With eggs, potatoes and onions, tortilla de patatas makes a satisfying snack, a lunch or light dinner — and it's easy to make. No wonder it's become Spain's national dish, and no wonder cooks in the Americas are embracing it, too.
THERE PROBABLY was a time in our country’s history when tortilla was not a household word, but it sure wasn’t during my lifetime. I grew up eating as many quesadillas as cheese sandwiches, as many tacos as hot dogs. At some point during my youth, tortillas even lost their tether to Mexico and started appearing in flavors like sun-dried tomato, spinach and pesto. Tortillas weren’t exotic, they weren’t even “ethnic.” Like rice or pasta, they seemed universal.
Who didn’t wrap a tortilla around a favorite sandwich filling and call it lunch?
The Spanish, that’s who.
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I discovered this the day I arrived to spend a year in Spain as an exchange student, and barely had I set down my suitcase when my host mother, Clari, offered me a slice of tortilla. Only what she gave me didn’t resemble any tortilla I’d ever seen; it was an inch thick and looked like an omelet stuffed with potatoes. I didn’t know what to make of it, but it was delicious.
I certainly had no idea that this strange, eggy “tortilla” would turn out to be the national dish of Spain. Paella was eaten “on the east coast,” I was told, and gazpacho “down south, where it’s hot.” But tortilla de patatas was known, loved and devoured everywhere. Every Spaniard worth his salt knew how to make one (even men who could cook nothing else), and it was on the menu of just about every eating establishment in the country.
In my host family, we ate tortilla for dinner with a spoonful of sweet tomato sauce and a crisp green salad. In bars it was available cold as a tapa, and among my classmates it was a popular midmorning snack, stuffed into a length of baguette and devoured between lectures.
For all this tortilla’s ubiquity, though, it has a surprisingly short history. While the exact details of its inception have faded from memory, the first written mention of it appeared barely 200 years ago. In contrast, the Mexican version — the corn one in particular — was gracing tables for thousands of years before Columbus and his cronies gave it its current name. And on the subject of names, it’s actually very simple how two such different foodstuffs came to share one: “Tortilla” means little cake, and at one point or another people came to the (probably unrelated) conclusions that both the egg-and-potato omelet of Castile and the round flatbreads of the New World resemble exactly that.
During my year in Spain, tortillas formed such a large part of my diet that when I returned home I wasn’t sure how I would survive without them. The solution, of course, was to learn to make my own, though after weaning my taste buds on Clari’s perfect specimens my own early efforts left a lot to be desired. Finally, after 15 years of practice, I’m getting close.
Taking a cue from my Spanish family, I eat tortilla as a light dinner with a big green salad; it’s budget-friendly, quick to prepare and satisfying like the best kind of home food. Another trick I learned is to always make enough to have leftovers. The extra pieces are delicious straight from the fridge, or sandwiched with lettuce and tomato between slices of crusty bread. Once, just to see what would happen, I even rolled up a wedge in its flour namesake and discovered that not only did the universe not implode, but tortilla on tortilla makes a surprisingly tasty lunch.
Melissa Kronenthal is a freelance food writer and photographer.
Tortilla de Patatas
Makes one 9-inch tortilla
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 ½ pounds potatoes (preferably Yukon gold), peeled and cut into ½-inch chunks
1 large yellow onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 ½ teaspoons salt, divided
6 large eggs, at room temperature
Black pepper to taste
1. In a 9-inch, nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes and onion, and sprinkle with half the salt. Cook until the potatoes are tender and golden in spots, about 25 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. With a slotted spoon, transfer the potatoes and onions to a colander and drain for about five minutes. Pour off all but a tablespoon of oil from the skillet and reserve.
2. In a large bowl, beat the eggs with the rest of the salt and some pepper, then quickly stir in the hot potatoes (it’s OK if the eggs start to cook in places).
3. Heat the skillet again over medium heat, swirling the oil to coat the bottom and sides of the pan. When it is hot, pour the egg mixture into the pan, smoothing the top with a spatula. As soon as the bottom begins to set, start shaking and swirling the pan frequently to dislodge the tortilla — it should not stick anywhere. Run the spatula around the sides if necessary. Cook until the edges are firm but the center is still runny, about 5 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat and clamp a plate slightly larger than the skillet’s diameter over the top. Using one hand to hold the plate in place, quickly invert the tortilla onto it. If you’re feeling nervous about this, you can slide the tortilla out onto a plate with the help of your spatula, cover it with a second plate, and flip. Add a tablespoon of the reserved oil to the skillet (save the remainder for another use) and place it over the heat again. Slide the tortilla back into the skillet, uncooked-side down. Shake the pan gently as before and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, or until bottom is set but the interior is still moist. Slide the tortilla onto a clean plate and let cool. Serve it in wedges, warm or at room temperature.