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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Tortilla Espanola

Several years ago I took a trip to Spain with a childhood friend of mine. We wound our way through small towns, being enchanted by local honey, olives and cakes of fig sold on the roadside by wizened old men. But we spent most of our urban time taking in Sevilla and Madrid, which were nothing short of foodie fantasies. We stumbled on a hole in the wall restaurant in Madrid packed with locals where we had a soup-Nazi experience of the best northern Spanish cooking I've ever tasted, complete with succulent grilled "pulpa" (octopus). In Sevilla I found myself newly in love with espinacas con garbanzo. But wherever we traveled, I found myself continually drawn to the delightful, homey pleasure of tortilla espanola.

Eggs, potatoes, and onions reaching perfection on the stove-top.


This classic Spanish dish is more like an egg-based omelet than the flour or corn pancakes that come first to mind when most Americans hear the word "tortilla." It can be eaten warm or cold, for breakfast or lunch, alone or with bread as a sandwich filling. If you are looking to dress it up a bit as an appetizer for a party, consider slicing into quarter-inch thick pieces and serving crostini-style atop a crusty baguette. And I can attest that it is delicious in each and every one of these ways.

The ingredients for this recipe are simplicity themselves. You are likely to be able to whip this up with what you always have on hand at home. But let me assure you that after trying more than a half dozen different ways to spice things up a bit (what about some rosemary? cumin? thyme?) I can solidly confirm that the unadorned combination of fluffy eggs, flavorful onions, and toothsome potatoes is the best.

Sorry for the poor lighting folks. I assure you it turned out beautifully,
but I work with natural lighting, and sometimes the gray Chicago winter days do not comply.


Many recipes I've found for this dish use far too few eggs, and wind up producing a final product that resembles a giant potato pancake. While I cannot claim to be the world's foremost authority on the dish, every version I have ever had in Spain or at an authentic Spanish restaurant in the United States serves a tortilla espanola where the eggs have a certain presence, a balance. The eggs are not supposed to take center stage and overwhelm the potatoes and onions, as they might in a classic American frittata. But nor should the eggs receded into the background producing a vaguely eggy potato pancake. Eggs are integral to the taste, texture, and structure of the finished product. Having experimented with several different proportions of eggs to potatoes to onions, I am quite convinced the proportions listed in this recipe are the golden proportions.

The classic version of this dish uses olive oil quite liberally, like almost everything I encountered in Spain. Always looking for ways to maintain taste while improving the healthfulness of food, I have experimented and found some ways to cut down on the olive oil in the dish, dramatically improving its nutritional content per serving. I have modified some of the preparation slightly, without substituting ingredients. The final result is a delight: a great centerpiece to a casual brunch buffet and with a good balance of carbohydrates for quick satisfaction and protein and fiber to help you stay full.

Substituting 4 egg whites in for 2 of the eggs doesn't change the calories per serving much, but it will save you almost a gram of fat and more than 35 mg of cholesterol per serving.


Tortilla Espanola

By The Skinny Gourmet (E. McDonnell)

Serves 8-10


7 large eggs
4 medium potatoes (1 lb total)
1 small spanish onion (1/4 lb)
2 Tbsp plus 1 tsp olive oil
2 tsp kosher salt
3 twists of freshly ground black pepper

Wash potatoes. You can make the dish with the peels on or off as you prefer, although peeling them is more traditional. You want to slice the potatoes uniformly thin. You don't need to slice them so wafer thin that they are see-through, or they will fall apart too easily. Something between 1/8 inch is about right.

Peel the onion. Slice the onion as thin as you can. You may want to use a mandolin for this task.

I have experimented with ways to cook the potatoes to soften them without using copious amounts of olive oil. I had hoped that baking in the oven in a thin layer of water would be the trick, but it turns out that it takes about 35-45 minutes in a 350 oven to make any reasonable progress on them, and who has time for that? So I recommend that you layer the potatoes in a microwave or stovetop steamer and steam until a slightly firm al dente. They will still cook up somewhat in the olive oil. In my microwave steamer this was about 4 minutes on high.

Add the 2 Tbsp of olive oil to a skillet or saute pan on medium heat. Add the onions and saute until soft and fragrant. Add the potatoes and cook for another 5 minutes until al dente.

In a separate bowl, vigorously whisk the eggs together with the salt and pepper until foamy. Pour the egg mixture onto the onions and potatoes. The egg mixture should just cover them, as shown in the photo above. Cook on medium until the bottom is firm and begins to pull away from the sides.

Now you have two options for finishing the tortilla:

Finish on stove-top: To finish on the stove-top, you will need to execute a classic flip. This will work very well if you are using a non-stick pan. With a pan that is not non-stick, you will need to use more oil to make this method happen. Using a spatula, work your way around the edges of the tortilla, loosening. Agitate the pan to be sure that the bottom is not stuck. Cover the pan with a plate. Flip the pan upside down so the tortilla winds up on the plate with the cooked side facing up. Return the pan to the stove-top and add the remaining 1 tsp olive oil. Using the spatula, slide the tortilla off the plate and back onto the pan. Continue cooking until the tortilla is set throughout.

Finish in oven: If you do not want to attempt the traditional flip move, you can also easily finish the tortilla in the oven. This is my favorite way to finish it. As above, you want to agitate the tortilla slightly as the bottom sets to ensure that it does not stick. If you find it sticking, try to loosen it with a spatula, or add more olive oil. Be sure you are using an oven-safe pan. Once the bottom is set and the edges begin to pull away from the pan, move your pan into a 350 degree oven. Bake at 350 degrees until the top is set. If you like a more browned top, you can broil on low until set.

Spaniards serve this dish both warm and cold. It can be eaten on its own or paired with crusty bread for a sandwich. I like to modify this traditional sandwich approach and serve small slices of the warm tortilla on slices of baguette as an appetizer alongside Spanish olives, manchego cheese, and prosciutto.

12 comments:

Alisa - Frugal Foodie said...

This looks great! But I think the eggs are missing in the recipe. It sounds like you need 4, correct?

Erin said...

Alisa: Thanks for noticing! Good grief. That is what I get for trying to finish up those half prepared recipes while sleeping for only 2.5 hours at a stretch.

When I make this I use between 6-8 eggs, using the guide of when the potatoes are well covered by the eggs. I have seen some recipes that use as few as 4 eggs, but I have never found those to turn out well, or taste authentically like the tortilla espanola I remember from Spain.

Alisa - Frugal Foodie said...

Thanks Erin! This is definitely one I want to try out. Time to get some more potatoes!

Danielle said...

Oh my gosh, I just got back from Spain and loved it, thanks so much for this recipe!

UFRV said...

Hi! I live in Spain and after making tortilla the traditional way (frying the potatoes and onion in a cup of olive oil) I _finally_ decided to try the microwave option :-)

It's not as tasty but I agree with you, Erin, it makes the recipe much more healthy.

I microwaved the potatoes together with the onion and about 2 tbsp of olive oil, so that the potato would get a taste of olive oil in there. It came out pretty well, actually. I microwaved the potatoes and onion for about 15 minutes on 900 W.

About the amount of eggs - I totally agree with you. I mix the cooked potatoes with the beaten eggs and the mix should be on the mushy side, not too liquid, but not too thick either.

The potatoe shouldn't be too "al dente", at least from my point of view. It should be tender to the fork, and when cooking the tortilla the egg should be done all the way through (undercooked tortilla with "runny" eggs inside is a no-no :-) ).

Thanks for sharing, I check your blog regularly and love your recipes :-)

ttfn300 said...

CONGRATS!! Hope you and Liam are doing well :)

Sweetie Pie said...

I did a summer study abroad during law school and came to love tortilla! I made one last year for some friends who were also in Madrid for the program and it really brought back the memories. The sangria helped too. :-) The fact that something so basic can be so wonderful is not lost on me!! Thanks for reminding me about tortilla. I'm going to have to make one again soon!

The Duo Dishes said...

Congrats on Liam! How exciting. Wish we could say we've had this in Spain, but alas...we have made it here in the States, and it is always tasty. One day Barcelona!

Anonymous said...

Sounds delicious.
Do you think it would be too crazy to make it with sweet potatoes?

Caddie

chou said...

Erin, I'm a bit late in wishing you a heartfelt congratulations on your new little one. And thank you for sharing the tortilla recipe. :)

Erin said...

UFRV: What a great comment. Thoughtful and detailed. I couldnt agree with you more. The olive oil is delicious, but I find the steaming plus small oil the more health conscious and tasty compromise.

Danielle and Sweetie: Glad you found some memories in the recipe.

TTFN, Duo and Chou: thanks for the well wishes on the little one. He is squirming for a feeding even as we speak!

Caddie: I have no idea how sweet potatoes would turn out. It would be a very very different dish, but far be it from me to knock it until I've tried it. I think moments like that are often the inspiration for totally new innovative dishes. If you try it, let me know how it works out!

jUUggernaut said...

I make this dish often and cook the potatoes in a pressure cooker with the skin until they're almost done.
Peeling is easy, then I dice them, coat with oil and into the pan.

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