I knew I wanted to share this recipe with you, but I didn’t have a good reason to. It’s not fancy. It’s not impressive. I didn’t first eat it in a European café beside a rain-washed cobblestone plaza. In fact, I was so stumped that as we were cleaning the kitchen, I turned to A and said to him, “If I were to write about this Spanish tortilla, what would the story be?”
“What does it make you think of?” was his response.
I looked down at the leftovers and unimaginative adjectives ran through my head: Homey. Plain. Filling. But maybe, I began to think, therein lies its charm—or perhaps more accurately, the potato’s charm.
Was there ever a better culinary Cinderella story than that of the potato? For centuries, red, purple, gold, and white potatoes nourished indigenous South Americans. But when first introduced to Europeans, the poor potato was mistrusted because of an unfortunate association with its cousin, the deadly nightshade (but really, who hasn’t had family members they’d rather not be known for?). When finally accepted onto the European table, it was only allowed a place for its virtues as a famine food—easily cultivated, easily hoarded, and stomach-filling.
In my culinary studies I’ve not yet been able to determine how exactly the potato managed to transcend its coarse, earthy nature to become revered as a delicate thing meant to be bathed in the best butter and fresh herbs, finished perhaps with a little morning dew. But maybe that’s beside the point, because a Spanish tortilla isn’t about reverence for the delicate potato. If you were north of the border perhaps you’d be drowning your potatoes in rich cream sauce and stuffing them into puff pastry, but I’ve always felt that Spanish cuisine upholds the more earnest flavors of the forest and the sea.
So when you’re in the mood for something humble but fresh, a dish that can be dressed up endlessly with sauces and dips but could also be eaten with your hands if you find yourself dining alone—I recommend the Spanish tortilla. Simply an omelet layered with fried potato slices, you might at first think it’s putting on airs with its two-step preparation. But I confess that I enjoy the extra step of cooking the potatoes first. There’s something utterly relaxing to me about leisurely poking at a pan full of frying potato slices, so that no matter what my mood when I started cooking, by the time the tortilla is done I’m ready to give my full, unharried attention to my meal. And that, I think, is a trick worth sharing.
Conventional potatoes are often cultivated with a high amount of pesticides, so if you are able to it’s a good idea to buy organic. Since most of the potato’s flavor is in the layer immediately under the skin, buying organic has the added benefit of ensuring a tastier potato, since you can leave the skin on without worrying about what’s on it.
This time around I made a dipping sauce of olive oil, fresh basil, and fresh mint; but I’ve also served Spanish tortillas with an anchoïade, red pepper sauce, or just plain salsa or hot sauce.
4 medium potatoes, about 1 lb. (peeled if not organic)
Salt and pepper to taste
Vegetable oil and olive oil
Slice potatoes as thinly as possible. Heat about a quarter inch of vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium heat. When oil is hot, fry the potato slices until fully cooked, working in batches if necessary. Drain potato slices on a plate lined with paper towels.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs and add salt and pepper. Add the cooked potato slices and mix well.
Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan 9-10 inches in diameter. When hot, pour in the potato mixture and spread with a spatula to make sure the potato slices are evenly distributed. Cook omelet until bottom is lightly browned, about 5 minutes (to judge its progress you can use a spatula to lift the omelet around the edges and peek at the bottom).
To flip the omelet, slide it out of the pan onto a large plate. Place a second plate over the top and, holding together tightly, invert the plates. Remove the top plate and slide the omelet back into the frying pan. Cook another 5 minutes or so, until bottom is lightly browned. Slide omelet onto a clean plate, cut into slices, and serve warm.
Basil-Mint Dipping Sauce
1 bunch fresh basil, leaves only
12 fresh mint leaves
Salt to taste
Combine basil and mint leaves in a food processor and pour in a few tablespoons of oil. Begin pureeing and add oil as necessary to reach the desired consistency. Season to taste.
Makes about ½ C.