Tortilla is to Spain what peanut butter and jelly is to America. Don’t know what to have for dinner? Tortilla. Need to pack a lunch? Tortilla on bread. Looking for a mid-afternoon snack? Tortilla with toothpicks.
It’s nearly impossible to find a tortilla-free tapas menu or Spanish madre who doesn’t have the perfect tortilla flip.
Thus in my attempt to learn how to cook Spanish food, the most logical starting point was the oh-so-typical Spanish omelet. The seemingly-simple recipe has only three ingredients (four, if you’re rebellious): potato, egg, salt and onion (because I am). I have been assured by every Spaniard I’ve asked that, like all things in the Iberian Peninsula, making tortilla is muy facil. I’m beginning to think my basic Spanish classes failed to teach me the real definition of “facil” because this totally traditional dish is proving to be anything but easy to recreate.
My first attempt at cooking tortilla was more than two years ago, days after returning to America after studying in Sevilla for five months. I can’t remember the specific ratio of potato to egg that I used, or exactly how burnt the exterior was, but it will suffice to say it tasting nothing like the omelet my señora used to serve.
A year later, living in a group house in D.C. with a Spanish roommate, I attempted the facil three-ingredient dish again. THe second the Spaniard left the house, my solo tortillas lost their light and fluffiness, burned on the outside and were grossly runny on the inside. I blamed America’s must-be-refrigerated eggs.
After landing back en España this year, tortilla was item No. 1 on my list of homemade dinners. But despite the farm fresh eggs and grown-in-Galicia potatoes, my Spanish omelet was just as dry, black and bland as ever. I was convinced that making tortilla is just not in my blood. In order to successfully create this so-called facil dish, the chef had to be a full-blooded Spaniard.
On the verge of giving up all hope of ever cooking like a Spaniard (after all, if I can’t pull of the most staple of Spanish dishes, how could I ever attempt the delicious meatballs or heavenly croquettes?) Not ready to give up on my fantasy of freshly-cooked Spanish delicacies, I solicited the help of every Spaniard I knew for tortilla-making advice. A teacher at school swore it was all about the pan, so I bought a new, non-stick skillet. A friend insisted the key was low heat, so I vowed to never use a full flame again. The best advice came in the form of a demonstration one night while having cena at a friend’s house. We arrived just in time to witness a true Spanish madre in tortilla-making action. I was a tad bit excited.
The tortilla master (a title worn by all Spaniards, in my opinion) walked me through each step.
- First, wash, peel and thinly slice (not dice!) the potatoes
- Mince (not hack into rough chunks) the onion
- Fry the onion and potatoes in plenty of oil (olive is preferred, but not necessary)
- Use a strainer spoon to remove the lightly-browned onion and potato mixture in to a bowl (rather than emptying the pot into a pasta strainer)
- Scramble the same number of eggs as you have potatoes (potatoes should be smaller than your fist)
- Dump the golden mixture of potato and onion into the eggs and stir just enough to incorporate it all together
- Add a pinch of salt
- Heat a non-stick (VERY important that it’s non-stick!) skillet over medium-low heat with about a tablespoon of olive oil
- Pour the gloopy egg-potato mixture into the pan
- Add another pinch of salt
- Dance with the skillet (in other words, shake, spin, wiggle and scoot the pan so the omelet doesn’t stick)
- While the top still looks positively raw, but the bottom has just begun to firm into a solid mass amongst the wiggle-routine, press a plate over the top of the pan and flip the pan over, dumping the omelet raw-side down onto the plate
- Slide the now-almost-a-tortilla back onto the pan, runny side down
- Turn off the heat (it sounds crazy, I know. The thing is still half raw!)
- Let the tortilla firm up from the residual pan heat four about 3 minutes
- Slide the masterpiece out onto a plate and go about your sweet Spanish life, cuz Dios! wasn’t that easy?!?
SIXTEEN steps. And she made it look SO easy! They say this is the easiest Spanish meal there is. I’m doomed.
But I’m also determined. So after returning from my (completely fabulous) Christmas vacation in the states, I set out to re-create the magic I witnessed in Myriam’s kitchen.