My quest to put on a proper American Thanksgiving for our Belgian friends Saturday evening had me close to questioning my sanity. No, it wasn't trying to find the cranberries (I had a bag frozen left over from last year -- and yes, they do keep a year -- plus supplements from Picard). And it wasn't even looking for pureed pumpkin. Pumpkin pie is not one of my favorites and I've scotched it from our Turkey Day menu. No, it was the pursuit of sweet potatoes that had me pulling out my hair.
I'd bought sweet potatoes at our neighborhood supermarket last year but they'd cost a bloody fortune. This time, I told myself, I do it the right way. I got on the Métro with my big shopping bag and headed for the Barbès market near Gare du Nord. It's a neighborhood a bit rough around the edges but I'd figured somewhere in that polyglot of North Africans, South Indians, and others, I'd probably get lucky.
From first apppearances, it went well. I found a cheerful fellow who sold me a big sack of sweet potatoes, plus celery, onions, parsley for my stuffing, four big white baking potatoes, and few oranges for the cranberry sauce, and it all set me back less than 10 euros. My bag was stuffed and it was time to head home. Of course, there was the little matter of pushing through the crowds back into the Métro station but it all worked out okay.
That is, until I got home, and roasted up one test potato. Uh oh. When I split open the potato to scoop out the insides, it wasn't orange and it sure wasn't moist. It was white and crumbly with a starchy taste only mildly resembling my Thanksgiving favorite. It may have been a sweet potato but it sure wasn't the right kind.
I figured I'd put those aside for home consumption and find replacements elsewhere. The next day, other errands took me in the direction of the Marché d'Aligre in the 12th. I found a fellow selling what looked like sweet potatoes. I asked him what color they were under the skin and when he said, "pink." I thought, "sold." And then started the dance that I really dislike about the open air market -- dealing with vendors who won't let you touch their wares and who have different ideas than your own. He asked me how many guests and then started piling the potatoes high in the sack. When I protested and said it was too much, he got all huffy. Then he wanted to sell me 2 kilos of clementines. When I said, I'd take one, he got huffier still. I paid and made my get away.
The next day, I took the potatoes out of the sack to roast them. There were already rotten bits -- I cut away as much as one-quarter of what I'd bought. And then an hour later, when I took them out of the oven, it was pretty clear that about half of what I'd cooked was bad. It wasn't orange; it was black and nasty. I was grossed out, angry, and not surprisingly a little deflated.
Saturday morning was my last chance. I did what I should have done in the first place. I went to the little corner market where the prices are high but there they were: a big box of healthy looking sweet potatoes (pink under the skin) marked "Origine: Israël." Even better, on my way to the market, what did I find but a five euro bill on the sidewalk. It didn't fully cover the costs of my sweet potato misadventures but it sure took out the sting.
All's well that ends well. The last bunch roasted up beautifully. Scooped from their skins, mashed and mixed with a bit of lime juice, they were a hit with our guests. Lesson learned? Always check under the hood before buying. Never ever buy from vendors who won't let you pick your own produce. And despite the perception that the best produce comes from the open air market, sometimes a supermarket is just the ticket.