The first time I came to Madrid, just over three years ago, I was strictly vegetarian. This time around, my priorities shifted a little to fit the occasional fish into my diet, because, as I had learned then, it’s hard to be vegetarian in Spain. What I did come to be very familiar with, and still eat a few times a week, is the tortilla de patatas. This has nothing in common with the Mexican tortilla made of flour or corn; in Spain, “tortilla” means “omelet”.
The tortilla de patatas, also known as the “tortilla española”, is, for all intents and purposes, the national dish of Spain. Yes, they have their jamón, yes, they have paella. But the “tortilla” abounds throughout the country, and can basically be eaten at any time of day – breakfast, snack, lunch, second snack, or dinner. You can walk into any little restaurant or café and order a “pincho de tortilla” – here “pincho” means a portion of a tortilla. This “pincho de tortilla” comes accompanied by a piece of bread and generally costs just a little over two euros.
I consider myself a small expert on the “tortilla de patatas”, for various reasons: as a vegetarian in Spain, I’ve eaten many, and can certainly tell a good one from a bad one. I’ve gotten lessons on how to make them from several different Spanish people, and I’ve made them on my own. All Spanish people seem to know how to make this recipe, and it really is quite simple. The traditional version only contains onions, potatoes, and eggs, although variations are common, and can include things such as spinach, peas, or ham.
But, for your basic tortilla, only four ingredients are required:
- olive oil
- 3 waxy potatoes
- 1 onion
- 6 eggs
- (and salt to taste)
Dice the potatoes in smallish chunks (but not too small and not too even, it’s the uneveness that gives the tortilla its texture) and onion a bit smaller. Fry them in a good amount of olive oil over medium-low heat – do not be afraid of the olive oil! (It’s healthy for you!) If you don’t use enough olive oil, the dish won’t turn out. Just the other day the señora of my casa, Milagros, showed me how she makes a tortilla, and she fried the potatoes and onions in a pool of olive oil. You don’t want the potatoes or onions to brown, but you want them to get soft – an estimate would be about fifteen minutes of frying, but watch the potatoes and test them with a fork to see when they’re ready.
When the potatoes and onions are good and ready, strain out the olive oil. Mix the potatoes, onions, and six whisked eggs in a bowl, then transfer the mixture into the skillet again, newly coated with olive oil. Cook it for a few minutes until the egg sets on the bottom. (It all depends on how you like it – some people like the tortilla a little runny, while others like it well done.) Now comes the hardest part: flipping it over. Use a plate and slide the tortilla onto it, then slide it back into the pan. Let the other side cook for another minute or two, then slide onto a clean plate, and let sit for a few minutes for the tortilla to cool and set. The potatoes, softened and broken up by the olive oil, give the tortilla a nice, creamy texture. Tortillas are eaten either at room temperature or warm. ¡Buen provecho!