The first time I tried this dish was at a function for Spanish majors at my university. The idea was to expose us to the kinds of foods we would be eating when we studied abroad. My first stop on the “buffet” was the tortilla española, a delectable Spanish omelette made of fried eggs, potatoes and onions. It was cut into bite size pieces and adorned with a red toothpick for easy nibbling. After the first bite, I was immediately hooked.
I can say that Spaniards love their tortilla española just about as much as we love chicken pot pie, if not more. It’s comfort food that can be eaten at any time of the day: for breakfast with café con leche, for lunch on a roll or as a small tapa for dinner. Everyone in Spain has his or her own variation but of the many I’ve tried, my favorite was that of my host mama, Macu who hails from southern Spain. For me, her tortilla just feels like home.
I remember the night Macu taught me how to make it. We had been at the beach for the weekend with the extended family and had returned on our own to have some girl time. When we arrived at the house, we found the door to their sprawling casa wide open. We panicked and ran inside, thinking we were going to find the house vandalized. The reality was far different. Inside, it looked like a zoo–cats, birds and salamanders (which, to a city girl like me, might as well have been giant lizards) were parading around the house. Unfortunately, none of us had remembered to lock the door before we drove off for the weekend and since our community was gated, the only animals that managed to intrude were the real thing.
After hysterically laughing/crying on the floor for about an hour, Macu got up and said it was time for a soothing dinner. She was going to make tortilla española. “Pero, that’s Armando’s dish,” I said. Armando, Macu’s husband, was the head chef in our house and his tortilla was a specialty. Macu waved her finger at me with the same verocity Sofia Vergara yells “Jay” on Modern Family. “I don’t see Armando around, do you?” I shook my head. “Vale. Ven,” she said, and led me to the kitchen to show me how to make the “most comforting” tortilla española I would ever taste.
That night, we polished off the whole tortilla, eating it by the slice as if it were a pizza. We giggled about our day at the beach and wondered what creatures we might find in our beds later on. To this day, the events of that evening are some of my favorite study abroad memories. For me, tortilla española will always be synonymous with that night.
And she was right, it was the most comforting tortilla I’ve ever had.
Tortilla Española (Serves 4)
Adapted from a recipe by Emily’s host mom, Macu
5 potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced (lengthwise)
1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced (lengthwise)
2-3 cups of olive oil
Salt and Pepper
1. In a large bowl, prepare the onions and potatoes and set aside. In a third bowl, whisk the eggs in a large bowl. Add one pinch of salt and pepper.
2. Heat a large frying pan with olive oil. Carefully and evenly cover the pan with the potato and onion slices. Pour enough olive oil to just cover the ingredients and fry slowly. Be careful not to break the slices when turning them. Once the potatoes are just about cooked through (but not yet brown), remove from the pan using a slotted spoon and add to the egg mixture. Gently coat the onions and potatoes with the egg.
3. With the pan still hot, return the entire mixture of eggs, onions and potatoes to the frying pan and spread evenly. Cooking time will vary so pay attention to the tortilla to make sure it doesn’t burn.
4. When the egg begins to cook around the side and the potatoes on the bottom are starting to brown, it will be time to flip the tortilla.
Note: Be VERY careful when flipping the tortilla as hot oil is involved in this process. In Spain they use a special pan to do this (shown in pictures) but for our purposes, you may use a wooden cutting board or a large dinner plate. Make sure that whatever you use covers the pan entirely. The flipping process is difficult so take your time and practice!
5. Place your cutting board or plate (upside down) over the hot pan. Place one hand on top on the plate/cutting board and hold the handle of the pan with your other hand. Quickly lift the fry pan and turn it over. The tortilla will fall nicely onto the board. Return the pan to the heat and coat with a small amount of olive oil. Slide the tortilla back into the pan to brown the other side. It is okay if the tortilla is slightly runny.
6. Cook for a few more minutes and slide the tortilla onto a plate to be served. Let cool, though not entirely, for about 5 minutes.