Spanish Comfort Food: Tortilla de Patata

by mary on January 9, 2013

There is nothing more comforting than a Spanish tortilla de patata….it takes me back to Spain in a really “casero” or home-made way. Eggs, potatoes, onions, olive oil, sea salt….five perfect ingredients in its classic form. Firm on the outside, creamy and melting on the inside. It is one of the main snack foods in Spain, from mid-morning to pre-dinner tapa. Every home cook in Spain has their method, secrets and tweaks to make a great tortilla, but it’s also easy to find a great slice in many bars. Here in the US, it can be a challenge….I’ve been mostly disappointed by the ones I’ve tried in Spanish restaurants. Home-made is maybe best here….it’s easy after a few tries!

The classic tortilla is just eggs, potatoes and onions, with salt for seasoning. Some even make it without onion. In specialized restaurants and especially in northern Spain, you can find find “extras” such as chorizo or spinach incorporated in the tortilla. Also so yummy are the “tortilla especiales” which seems like a stuffed tortilla, but actually a tortilla de patata topped with a variety of combinations then closed with a “tortilla francesa”, which is a normal omelette. The toppings can be extravagant….my favorite is probably the “vegetal”, which is usually tuna, hard boiled egg, lettuce, tomato onion and delicious spanish mayonnaise. Sounds crazy but it is delicious!

Many purists in Madrid frown upon such wildness and stick to the basic four ingredients. For my home versions, I find the extras are amazing..the one in the picture has spinach and just a bit of bacon. Extras such as bacon and chorizo should be fried and drained of fat prior to incorporation. I even cook the onions separately first…makes it easier not to brown them. Any wet ingredients such as spinach, or roasted red peppers, should be really well drained of liquids.

I find the extras really add depth of flavor and texture, but hike perfecting technique, sometimes it is better to stick to the plain tortilla.

There are tons of recipes for tortillas on the web. Just google tortilla de patata. I only recommend recipes that call for the flipping of the tortilla using a plate. If you have a double frittata pan, seems like it would work well, but I can’t vouch for that technique. I’ve seen a few recipes, including on the NY Times where they have you slide it out then flip….not done in Spain. Always just a plate over the pan, flip, then slide it back in. This is the only complicated part of the process, and after a few goes, you’ll have it down.

A really fun link here for the Esquire Eat Like a Man section. It has a recipe, an illustration on how to flip, and a great video. I love it! Check it out!

The Esquire recipe above is for a very small tortilla….I usually just about double it. I use about 2 lbs potatoes and 8 eggs….maybe a bit less potatoes if I am using extras.

Main problems: the three main problems for the American chef are not enough olive oil, not enough eggs, and over-cooking.

Not enough oil. The Esquire recipe calls for a cup of oil…I double the recipe and I use at least double the oil….2-3 cups to cook the potatoes! Shocking I know! But you are draining it all off and only using a couple of tablespoons to actually cook the tortilla afterwards. Gently frying the potatoes in abundant oil without coloring them is what gives them their creamy texture. Spanish cooks keep that olive oil and reuse it for the tortillas for weeks…each time adds more flavor. I also use it for frying eggs and or potatoes.

Not enough eggs. For some reason people are shy on eggs too. Lots of eggs…it is an egg dish! Should be a very soupy mix when you mix everything together.

Over cooking. Two stages of overlooking. First, many brown the onions and potatoes…to be avoided as much as possible by using abundant oil and low heat. Second the tortilla itself should’ve a bit melting and creamy at the center….when it is overlooked it is dry and like a hockey puck! Many of the ones I try in restaurants here in the US are like this. This takes trial and error with your stove, your pan, the flipping technique etc. You’ll eventually get it exactly where you like it!

Then it’s easy after that…..once you have it down it really is a fast and easy technique for such a wonderful and delicious dish. It’s an impressive and fun technique to show off to your friends and a great party food that can be made ahead. My next project for a party is a “tortilla especial vegetal”, one of the stuffed variety!

As to wine….the basic tortilla is an easy dish to match, it goes with so many wines. In Spain the classic would be with a glass of Rioja, but I think I would rather have mine with a glass of pink cava! My smokier bacon and Spinach one was perfect with a lighter red such as a Mencía or a Rioja Crianza.


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