26 June 2013

I didn't think it would happen, but it did


I wasn't going to post unless the tortilla flipped properly and there was something to photograph.

Well, the oil was on my side, and my, was this good.

Let me go back a bit. The last time I had Tortilla Espanola (no, not frittatas with leftover roasted potatoes slipped in for bulk), authentically, I was in high school on a Spanish class trip. We visited a hole-the-wall Spanish restaurant in Morristown, NJ, about five minutes from the school. The joint was nestled between a Blockbuster video and hardware store(?)... I can't quite remember, nor do I recall the name of it. But it wasn't noticeable. One of those. Forget hidden Brooklyn storefronts, that trend was happening in Morristown, too, circa 2002.


My teacher, Sister Josephine, aka Hermana Josefina, had a routine of taking her classes here year after year because she claimed it was the most authentic Spanish food in the area and was obsessed with the preparation of the Tortilla Espanol and the Chicken Soup that contained the bones of the chicken in addition to the meat, which was what made it authentic, we were told. There were whole pieces of maize in there, too, or corn on the cob.

It was all  made there, fresh and took a lot of time, as most authentic cooking does. I had little concept of this at that point but I remember her describing a few things about the special tortilla: batatas, cebollas, acieto de oliva, huevos y sal and that was it. Potato, onion, olive oil, eggs and salt. And black pepper if you so desire. The trick wasn't exactly in the ingredients, but the preparation, the watching, and the flipping. And then, it must cool to room temperature.


Perhaps it was an off time, 12 noon (don't the Spanish eat a late lunch?) but needless to say, I remember the place being near empty when we showed up, a group of ten or so girls and Hermana. An attentive waiter sat us in a corner oversize booth and I remember feeling slightly anxious that I didn't know what I was in for. We were all being ordered for. I think she ordered the soup for everyone, and a few tortillas for the table. I wasn't a huge chicken soup person and this described Tortilla Espanol, prepared with its copious amounts olive oil was a bit daunting.

But both were, of course, ridiculously good. I remember taking a piece of tortilla home but had no idea how you'd make such a thing.

Fast forward. I slip leftover potatoes into frittatas here and there, but that's a cinch. Last summer, I seem to recall ordering a piece of Tortilla Espanol at an extremely loud, crowded Happy Hour tapas bar on the Upper West Side. What emerged satisfied my need for solids at the moment and tasted ok, but was clearly microwaved and not the real thing. Oh, Upper West Side. No. 

And so, facing six little potatoes in the pantry with no salmon in sight (or desire to transport any sort of fish more than ten minutes in this sauna of a city), I took out the eggs and started sourcing the web for this thing.

As I was sauteing the potatoes, I learned the olive oil is somewhat over-emphasized in the description, or should I say, an unnecessary intimidation factor. For this go-around (which was actually the first time I made it), rather than go with cups and tablespoons, I eyeballed it. You're after a thickish, slick coat of oil in a "preferably nonstick" pan, enough to evenly cook potatoes and onions until soft and cooked through, not browned. This is achievable if you stick to the heat settings described below.

Now I get a little intimidated with taking on recipes people describe as "traditional." Like, who am I kidding? I'm going to pretend to be a knowledgeable chef from another country right now who's been whispered the secrets over the years of pulling this off without looking at instructions? But sometimes, the instructions are the jumping off point. I read them, a few times, then go into the kitchen. If something has to cook longer than 5 minutes on the stove, I often go look at the instructions again. But mostly, I stay there and watch what I started.

Putting this together was actually pretty zen. And despite the fact that a cast iron skillet is about the most masochistic piece of equipment one could subject herself to lift with one arm and flip onto a plate, I think it was very helpful in the category of non-stickiness.

All that said, I'm sure a Spanish grandmother could have watched me make this and point out all the subtleties I negated, starting with my proportions: I used 6 tiny potatoes (I actually found them easier to work with, slice and soften), peeled and sliced super thin, and 4 eggs. I think traditionally you are supposed to use larger potatoes and a tighter egg ratio. But I am not concerned...The fact that these volumes yielded a thinner tortilla was just fine. And where's the aioli say you? Well I that's another recipe. For tonight a dollop of salted and paprika'd sour cream was a nice touch.

My only regret: where are the leftovers? They don't exist. I'll have to make it again.



Tortilla Espanola
Adapted from various sources

6 small, low-starch potatoes (I used red new- you could use Yukon too), halved, peeled, sliced into thin into rounds
1 small/medium yellow onion, diced
4 eggs
Generous pinches of salt and black pepper
A pinch of a smashed garlic clove.
A small pinch paprika

Slice your onions and your potatoes. Place the potatoes in a bowl and toss with a pinch of salt and let them sit while you heat the pan.

Heat a pan, preferably non-stick, with 10 inch diameter and 1 1/2-2 inch depth. I used a cast iron skillet. Pour in enough oil to coat the bottom. Heat to medium high. When the oil is very hot, add the onions, set to medium, add a pinch of salt, and sautee about 4 minutes, turning frequently so they are translucent.  Take a scoop of onions out to make a little more room, and set on a nearby plate.

Add the potatoes.Cook on medium, turning frequently, not breaking them, but softening them to fork-tender but not browning them (thinness of slices helps here). You want everything coated in oil and softening together. Allow about 10-15 minutes for this. Add a little more oil if needed. Add the reserved onions back into the pan in the final moments of cooking. Toss to combine.

When the potatoes are cooked through (stick a knife in to no resistance) but not overly soft, sprinkle with a little more salt, pepper and paprika. Toss then transfer to a plate to sit and cool a few minutes.

Pour any oil left in the skillet out (reserve this) and wipe it (especially stuck on bits)

Beat eggs with pinch each salt and pepper in a wide bowl. Add the potato mixture to this. Let sit a moment.

Heat the skillet on medium high. Add about a Tbs. reserved oil. Let the pan and oil get  hot (important so the eggs don't stick), and then pour in the potato and egg mixture, spreading it evenly. Cook for a minute, then lower the heat to medium low, cooking until the eggs are completely set at the edges, halfway set in the center, and the tortilla easily slips around when you shake a little, 8 to 10 minutes.

Now remove the skillet from the pan and have a large plate nearby. Lift skillet and with one hand against the plate and the other holding the skillet's handle, invert the skillet so the tortilla lands on the plate. Now slide the tortilla. back into the skillet to cook the other side. Neaten the sides, and cook until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, hot, and with no uncooked egg on it, another 5 minutes.

Take the skillet off the heat and then transfer the tortilla to a cutting board. Important. Let cool at least 15 minutes or more. Slice into wedges and serve.


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