in hopes they will climb away from whatever ailed their predecessors.

We’ve put in about 20 percent of the peppers and tomatoes. More about those next week.

Meanwhile, I hope my back heals enough in the coming days to allow the flower gardening to commence next weekend! Our perennials are looking great, but there are annuals to plant and mulch to spread. A gardener’s work never ends…

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

We never had much luck growing seedlings. Wrong equipment, wrong soil, wrong timing, whatever.

For Christmas I bought CRR a 4-foot-long grow light contraption. Our furnace room hasn’t looked the same since.

I figured he would grow some lettuce and maybe some herbs over the winter months. He started out slowly, with various kinds of sprouts. Then boom! Some long-repressed farm gene kicked in, and he went into high-yield mode. Fence row to fence row, in farmer’s parlance.

At this moment, there are 133 seedlings thriving under that grow light, stretched from one end of the workbench to the other. Beef Steak tomatoes, Big Beef tomatoes. Celebrity and Indigo Rose tomatoes. And enough Genovese basil to stock an Italian restaurant. I’m not even counting the dozens of seedlings that are growing in big pots, awaiting transplant.

Now, a rational person might ask: What does a family of two intend to do with 133 seedlings, other than eat ourselves into Caprese salad heaven?

Like a city version of Johnny Appleseed, CRR intends to spread his seedlings far and wide to friends and colleagues. Are you interested?

As the saying goes, you can take the boy off the farm but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.Image

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, to the fiscal cliff.

Two “firsts” for December. 1) My beautiful pink clematis is still blooming on the lamp post in the front yard. 2) We pulled the last carrots from the garden.

The carrots, planted in late August, yielded a bumper crop. Good old reliable Burpee’s seed, varietal Scarlet Nantes. The carrots were exactly as Burpee’s said they would be: 7 inches, full bodied, almost no core. And because we left them in the ground all fall, they were incredibly sweet.2012-12-08_11-40-23_774

To celebrate the last carrots of the season, there was only one choice of preparation: roasted. We hosted Thanksgiving this year and prepared a boatload of roasted root vegetables, and were disappointed there were no leftovers. So I cooked up another full pan yesterday: our carrots plus beets, parsnips and brussel sprouts bought from the farmer’s market. Slow roasted at 350 to a caramel-like finish.

Next year we’ll add parsnips to our fall planting. It may be December, but I’m already dreaming of next season’s garden.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.