Last night I had a few friends over to bid bon voyage to a friend who is leaving town for the summer. Fired up the grill, slapped on some steaks, potatoes au gratin, wine, dessert – the works. However, this morning one thing became clear – my graduate student “income” handles treating friends to a steak dinner just about as well as my head handles a bottle and a half of wine. In situations like this, I turn to my go-to, budget-easing, good-for-what-ails-ya, all-purpose meal solution – tortilla española.
Despite what my friends always think, tortilla española is not a type of burrito (so stop bringing salsa!). Rather, it is the hearty potato-and-egg concoction that Spaniards eat pretty much constantly. I learned how to make tortilla when I spent a semester abroad in Spain, where I ate tortilla at least four times a week (best on Sunday at about 2PM after a long sangria-filled night). I knew I needed the recipe.
In Spain I lived with a host family, and it was my host mother Josefa (jet black eyes, fiery dyed red hair, even more fiery temper) who taught me everything I know about tortilla. Josefa imparted the technique to me as if she were revealing a secret magic spell with apocalyptic power. Each step came with a grave warning (e.g. You can add zucchini, but NEVER EVER EVER anything else!). Yet despite Josefa’s stern admonitions I have found the recipe to be rather malleable, and I encourage you to experiment once you’ve got the basic technique.
Classic Tortilla Española
3-5 Medium size Russet potatoes
1-2 Medium onions
Heat at least 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a nonstick pan over medium heat. Slice the potatoes crosswise into roughly ¼ inch thick slices and put them in the pan. (You can peel the potatoes if you like, but I prefer to leave the skins on, for kicks). Next slice the onion into rings and add it to the pan. Add a little salt and more olive oil as needed to keep the potato and the onion well coated.
You should start with 2 potatoes and 1 onion and then add more as necessary. The goal is to fill the pan. Once the pan is filled, cover and turn the heat down to medium-low. Let the potato and onion mixture cook for another 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, and breaking up the potatoes with the side of a spoon towards the end. Quoth Josefa: “Cook them until the potatoes are ‘blandito blandito’ (very very very soft)” You want it to be kind of a mush. Remove the potatoes from the burner and let them cool a bit. At this point you should also add some more salt and pepper, to give it its final seasoning.
While the potatoes are cooling, beat the eggs well in a large bowl. Add the potatoes to the eggs and mix until even. Place the nonstick pan back on a medium-high burner with two tablespoons of olive oil, and add the potato and egg mixture. You might want to give it a couple of those slick omelet moves where you take some of the more cooked egg along the side and bring it to the center with a spatula and then tilt the pan to fill in the vacated space with more egg. (by the way, if anyone knows the technical term for this, let me know). Either way, let the tortilla cook for at least 6-8 minutes, until the edges are well cooked and the center has set a little bit.
Ok, so I forgot to tell you, there is a death defying tortilla flip involved in this recipe. Don’t worry, the worst that will happen is you will fling semi-cooked egg and potato all over your kitchen with your relatives watching because your mom’s pan is from the first Bush administration. Hypothetically.
Take a plate large enough to cover the top of the pan (but not too large) and place it over the pan like a lid. Holding the plate to the pan, flip 180 degrees to turn the tortilla out onto the plate, and then carefully slide it back into the pan. See? Not so hard.
Cook it for another five minutes or until the underside is done. Flip a few more times until it has formed an even, rich, brown outer coating. Cool for five minutes and serve.
– Sliced on a sandwich for an easy lunch. In Spain they put mayonnaise on it, for health reasons
– Serve over green salad with croutons, shaved onion, and a vinaigrette
– Top with caramelized onions
– With a side of spinach
Variations: Josefa’s warning aside, you can do a lot with tortilla. Adding zucchini is, of course, great, but try bell pepper, or even chorizo. Shallots or leeks make interesting additions to the onions, and fresh herbs work very nicely. I haven’t experimented with cheese, but I have a hunch it would be fantastic
The sell: Low-budget, works as any meal, and lasts for many meals. Leave it out on the counter and snack on it anytime, though if you live with roommates, don’t expect it to last very long.