About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Monday, January 15, 2007
Simply Spanish
Every country has one; a dish that is intrinsically tied to the national character and is best not messed with. Usually there is a certain simplicity as most classics derive from peasant roots and speak of times long before modern transport and refrigeration, when all ingredients were local and spanking fresh, without complication or artifice. What grew in the field was put on the plate as simply as possible, but always in a way that highlighted one or at most two components of the dish.

Some foods are relatively easy to put on the plate, think of an aged rib eye steak or a fish so fresh that its eyes are still bright and the gills a deep red colour. With little effort on the part of the cook this sort of produce speaks easily for itself. Moving away from protein, some vegetables also exude an easy confidence that makes them simple to plate up, a super ripe tomato with a little basil or a slice of eggplant, chargrilled and drizzled with the finest olive oil.

But what if a vegetable was pale white or just slightly yellow with no particular flavour, a non descript neutral, how would it be possible to make it spectacular, even a national dish, one that is made with pride in every household? If someone gave you a few potatoes and asked you to wow them, what would you turn the humble spud into? The Spanish have answered this question in the most emphatic way.

The tortilla.

They have taken a few potatoes, added some onion for savour, softened them in olive oil, bound them with eggs, before returning to the pan to set. The simplest of ingredients that are found in any cooks pantry turned into the most sublime dish imaginable. I still recall my first ever taste, made by some Spanish friends. It was hard to believe that something so simple could be so tasty, a creamy potato flavour that was concentrated by long slow cooking in olive oil, seasoned with the sweet tang of long cooked onions all morticed with beaten eggs. The taste stayed with me like the kiss of my first true love and I was true to it. When these same friends made paella, even though it was all sultry and flirty, my head was never turned from the purity and honesty of tortilla.

Oh, how I longed to recreate that first taste and how easy it seemed. I knew how to cook after all, potato, eggs and onions held no fears. But try as I might, that first taste remained elusive. It wasn't that I made my attempts badly, they always tasted quite okay, but there was some elusive X factor that was beyond my grasp. As Keith Floyd said,

Fourteen-year-old beach bar cooks can make tortillas to perfection. All grannies - Spanish ones that is - can make them to perfection. And yet, seemingly the simplest of dishes, is one of the most difficult in which to achieve perfection. Do not make the mistake of thinking it is just fried potatoes with egg over the top.

One of the first hurdles a novice tortilla maker encounters is the prodigious amount of salt that potatoes absorb without becoming unduly salty. To season a tortilla properly takes bravery. The next hurdle is the pre cooking of the potatoes and onions in the olive oil - they must never brown, only stay the same colour you started with, think of it as a gentle braise. You will also question the amount of olive oil required, for the potatoes and onions must be almost submerged, though the oil used wouldn't be first class extra virgin. Of course if you don't have olive oil, consider making chips, onion rings and a fried egg - you'll be much happier.

Then when the potatoes and onions are cooked through, you must drain them from the oil and mix with some beaten egg and return to the pan until set and the top is nicely browned, you'll know when you've reached this point for you will start salivating at the delicious smell wafting up, at which point a further act of bravery is required to turn the entire contents of the pan upside down on a plate and slip it back into the pan to finish cooking. This part is also a leap of faith for the uninitiated in hoping that the whole thing will hold together and that it will in fact go back into the pan, all whilst it is boiling hot!

Then, if you have completed all the aforementioned steps successfully, the hardest part is waiting for the hot tortilla to cool slightly before pouncing upon it and then blessing the day that the Spaniards sailed to the New World and discovered potatoes. But most of all, the tortilla is about the sensitive cook, someone who cooks with heart and feeling for the people they love and cherish.

Truth be told, the following is not so much a recipe as guidlines, you really have to make this your own way. Like me, it may take several attempts before you really feel like you've nailed it.

Tortilla Espanola

3 or 4 medium to large potatoes*
1 small onion
olive oil
4 eggs
1 cast iron or lined copper frypan

Peel the potatoes and if large first cut in half lengthways, then cut into thick slices about 5 mm (1/4"), peel and slice the onion into thin slices. Salt the potatoes generously, mix with the onion slices and place in your frypan and pour over enough olive oil to almost cover. Place over medium heat and when the oil starts to slowly plop, plop, adjust the heat to keep it there, the potatoes must braise, not brown. As it cooks, gently move the slices around from time to time, until after about fifteen minutes the potatoes are soft when pierced with a knife or fork.

Whisk the eggs with some salt until combined, drain the potatoes and onions, then wipe out the pan. Place 1 tablespoon of the olive oil back in the pan on low heat and put the potato and onion in with the eggs and gently stir to combine. Pour the mixture into the frypan and slowly cook for about ten minutes until a lovely golden colour appears.

Place a plate large enough to cover the frypan and with confidence, flip it over so the tortilla is now on the plate, put another tablespoon of olive oil in the frypan and slide the tortilla back in, uncooked side down, until cooked, about another ten minutes. Remove from the frypan and allow to rest for fifteen minutes to settle. Cut into wedges and serve with a salad. If there is any leftover, it's also good cold, in fact it makes great picnic food.

*I've used both waxy and white potatoes with equal success.
  posted at 8:37 am

At 12:06 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! Neil this is exactly what the Espanola Tortilla is - you've said it so well.
I also remember my first taste of the Espanola Tortilla. After a glorious day discovering the Spanish country around Ronda we had dinner at a friend's house where he served his mother's Espanola Tortilla. I swooned. I talked to him about the recipe and making it. He was delighted to tell me all about it. I've always felt it was a curse when he finished with "Only those who learn at their grandmother's knee can really reproduce the Tortilla". I've tried, tried and tried and done it all over with every cookbook I have found it in. I've never come close to duplicating that Espanola Tortilla.

At 2:57 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That´s a perfect description of a nice tortilla. Mind you, I´ve never been to Spain myself. But, my brother does live in Sevilla and like half the population here is of Spanish decent, so I´ve eaten potato tortillas cooked by Spaniards.
I´ve never attempted the mighty feat of reproducing it myself...that fear of it tasting bland or breaking as I turn it is too much for me at the moment. But this post did encourage me a bit... so maybe I´ll try in a few months ;)

At 9:01 pm, Blogger Scott at Real Epicurean said...

A good tortilla is a great meal, and a slice served alongside a simple side salad can look very contemporary.

Most people still think of the Mexican tortilla flatbread when they hear the name though.

At 11:07 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My father lives in Madrid now, but when I was a kid he would make the only spanish thing he knew how to, to remind him of Spain.The Tortilla! He would spend ages on it. Well to me, it seemed like forever. He served it with a simple salad of brown sliced onions, iceburg lettuce and tomatoes cut into wedges. Then he just threw over a good splash of extra virgin olive oil, some brown vinegar, clove chopped garlic, salt and pepper. It was so simple, but so yummy. I think it's the only really good memory I have of him.


At 12:21 am, Blogger Jeanne said...

Great post Neil! What a spot-on description of what a tortilla should be - although I must admint I have never had a totrilla that rocked my world as yours was obviously rocked. For me, I think the "OMG!" dish of Spain was a plate of fava beans and jamon iberico with a splash of olive oil. And thankfully, given the right ingredients, tha's a lot easier to recreats ;-)

At 11:45 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi tanna, what a great experience, having a tortilla in Spain, made by an expert no less. I wonder if there is some 'cellar door' thing going on, like when you buy wine at the winery cellar door and when you get home your purchases don't taste the same as you remember. You're a really good cook and I'd bet what you made was pretty good.

Hi Marce, the first time you make one is pretty scary, especially the flipping over bit. You're lucky to have so many Spanish descent cooks around, rejoice in your tortilla heaven.

Hi scott, I used to have that confusion, understandably. Isn't it great that something so old can be considered contemparary?

Hi squishy, you know, it does seem to take forever too. It's great to have one good memory of your dad, never forget it.

Hi jeanne, I think I was lucky enough to have had a good one straight off the bat. The one that I made that inspired this post was about the tenth one. I've never had real jamon Iberico, but it sounds like a great match with the beans, and isn't everything better with a splash of good extra virgin?

At 11:15 pm, Blogger lobstersquad said...

perfect tortilla, Neil, and the post, too. You hit the nail on the head, exactly. And now for the shameful confession: I never ever make tortilla. It´s a huge hassle, and luckily Madrid is a place where most bars will have a decent version. Although of course the place to go is my mum´s. Of course!

At 8:20 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi lobstersquad, I didn't start making mine until a few years ago, plenty of time left for you. But still, if you have all those great tortilla cooks around you, why bother?

At 11:24 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have just tried to make this on the weekend having never known of this dish before - where have I been?!

Suffice to say that I am very pleased to add it to my repertoire and will endeavour to perfect it. I have a feeling I didn't cook the potatoes long enough. They weren't raw, just a tad firm. Or should they be firmish?

But the flavours were all there and as you said, quite amazing given the simplicty of the ingredients. Thanks for another great post.

At 6:30 pm, Blogger neil said...

Hi zam, if you used white potatoes they would finish up a tad softer than waxy (yellow) spuds. Glad you had a shot, it is a great dish. Btw, something I didn't mention is you can save the braising olive oil and use it to fry other things later on, just keep it in a sealed jar.


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