Post-Camino Cravings: Tortilla Española

tortilla

Be it resolved: You need the tortilla española in your life this year. Here’s how to fulfill that resolution.

The first time you saw “tortilla española” or “tortilla de patatas” on a menu, you were maybe expecting the Mexican variety, flat and round and filled with chicken, tongue, or tripe. Don’t feel bad: I get blank looks from lots of folks when I offer them a Spanish tortilla and then cut a wedge of what looks, to them, like a fat potato frittata.

If you’ve walked the Camino or traveled in Spain, you’re familiar with the concept, in its many varieties: hot out of the skillet and served with beer at a packed tapas bar, sliced open and stuffed with jamón serrano or chorizo, or (in many cases) cooked years before and allowed to languish atop a small-town bar until some unfortunate person makes the mistake of ordering it.

The latter phenomenon is (apparently) so ubiquitous that barkeeps in Camino towns began a practice of penciling in an addendum to their tortilla española signage: recién hecho” (“recently made”). This creates occasional confusion in unwary pilgrims: Is this really something that needs to be clarified?

Apparently, it is.

I once saw an English pilgrim in a bar just past Pamplona (aka Day 4) glance up at the sign and hesitantly ask a bartender for the “recién hecho”.

“You want the recently made…what?” replied the bartender, his face a mask of bewilderment. The ensuing dialogue was sheer comedic genius. (Eventually, the Brit did get his tortilla.)

Pilgrims who’ve experienced too many tortillas of the non-recién hecho variety have understandably failed to acquire a taste for them. But I’ve eaten enough hot-off-the-fire tortillas to ignite a lifelong craving.

Until recently, no commercial enterprise in Nashville, TN offered a reasonable version of the tortilla española on their menu, so I had to learn to make my own. After a few sad attempts, I sought expert help: my friend Paz from A Coruña, a professor of Spanish language and literature. She taught me the fine art of tortilla-making as practiced by her Galician family, and my life has been much improved by this knowledge.

Here is her method:

Tortilla española a la Paz:

*NOTE: Quantity of potatoes & eggs depends on the size of tortilla you want. This is what works for my small skillet. A big-skillet tortilla takes lots more of each (and requires massive wrist strength to flip it).

  • ~*3 medium or 4-5 small potatoes (I like Yukon golds, but any potatoes will do.)
  • ½ a large yellow or white onion, or 1 small one
  • ~*6 eggs
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • a shit-ton of olive oil
  • a smallish, nonstick skillet
  • a rubber spatula, like the kind you use with batter
  • a plate that’s a bit bigger than the skillet opening

Cut the potatoes & onions into a smallish dice. Pour olive oil into skillet around 2/5 to 1/2 of the way up the sides. Get it hot but not smoking, then try not to start a fire as you add the onions & potatoes. (I’ve witnessed 2 stove fires during tortilla-making, so the danger is real.)

That time I cooked a tortilla in Phnom Penh on a Cambodian-style charcoal grill.

That time in Phnom Penh when I tried cooking a tortilla on a Cambodian-style charcoal grill.

Fry the potatoes and onions until they are soft. (You don’t want them to brown much.) This will take 15 minutes or so. Meanwhile, beat the eggs in a bowl & add salt and pepper. Get another bowl ready with a colander — both, preferably metal — for straining out the oil from the potato.

When veg is cooked, pour everything in the skillet through the colander, so the colander catches the veg & the oil drains into the metal bowl. (You can use the oil again for your next tortilla.) Quickly scoop the drained potato & onion mixture into the beaten eggs while veg is still hot. Mix together with a fork. (You can even mash some of the potatoes a little to thicken the mixture.)

Let this sit for 5 minutes or so, and keep the skillet hot. The steaming potatoes will cook the egg slightly in the bowl. (You can spoon a little leftover oil back into the skillet, but I find that the oil left coating the skillet is enough for you to cook the tortilla.)

Pour the egg-potato mixture into the hot skillet. You want it to sizzle when it hits the pan, but turn the heat down to low pretty quickly, otherwise you will cook the outside too fast. The toughest part is getting the middle cooked without overcooking the exterior. (A lot of Spaniards will argue that you want a gooey interior that’s not cooked solid. I like it that way, but most folks here are grossed out by a runny egg interior. Your call.)

A reasonable attempt!

Paz taught me to kind of spin the egg mixture in the skillet for the first minute or so, to be sure it’s not sticking—a quick wrist movement that lets the mixture rotate a few degrees around the pan. She also tilts the pan a few times while moving the sides of the egg mix down with a spatula, so the runny stuff in the middle spills into the gap you’ve made with the spatula. This gets more of the uncooked egg/potato into contact with the pan.

Then, let the egg mixture start to set in the pan, while doing the occasional wrist-rotation move to keep it from sticking. The tortilla is ready to turn when the mixture is set on the bottom and sides and there’s some runny mixture left in the middle and on top. Do a spatula-peek of the bottom: It should be golden-yellow.

Now for the exciting part: Put the plate* over the top of the skillet and flip the tortilla, upside down, onto the plate. Use the spatula to ease the tortilla back in, runny side down, shoveling the wet underbelly in and tucking the sides into the skillet as the whole thing slides in.

*NOTE: I have a fantastic tortilla flipper with a handle on the bottom, and it has made my life excellent.

Do the spin maneuver on this side, and cook until the bottom sets and turns golden-yellow. Flip it a couple more times (if need be) to be sure it’s done properly. You can test its doneness by how springy the top feels; otherwise, cut into it to be sure.

Serve recién hecho, in pie-shaped wedges, with crusty bread, olives, Marcona almonds, and a delicious Rioja or Ribera del Duero. Manchego cheese and a good jamón serrano would not be unwelcome.

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Wipe up all the oil spatter before guests come, as if this effort was no sweat whatsoever.

See also:

A delicious Epicurious recipe for the Tarta de Santiago, as performed by Hal Humphreys:

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6 thoughts on “Post-Camino Cravings: Tortilla Española

  1. Your tale of the guy who ordered a “recién hecho” reminded me of when we used to have a bar called Bar La Escuela in our little village in Spain. A Brit at a party told me she’d tried to find it, but “I couldn’t find a Bar La Escuela, there was only a Bar Abierto”.

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