I Made a Spanish Tortilla out of Salt-and-Vinegar Potato Chips

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[Photographs and video: J. Kenji López-Alt]

This is one of those fantastic ideas that are born not out of a concerted effort to have fantastic ideas, but through sheer dumb luck and lack of planning. If necessity is the mother of invention, then poorly stocked pantries are the uncle of new recipes. Or something like that.

The idea of using potato chips in place of slow-cooked potatoes in Spanish tortilla—the thick, moist, omelette-like dish of potatoes, onions, eggs, and olive oil that gets passed out with glasses of wine or stuffed into sandwiches all over Spain—is not an original one. I first saw it in one of Spanish-born DC chef José Andrés's cookbooks, and thought the idea was genius. The concept is that by folding potato chips into beaten eggs, they soften enough that when you subsequently transfer the mixture to a pan full of hot olive oil, it fries up into a thick omelette that remains moist and creamy in the center, while getting a bit of extra crispness around the edges from the chips.

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Well, late one night, I was poking through the sorry detritus in my fridge, lamenting the fact that, despite all the wonderful homemade and store-bought condiments and sauces I had in there—a half dozen varieties of miso, more than a half dozen chili sauces, two flavors of homemade mayo, three varieties of soy sauce, anchovies, tomato sauce, crème fraîche, harissa (both domestic and Moroccan), bacon-cherry-pepper relish, et cetera—the only real food I had was a few eggs, an onion, and a bag of Cape Cod salt-and-vinegar chips.

Hang on a minute, I thought. Suddenly a dim lightbulb flickered over my head. Or, rather, José Andrés plucked the lightbulb from over his head and held it over mine for a very brief second. I think we may have something here.

I like eggs, I like tortillas, I like salt-and-vinegar chips—why not combine them?

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I started by softening the onion in plenty of good olive oil, then transferred it to a bowl, where I whisked in the eggs and folded in the potato chips before frying up the whole mixture until set.

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The first attempt was not bad, but, in all honesty, it needed a stronger vinegar punch. Easy enough. For the second (and final) batch, I added a bit of extra vinegar to the egg mixture along with the chips, kicking it up into more mouth-puckering territory.

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There's no real big trick to cooking a Spanish tortilla—the most difficult part comes when you have to flip it. Unlike, say, an Italian frittata, which gets finished by baking or broiling and has a lighter, fluffier texture, a tortilla should be dense and moist, the result of flipping and compressing it while it cooks, all while making sure that the eggs don't cook all the way through to the center. In a perfect tortilla, the middle should have the creamy texture of very lightly set scrambled eggs.

You can flip your tortilla using a plate, but I find that the easiest method is to actually use a metal or glass pot lid. Just hold it over the skillet using a towel, then flip the skillet and the lid together. The tortilla should end up on the lid, at which point you can simply slide it out into the skillet to cook the second side.

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What I really love is how many layers a potato chip–based tortilla gets, and how crisp the exterior becomes.

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I normally serve my tortilla with allioli, a Spanish version of the garlic- and olive oil–based Provençal sauce aïoli. But it somehow didn't seem right to match such a rustic, homemade sauce with a dish that was the product of tradition and modern snack culture combined. Instead, I decided to doctor up regular old store-bought Hellmann's mayo by whisking in some garlic and some really good Spanish olive oil.

The resulting sauce has the vinegary tang of Hellmann's, but the rich, peppery flavor of good olive oil—the perfect foil to my salt-and-vinegar omelette.

I'm considering barbecue or sour-cream-and-onion potato chip tortillas next, but I think I may wait until desperation and hunger kick in first.