Friday, April 17, 2009

Tortilla Española: Understanding a greatly misunderstood dish - Part 1

Very few Spanish dishes are subject to the same degree of hyperbolic gushing from American food writers as the tortilla española. In her excellent overview The Foods and Wines of Spain, Penelope Casas describes the tortilla as "a way of life" and waxes eloquent about Spain's "love affair" with the dish. Virtually all American-authored Spanish cookbooks worth their salt contain requisite stories detailing enthusiastic families and inquisitive tourists all experiencing the beauty of Spain, tortillas in hand. These romanticized tales have obscured the purpose and station of what is in reality a humble potato omelet.

It is certainly true that you can find Spaniards serving tortillas all over the country. During my 2-month stay in summer 2008, I rarely entered a cafe, restaurant, bar, or tavern without seeing one. Strangely (considering all I had read from Casas etc...), I did not witness the excitement and enthusiasm that I had been prepared for. First of all, the foreign tourists I encountered seemed perplexed..."This is bland. Why isn't there any ketchup?" was an all-too-common comment. Secondly, Spaniards themselves seemed virtually indifferent to the much-hyped dish. Sure, they would eat a small nibble IF it was given free as a tapa. However, virtually no one ever ordered it specifically and often the free nibble remained uneaten. What was going on here?

I've come to realize that the tortilla occupies a position in Spanish food culture somewhat analogous to tuna salad in America. Sure, most Americans will slap some between two slices of bread for a quick sandwich. Others might occasionally take a more refined approach and dress it up on some greens in a composed salad. Still others might raid the fridge, spoon in hand, for a quick snack. Despite these numerous gastronomic functions, it would sound quite silly to read about an American "love affair" with tuna salad. The tortilla needs to be understood in the same light: it's an easy, flexible, and filling foodstuff for all kinds of unremarkable daily situations.

With only 4 required ingredients (and 1 optional), it is simple to throw together in the American kitchen. You only have a few decisions to make: 1) potatoes diced or thinly sliced 2) thinly sliced onion or not and 3) hot & runny or room temperature & fully set. It is vastly more common in Spain with sliced potatoes, no onion, and served room temperature. Bartenders will cut it into small squares as a free tapa with drinks, cafes will serve thick wedges as a light meal, and moms will slide a slice between baguette slices for their kids' lunches.

In the coming weeks, I hope to explore this misunderstood dish in many of its forms. Spanish tortillas are open to all sorts of improvisation and adaptation. However, it makes sense to start with the basic and ubiquitous potato version:

Tortilla Española
Ingredients - Total Cost: $6.42
2 lbs. russet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced (I set my Benriner slicer just under 1/4") into circles
1 cup extra virgin olive oil (do NOT try to economize here...much of the oil can be salvaged for other delicious purposes. Sadly, many Spaniards have resorted to sunflower seed oil)
1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
6 large eggs (obviously the fresher and higher quality the a simple dish you get what you pay for)
3/4 tsp. Morton kosher salt, or to taste

1) Heat the oil in a large dutch oven over medium heat. Most recipes direct you to use the same skillet you will cook the finished tortilla in but I've found that to be an invitation to mess. Since you have to clean the skillet anyway, you aren't really saving any work. Add the sliced potatoes and onions and cook slowly for about 25 minutes. Do your best to periodically stir and separate all the layers of potato for even cooking. When the potatoes are ready, they'll be completely tender. Go ahead and taste the olive oily goodness!

2) Meanwhile, beat the eggs in a large bowl with the salt.

3) When the potatoes are fully tender, drain them in a colander with something underneath to catch the delicious oil. Let them drain for about 1 minute and then pour them into the eggs. Stir the mixture thoroughly and then let it sit for AT LEAST 15 minutes. Do NOT attempt to save time or cut corners on this step of the final flavor and texture of your tortilla will suffer.

4) Heat 2 tbsp. of the reserved oil in a 9-10" non-stick skillet over high heat. When the oil is almost (but not quite!) smoking, pour in the potato-egg mix and quickly smooth it down. Immediately, turn the heat down to medium and cook for about 4-5 minutes.

5) Now the "tricky" part...Place a large plate over the skillet. Holding it in place with a properly pot-holdered hand, FLIP the whole thing over onto the plate. Don't be alarmed if oil and runny egg ooze out onto the plate. This is perfectly normal. Use a spatula to carefully side the tortilla back into the skillet, runny side down. Pour any accumulated eggy juices on and around the tortilla and tuck in any unsightly edges.

6) Cook for 5-6 more minutes or until the eggs reach your desired stage of doneness (some Spanish chefs love a slightly underdone tortilla and use the excess egg as a "sauce"). Flip the tortilla 2 more times to ensure even doneness and shape. Slide the finished tortilla onto a plate and serve hot or cool to room temperature for other uses.

Notes and Serving: Be sure to save the extra potato oil. It is great for frying eggs, vinaigrette, and sauteed vegetables. Eat the tortilla in wedges as a light main course or cut into small squares as a snack. Although it may sound strange (think about the idea of putting American-style potato salad on bread), try a slice between a section of baguette, sliced lengthwise.

1 comment:

  1. Great article, well written filled with practical and useful advice. Good photography that explains the steps in preparations, and there wasn't any spillage in flipping the dish! Excellent recipe.