(Potage aux Legumes originally appeared here in 2011. I’ve updated the photos and made a couple of tweaks to the recipe.)
I’d love to pretend that I once had a meaningful relationship with Paris. Hemingway had one. Woody Allen had one. Carrie Bradshaw managed to have one, and she’s not even a real person. I think we’re all meant to feel hopelessly dull if we haven’t shone brightly in the City of Light. But the truth is my entanglement with Paris was never more than a brief and aspirational fling. I was young, and the city was innocent, in the days before husbands, children, and the dulling creep of globalization. Paris didn’t have a Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysees back then, and I didn’t have a sippy cup or a plastic container of raisins in my purse. Which is to say, we had potential. But we never gave it the time to flourish.
Now that we live a short train ride away, I thought this might be the perfect time to rekindle the flame.
We arrived in Paris on a rainy Tuesday morning in October, a loosely tied bundle of pent-up energy and expectations. We only brought one suitcase for the four of us, but we had a lot of baggage. It was the girls’ first visit, so we figured they’d want to take in as much as possible in our three short days there. Cope and I hadn’t been to Paris for years, and then never together. We had some catching up to do. And I was even looking forward to amortizing my eight years of French language studies, meaning I was ready, willing, and able to spend three days speaking like an overtired preschooler and feeling like a superhero doing it.
Great expectations. I bet you can see where this is going. We could see it, too, even in the moment. Things went a little differently than they might have. The girls really loved the hotel room and never would’ve left it if they’d been too heavy to drag. The food scene was probably fabulous, but since normal Parisians eat dinner at 9 p.m. and our kids go to bed at 8, we really have no idea whether it was fabulous or not. Paris in the rain in the cold in a stroller is not the same as Paris in the rain in the springtime in the movies.
I got asked for directions not once but twice. People assumed I was a native. Not because they’d overheard my French (see also overtired toddler, above), but because they’d seen my hassled demeanor. Exhausted Mom is universal beyond language.
There were plenty of solid moments, too, if not the ones we’d been imagining. Ducking into Notre Dame to escape the rain. An hour-long ramble through the Louvre, just to have dipped a toe in. Playing in the park at the base of the Eiffel Tower. Feeling weirdly at home at the charming Sésame restaurant around the corner from our hotel in the 11th. And maybe best of all, eating a bowl of perfectly seasoned, coarsely pureed vegetable soup — potage aux legumes — in the middle of a chilly, frazzled day. If that was Paris on our own, new terms, I think I could get used to Paris.
The thing about a great city like Paris is that even if the time you spend there falls substantially short of divine, you somehow still go home and start dreaming about its magic. The cranky bits start to melt away, and what’s left is fodder for the romantic imagination. Someday we’ll go back and have a trip that more closely meets our expectations. But for now, it isn’t being in Paris that we’ll remember fondly — it’s having been. (Just don’t ask me to draw that distinction in preschool French.) We’ll smile about it over a bowl of homemade potage aux legumes. We’ll be glad to have gone, and even gladder to have come home.
Talk to you soon.
Potage aux Legumes (Rustic French Vegetable Soup)
This simple soup is far greater than the sum of its parts. It keeps well for a few days in the fridge and, like the rest of us, even improves with a night’s rest. Reheat gently.
- 1 1/2 to 2 pounds potatoes, peeled and diced
- 1 pound yellow onions, peeled and diced
- 1 pound carrots, peeled and diced
- 8 cups water, chicken stock or vegetable stock
- 2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
- 2 to 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 dried bay leaf
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/2 cup heavy cream OR 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil (for vegan soup)
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
To a heavy 5-quart pot, add the potatoes, onions, carrots, water, salt, thyme, bay leaf and nutmeg. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover and reduce heat to maintain a simmer. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until all vegetables are very tender, about an hour.
Remove thyme stems and bay leaf. Pass soup through a food mill with a medium disc attached. Almost all of the solids should go through. (Or use a stick blender for a less rustic texture.) Stir in cream or olive oil. Add pepper and additional salt, if desired, to taste. Return to pot and reheat over low heat before serving.