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Having immersed myself in Spanish tortilla-making over the last few weeks, I've come to the conclusion that if there were an "If You Learn To Make Only One Dish This Ought To Be It" Award, the Spanish tortilla would make a very good candidate. In Spain, it's the go-to dish for a snack, a meal for an unexpected guest, or a late-night tapas snack. Not to be confused with Latin American flour or corn tortillas, the tortilla española is made with potatoes, onions, and eggs. It can be eaten warm or cold pretty much any time of day and can be easily rounded out into a meal with the addition of a salad and some cheese.
My friend Raquel, who moved to New York from Spain as an adult, remembers that for recess, school kids packed a tortilla bocadillo, a slice of tortilla sandwiched up in a baguette. Jose, who grew up mostly in New York and spent summers in Spain, said that as a hungry teenager, he'd come home, open the fridge, and mow through the greater part of a tortilla before dinner. Now, as adults living in New York, they continue to make tortillas regularly and they recently shared their tips with me.
The Basic Spanish Tortilla
The basic steps to making a tortilla are straightforward: cook slices of potato and chopped onions in a good amount of olive oil, mix them with beaten eggs, pour the mixture into a skillet, flip, and turn it out onto a plate to either eat warm or save for later. The only scary part is the flipping and even that isn't so scary if you wait until the eggs have set enough. Raquel's advice on flipping: "Be decisive—just go for it."
In talking to my tortilla-making role models, it struck me that there are probably as many variations on the basic theme as there are Spanish households. As Raquel diplomatically answered when I asked her about the ideal tortilla, "everyone likes their tortilla the way their mother made it." She also recalled (with a somewhat incredulous expression) that in the Basque region where she grew up, it's common for tortillas to be flipped only once and to be served with fairly moist centers. Her mother, who is not Basque, however, flips her tortilla several times and also browns her potatoes lightly before adding the eggs. So this is how Raquel now makes her tortillas.
José, whose family lives in Galicia, would disagree with both the Basque habits and with Raquel. He says that the potatoes should never be browned nor should the center ever be wet. (José and Raquel, by the way, have never met. I wonder what kind of tortilla debate would ensue if I were to introduce them to each other...)
One thing José and Raquel would agree on is their preference for non-stick pans. This modern adaptation of their parents' methods allows them to make the tortilla with significantly less oil than the those made with the classic cast iron skillet. I'd made a resolution to use non-stick pans as little as possible (you may too, after reading the chapter on Teflon in Slow Death by Rubber Duck), especially when using higher than a medium-low heat. So I set out making my tortillas the old-fashioned way, keeping in mind Raquel's observation that every cook's tortilla is unique.
And as with any dish, with repetition, I began to develop my own style.
Many of the tips came from Raquel, Jose, and Jose's wife Tricia (who reported her tortilla-making observations to me directly from Spain this summer!). If you have a favorite way to make Spanish tortillas, let us know about your trademark techniques.