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Friday, October 05, 2007

The Tortilla: An Ode to Eggs, Potatoes, and Olive Oil

Simple Perfection

...(and salt, don’t be stingy with the salt.)

Every family has its own method for making tortillas, their own secret.
-3,000 Años de la Cocina Española by Rosa Tovar and Monique Fuller

The first thing we Americans learn upon visiting Spain is that a Spanish tortilla is completely different than the Mexican variety. A Spanish tortilla is a sort of omelet made with eggs and some other kind of filler. The Mexican variety of tortillas, either made with corn or flour, are hard to come by in Spain. We are lucky to have Mexico as our neighbor. Their food has permeated our culture on many different levels. Spanish food is less well-known to Americans and the tortilla is a good place to begin.

The Spanish tortilla is probably my favorite dish here in Spain. I get a craving for it on a regular basis. It is a perfect food in my opinion, a wonderful balance of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Eggs are a fantastic source of protein, potatoes are as good a place to get carbohydrates as you can find, and olive oil is a fat made in heaven. And don’t forget about the salt. I thought I already told you about this?

Tortillas are sold in almost every bar in Spain. Tortillas are served as a tapa, alone like a slice of pie, or you can get a tortilla sandwich. You can get tortillas made with zucchini, artichokes, spinach, mushrooms, cheese, and just about anything else you can imagine. The most popular and what probably defines the tortilla in Spain is the tortilla de patatas made with potatoes. This is my personal favorite.

After returning from a few weeks in Spain a few years back I saw a sign for “Tortillas Españolas” in a Seattle restaurant I frequented. I was with a friend who had spent a lot of time in Spain so we were both anxious to get a fix of this great combination of simple ingredients. I was served scrambled eggs with potatoes—not the same thing as a tortilla. I didn’t complain because I really like the restaurant but I realized that no one who worked there, from the cooks and dishwashers, to the waiters and bartenders, had ever been to Spain to allow this dish to be called a tortilla.

This was when I started trying to make tortillas at home (notice the use of the verb “to try”). I am a fairly good cook and I can usually nail just about any recipe after a couple of attempts but my forays into tortillas generally ended in something considerably less than a success. I will give a basic recipe so that you can see how easy it looks on paper.

Tortilla de Patatas

6 eggs
3 pounds of potatoes
Olive Oil

Peel and slice the potatoes very thinly. Sauté the slices in a generous amount of olive oil being careful not to brown them. When the potatoes are cooked, drain off the excess olive oil. Beat the eggs in a bowl and add the cooked potatoes and salt. Transfer this to a sauté pan. Cook on one side being careful not to brown the mixture. Cover the pan with a plate and flip the tortilla and return it to the pan so the other side cooks. Reshape the tortilla with a spatula as the other side cooks. Repeat this again.

This sounds pretty simple and straightforward and it may be for some people. I had my share of disasters. I was becoming a bit discouraged until I watched a Spanish movie I rented about some street kids living in Madrid. One of the kids offers to make a tortilla for everyone. As they begin to eat it everyone spits it out because he didn’t even cook the potatoes ahead of the egg mixture, he just threw everything into a pan. This scene made me think that perhaps I wasn’t a complete klutz in the kitchen and there was more to this deceptively simple dish than what the recipe explains.

I have learned to cook this dish fairly well since I moved to Spain. I bought a special non-stick pan especially for tortillas. I have experimented a great deal with how I cook the potatoes. I used to bake the potatoes ahead of time if I was using the oven for something else. I found that this required that I use a lot less oil than is normally the case—not that I am really out to use less olive oil, I practically drink the stuff right out of the bottle. I thought that this method was a nice shortcut because sautéing the potatoes in oil takes forever. I have returned to the sauté method just because I am trying to be more authentic and they cook it this way for a reason. It tastes better.

Just what “authentic” means when talking about this icon of Spanish cuisine is difficult to define. Absolutely every Spanish person I have interviewed concerning this dish has their own truco, or trick. People’s recipes for tortillas are as individual and defining as fingerprints here in Spain, so be careful not to leave a half-eaten tortilla at a crime scene or they might track it back to you. My own recipe has been distilled from dozens of others and is still in the developmental stage. It may never leave that stage and move on to anything more permanent—it’s like the jazz solos of recipes.

While rummaging through the kitchen at my first apartment in Valencia, I came across an odd plastic thing that looked like a lid for something. My roommate back then told me it was for flipping tortillas. He never used it and instead preferred to use a plate. It was purchased by a former roommate who also never used it. In the spirit of integration, I never used it either but I took it with me when I moved to a new place. I began using it and I found it vastly superior to the plate method of flipping. The plastic flipper has a knob handle on one side which makes it easier to hold than a plate. I anoint it with a bit of olive oil before using (the Spanish use the verb untar, to anoint, whenever they splash olive oil on anything). They make a special pan for making tortillas called a vuelvetortillas, or tortilla flipper, but I don't know anyone who has admitted to using one. It's kind of like cheating in my book. some people cook one side in the pan and then they transfer the dish to the oven to cook the top part. This seems wimpy to me.

I have a few trucos of my own when it comes to making this dish. For example, I prefer a ridiculously high potato-to-egg ratio. I credit this discovery to the woman at the vegetable stand in the Ruzafa Market near my apartment. I told her I was going to make a six egg tortilla and she suggested I purchase two kilograms of potatoes. This seemed like a laughably large quantity of spuds but I loved the way it turned out. Instead of a potato omelet, it is more like potatoes with a thin veneer of egg. And I think that this bears repeating: Don’t be shy with the salt—that’s why they keep it in a big bowl by the stove instead of some wimpy shaker.

Tortillas are great because you can eat them any time of day. I eat them for breakfast sometimes, although you’d never find a Spaniard doing this. While having a beer or a glass of wine, a small portion on a toothpick makes a great tapa. Stuffed in a loaf of bread they make a hearty sandwich. A slice of tortilla makes an elegant side dish for a meal.

Spain seems to have wonderfully fresh eggs; even those you find in the big supermarket chains are quite good. I buy mine from one of the stalls at the market and they are always very fresh. The abundance of nice, fresh eggs probably explains a lot about why this dish is so popular here.

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