A lot of expat life is about assessing what you don't have in a particular location, and then trying to figure out how to get it. Booze, brussel sprouts, Christmas trees, you name it and an expat has smuggled it, grown it, or Macgyvered it. In this case: sweet potatoes. Much to my surprise, they actually sell sweet potatoes in Algeria, but they bear little resemblance to American sweet potatoes. The sweet potatoes here look similar on the outside, but inside they are white and oddly starchy/sticky in consistency. Sometimes I think produce here is like one long botany lesson. (These specimens may be a true yam? And not what New York city groceries mistakenly called yams.) I eat them sometimes, but without the joy of a gloriously orange sweet potato.
When I hoarded some precious sweet potatoes back from America in November, I knew exactly what I was going to do with them. I was going to make Sweet Potatoes Anna. This recipe first appeared in the NYTimes several years ago, it had a brief flourish on some cooking blogs, and then faded into relative obscurity, except in my kitchen. I made Sweet Potatoes Anna probably 50 times over one winter. I may have been in danger of turning orange. I credit this recipe with turning my husband, previously an avowed sweet-potato-hater, into someone fighting me for the last scraps of gratin. It's so great, I think I've made it for Thanksgiving three years in a row. It helps that it is also super easy when you have a big meal to plan.
It's so good that people often ask me for the recipe (even French friends who tell you they can't cook at all and then invite you to their party where they serve a massive spread of homemade pate and rilletes on toast and those little savory loaf cakes French people make, even those people!). And, even worse, I'm only finally telling you about this recipe now! I know, I'm a terrible friend. But if you'll forgive me, there's still plenty of time left for more Sweet Potatoes Anna this winter.*
*Although not for me, but I'm considering asking someone to ship me a box of sweet potatoes. They'll keep in transit for three weeks in the cold, right??
Sweet Potatoes Anna
This recipe is easily adjustable to any size you want. I often make a very large gratin of this for Thanksgiving or for a crowd. Adapted from the New York Times.
4 medium-sized sweet potatoes (about 2.5 lbs), peeled
8 tablespoons (4 oz) butter, melted
3 tablespoons coarse sea salt
1 tablespoon Aleppo pepper or red pepper flakes (both work equally well)
equipment: a 10-inch round ceramic or glass baking dish or cast iron skillet
1. Preheat oven to 425F. Place the sea salt and Aleppo pepper in a bowl and mix to combine.
2. Using a mandoline thinly slice the peeled sweet potatoes (about 1/8" thick). Place the sweet potatoes in a large bowl, add the melted butter, and stir to coat.
3. Layer the sweet potatoes slices in concentric overlapping circles over the bottom of your dish. Sprinkle the layer lightly with the salt/pepper mix. Continue to make overlapping layers, sprinkling each layer with salt/pepper, until all your potatoes are used up. You will not use all the salt mixture. (You can try and save your prettiest slices for the top layer if you're OCD like that). Scrape up any butter that's stuck to the bottom of the bowl and dab it over the top of the gratin.
4. Cover the dish tightly with aluminum foil, place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover the dish and bake for another 20-30 minutes, until tender when pierced through with a knife. If the potatoes start to brown too much you can cover the dish lightly with foil again. Serve warm.