I barely recall what I ate last week but the memory of eating a tortilla española many years ago, one luscious bite after another, is indelible. It was the classic eggs-potato-onion variety and I ordered it late at night in a Madrid hotel restaurant, an alternative to going straight to bed after a long day of sightseeing.
No expectations, just a waiter’s recommendation, but the silky harmony of eggs, potatoes and onions–seemingly melted together–is a food memory that has lingered for decades.
After coming home, I followed a recipe or two for this kind of tortilla, failing to recapture that magic. The dish is usually translated as omelet or frittata, and I’ve certainly had many of those made with similar ingredients. My husband makes a frittata with onions, potatoes and pancetta, and it’s delicious, but nothing like that tortilla española.
Then Vivian Fueyo, who’s in a small cooking group I belong to, invited us to her seaside home to learn how to make one of her specialties. To my delight, it was tortilla española. Vivian is proudly Cuban, not Spanish, but her heritage includes dishes that migrated from Spain to Caribbean islands. She makes her version the way her mother and grandmother did.
There’s never a good place to insert a digression, but I’ll choose this moment to recap the difference between a Spanish tortilla and the much more familiar Mexican tortilla. “Tortilla” just means “little cake,” so the term is elastic enough to include an egg concoction as well as a versatile cornmeal or wheat flour flatbread.
Vivian started by completely covering a panful of thin potato and onion slices with olive oil and simmering until they almost fell apart. It was entirely different from the sautéing action that usually leads off the making of a frittata or omelet.
That’s when I had the aha! moment I’ve experienced so often with Italian cooking: It’s about the olive oil. It’s drained away but only after saturating the vegetables with flavor.
With the take-charge approach of her academic administration background showing through, Vivian directed us in the making of the tortilla. “The proportion of egg to onions and potato makes all the difference in the umami effect of the tortilla.” “No, wait until the pan is hotter!” “A neat edge to the tortilla is important. You must use a fork to tuck in the edges.”
We obediently followed Vivian’s directions and the reward was two presentable six-inch tortillas. They taste best when cooled to lukewarm, Vivian advised. Typically, a tortilla is eaten as a snack or hors d’oeuvre, but it is also great as a main dish with dressed greens.
Of course, there are many variations on the Spanish tortilla. Vivian shared a recipe for a Basque tortilla that includes chorizo, shrimp, bell pepper and asparagus in addition to the basics. On the simple side, she remembers her mother making tortillas with just peas and eggs, and her family does Caribbean-style tortillas with ripe plantains.
As with an Italian frittata, you can create your own combination with what’s in season or appeals to your fancy–right now I’m thinking of leeks, sauteed greens and a sharp cheese like pecorino.
But I recommend first mastering the method for a straight-up potatoes-and-onion tortilla. You won’t be sorry.
Not at all like the Mexican tortillas we know so well, a Spanish tortilla is often compared to a frittata or omelet. But, as the directions reveal, it's different.
- 1 cup thinly sliced (1/8 inch) Yukon Gold or other boiling potato firmly packed *
- 1 cup thinly sliced (1/8 inch) onion firmly packed *
- 1 heaping teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt or to taste
- 1½ cups extra virgin olive oil plus more as needed
- 3 large eggs beaten
Spread a layer of potato slices in a medium saucepan or skillet, followed by a layer of onions. Sprinkle with a little salt. Continue layers until potato and onion are used. Pour olive oil over vegetables, pressing gently to make sure vegetables are submerged.
Bring mixture to a gentle simmer. Cook until potato and onion are fork tender, about 25 minutes. Cool mixture until warm. Strain oil through a strainer into a bowl. Turn vegetables into a second bowl and gently mix with beaten eggs. Push vegetables down into egg mixture with a spatula and let stand for 15 minutes.
Pour 1 tablespoon of reserved olive oil into a cast-iron skillet 6 inches in diameter.** Heat over medium heat. Spoon half of egg mixture (about 1 cup) into skillet. Cook for 6 to 8 minutes, pressing down with a spatula to help mixture brown and running a fork around tortilla edges to prevent sticking and form a nice edge.
Lift tortilla gently to check bottom. Once browned and the top is mostly set, run a fork around entire outer edge and gently shake skillet to loosen tortilla. Cover skillet with a plate and invert tortilla onto plate. Slide tortilla back into pan to brown on other side. Using a fork, tuck in tortilla edges to make a smooth edge. Remove from heat. Invert or slide onto a plate and let cool for about 10 minutes.
Clean pan. Using remaining potato-onion mixture, cook a second tortilla the same way.***
Cut tortillas in wedges to serve.
* Use a mandoline, the planer on a box grater or the slicer attachment on your food processor, or a cook’s knife.
** Alternatively, use an 8-inch skillet to cook the entire mixture.
***Refrigerate the remaining oil in a jar to use for seasoning potatoes and other vegetables.