There is an exuberance in the classic food of every country, a vibrancy and honesty that makes one want to eat it–or else it wouldn’t have lasted long enough to be classic. Every country’s food vibe, it’s exuberance, is different, and it’s not uncommon to answer the siren call of a cuisine that is not, by birth, one’s own. For some, that call might come from Sichuan cookery; for others, the cooking of Guatemala, or of Sweden, say. For me, that call, that vibe, comes from Spanish food–colorful, vivid, like a gustatory jolt of flamenco guitar. It shouts to me with all the urgency of that fiery, seductive art.
Aspects of this magnificent cuisine can be, to our culture, literally hard to swallow. There is no fear of frying, no hesitation in using enough quality olive oil to get the job done properly, no worrying about carbs when the paella is on the table. That in itself is an attraction, this lack of fretting over nutrition labels! The Spaniards just get on with it, and enjoy their food to the hilt.
Can a dish be simple and complex at the same time? Yep. Simple in concept, complex in execution, and that neatly describes the classic, iconic tortilla española: the dearly-loved potato omelet. Onions are optional; otherwise it’s eggs, potatoes, olive oil, and salt.
The trick is all in how it’s done. Why do people care? Because this omelet is all heart and soul. It’s delicious, comforting, rustic food for family and dear friends who love to gather at the table and take what comes. It really is worth the trouble!
My trials and errors have taught me three guidelines which make the difference between a supper you want to share and a mess you don’t want to eat:
- Olive oil is your friend. It flavors as well as fries. Use it generously.
- Be bold, go ahead and deep fry. Most of the oil really does stay in the pan.
- Potatoes are the star, and need to be pampered. Shortcuts will lead to disaster.
A written record of this omelet first appears in the 18th century; after potatoes were brought back to Spain from the New World, it took rather a long time for them to be considered as anything other than pig fodder, apparently. But the Spaniards finally discovered what fried eggs and fried potatoes can do for each other. Eggs are paired in other Spanish omelets with all manner of wonderful things: artichokes, peppers, tuna, asparagus, mushrooms, spinach, you name it; but tortilla española really does appear to be the “one and only”, the tortilla that everyone loves, and the ultimate Spanish comfort food.
I’m serving the tortilla with thin ribbons of roasted red pepper wrapped around fully-grown capers, and tufts of Italian parsley tucked between them. Totally baroque. But Spain is baroque, and besides, they taste great and look lovely against the potatoes and eggs. A spoonful of mayonnaise with a squirt of lemon wouldn’t go amiss either, but I leave that up to you.
Tortilla Española: Spanish Potato Omelet
Serves 4 as a main course
about 650g / 22 oz. white potatoes, unpeeled weight — Idaho Russet, Yukon Gold, Maris Piper, or similar
480 ml / 2 cups of extra virgin olive oil
1½ teaspoons kosher or sea salt
7 large eggs
- Peel the potatoes, and with a mandoline or in a food processor with the slicing disc, cut each potato into .25 cm / 1/8″ slices. Rinse them in two changes of water, and lay out onto a linen tea towel. Roll up the towel and leave the slices to dry while the olive oil heats.
- Pour the olive oil into a medium saucepan, and heat it to 200°F./ 93°C over medium-high heat. With a mesh skimmer or slotted spoon, start lowering the potato slices into the oil where they will start to boil gently. The oil temperature will probably drop, so increase the heat to get back to 200°; keep it between 195° and 205°F / 90° and 96°C if you can, by adjusting your heat source. The olive oil should just barely cover the potatoes; they will shrink and sink as they cook. They will also need to move somewhat freely in the oil so as not to compact onto the bottom of the pan–if there are too many potatoes in a batch, they will not cook evenly. You’ll probably need to do two batches.
- Boil the potatoes gently for 10-12 minutes. The timing will depend on the potatoes and the oil temperature; but even when the time is up and you think they’re done, always, always pull a slice from the pan and taste it. This is crucial to the success of your omelet: underdone potatoes will make the omelet inedible, no matter how beautifully everything else turns out. If there is the slightest hint of rawness, keep the potatoes boiling until they’re cooked through.
- When you’re satisfied that they’re done, scoop the potatoes from the oil with the mesh skimmer or slotted spoon, deposit them into a colander, and let the oil drain. If they break up a bit, that’s no problem. Proceed with the next batch until all the potatoes are cooked.
- Crack the eggs into a large bowl and whisk gently. Add salt, and whisk again to distribute the salt evenly. Tip the potatoes into the eggs, and turn them over and over until the egg has coated every slice. Leave the mixture to rest for 5 minutes so the potatoes can really soak into the egg.
- Heat a 24 cm / 10 inch non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, with 2 teaspoons of the cooking oil. When it is hot, pour in the egg and potato mixture. Even it out, and turn the heat down to medium. When the bottom has begun to set, start lifting the side of the omelet and tilting the pan, so the raw egg on the top side flows down under the omelet. It will take about 3 minutes for the underside of the omelet to cook; keep lifting the side of the omelet with a spatula to check how it’s browning. Give the pan a shake now and again to make sure the eggs are not sticking (but with a non-stick pan and rinsed potatoes, there should not be a problem).
- Here’s the tricky part: turning it over. Cookbooks blithely advise you to put a plate or pot lid over the skillet, flip the pan so the omelet drops onto the plate, then slide it back into the pan–or just flip the whole thing in midair. Unless you have very strong hands and wrists, this is not helpful. Here’s the method I use, and it gets the job done: have two plates by the stove, both the same size and both bigger than the omelet. Slide the omelet onto one plate, with the uncooked side up. Add another 2 teaspoons of oil to the pan, and start heating it up. Cover the omelet with the second plate, flip the plates over, and slide the omelet back into the pan, uncooked side down. If there is a great deal of uncooked egg or potato left on the bottom plate, just scrape it off and tuck it back under the omelet.
- It should take 3 to 3½ minutes for the underside to cook, depending on whether you prefer an omelet with a creamy interior, or well done.
- Slide the omelet onto the serving plate. It is best served warm or tepid; this gives you the chance to make a roasted red pepper and caper garnish, if you wish to do so. Otherwise, let it cool down, decorate with a few sprigs of parsley, and dish up some mayonnaise with a dash of lemon juice.
- Please don’t be tempted to slice the potatoes by hand, unless you have fantastic knife skills. Uneven slices will cook unevenly, and open the door to potatoes cooked at one end and under-cooked on the other.
- If your food processor is like mine, there will be (for reasons unknown) a few ultra-thin slices of potato along with the correctly-sliced ones. These are not a problem, so go ahead and fry them; it’s when hand-cut slices are 1/16″ at the top and 3/16″ at the bottom that the trouble can start.
- Rinsing the potatoes is not optional. Getting the starch off the slices will prevent them from caking together in a sodden lump, and from sticking to the bottom of the frying pan. They will also stay a creamy yellow color, rather than going a nasty gray.
- There is a balance to be observed between the amount of potato and the number of eggs. My personal lust for potatoes urges me to add “just a few more slices” . . . and the result is not good. If in doubt, err on the side of fewer potatoes, or more eggs.
- Out of 2 cups of olive oil used as per the recipe, just under 1¾ cups of oil were returned to the measuring jug; the entire deep-frying and pan-frying process used a total 5 tablespoons of oil.
- Leftovers make fabulous breakfast fare! Heat a slice in the microwave for about 20 seconds, sit down with the omelet and some café con leche, and your day will have started right!