The first time I had tapas the only item I recognized on the menu was “tortilla”. I ordered it expecting a thin soft flat round piece of wheat or corn “bread”, something to use for mopping my plate or wrapping around bits of the other offerings. I didn’t see anything like that on the table, and asked my (by then long-suffering) waitperson about it. He pointed to a nearly two-inch thick wedge of potato “pie”, for lack of a better word, and I shut up and ate. Mmmm…
I got to thinking about that experience this week. A friend was telling me about her “Basque Eggs and Potatoes” recipe and it made me both nostalgic and hungry. And, as it seemed like perfect summer supper fare, I thought I’d give it a try and see if it was as good as I remembered. Oh, yes!
I feel certain that most cultures that keep chickens for eggs use them (the eggs, not the chickens) as a binder for various sorts of vegetable or meat and vegetable dishes. Sometimes these are then stuffed into leaves of some kind (grape, cabbage…) and cooked further, but sometimes they stand alone, like omelets. Frittatas are fairly well known, tortilla in this sense may be less so. The only real difference I can see between a frittata and a tortilla is form, not function.
My dictionary defines a frittata as “an Italian dish made with fried beaten eggs, resembling a Spanish omelet. Origin Italian, from fritto, past participle of friggere ‘to fry.’” and a tortilla (as I mean it here) as “(in Spanish cooking) a thick omelet containing potato and other vegetables, typically served cut into wedges. Origin Spanish, diminutive of torta ‘cake.’ ”
Now I am not usually a big “egg in the morning” person. I like eggs for lunch or dinner, and I’m fine with eggs in things (soup, for example). Here, though, one can play with the proportions and go eggier or not depending on personal taste. I like it denser, more latke, than omelet. Either way is good, though, and when you cut into it and see the beautiful layers of onions and potatoes stacked like a good drystone wall, oh mmmm…In a tortilla the potatoes are pre-cooked, either poached or possibly steamed, while any frittata I’ve ever made had raw vegetables added to the egg and cooked once. Of course, you can use left over cooked mushrooms or other leftover cooked vegetables in a frittata, there really aren’t any rules.
The only other quantifiable difference seems to be that for a frittata the vegetables are shredded or grated, but for a tortilla the potatoes are sliced thin. A mandoline works great for this if you have one, otherwise, just try to get as similar a thickness to each slice as you can, so that the potato cooks evenly.
For this tortilla, the potatoes and onions are cooked in olive oil until soft but not browned. This is not about hash browns or home fries, it is about creating soft cooked potato slices that will meld to each other in all their eggy glory. Once the potatoes are soft and translucent, drain off the olive oil and cool for 5 minutes. Add the potatoes and onions to the egg mixture, let sit, then slide gently into a smaller skillet and cook on the stove top until the egg is set. You can finish this in the oven if your skillet allows or turn it to finish the “flip” side.Once it has been turned it will need a few more minutes, than it can be removed from the pan. I like to let it sit for just a minute before cutting it to be sure that it has “set”.
Either way, frittata or tortilla, this is a great way to use up leftovers. You can add cooked crumbled bacon, you can certainly add cheese or top it with cheese and shove it under the broiler for a minutes at the end (pan permitting, of course), or make almost any variation that tickles your fancy and empties your fridge. The difference, in my mind at least, between these two dishes and an omelet is that these are slightly less eggy overall, and they are not folded but rather are cut into wedges for serving.
This is a slightly less eggy version of my friend’s recipe. I’d say it serves 4. Nice with a big salad of fresh greens, and some good bread, and either fresh-squeezed Valencia orange juice or a glass of sangria, depending on the time of day. Mmmm…
to serve 4:
4 eggs, well beaten
Scrub, dry and cut the potatoes into thin slices. Slice the onion. Mix the raw potato and onion gently, trying not to break up the potatoes. Poach them in a frying pan over low heat with enough olive oil to cover completely. When the potatoes are soft and translucent but not brown (about 15 minutes), drain them well, let sit for a few minutes so they won’t cook the egg mixture, then mix them very gently with the beaten eggs and let sit for a few more minutes.
Slide this mixture into a non-stick frying pan coated with a very thin film of olive oil. Set the pan over low heat. Spread the mixture over the bottom of the pan with a pancake turner if necessary. After five to eight minutes, flip the tortilla. Let it cook on the other side in the same way until completely cooked through.
It should be golden brown outside, well shaped, and slightly moist in the center.
A note on “flipping”: Be careful. Hot oil is a little unnerving and deserving of great respect. There are numerous videos online on how to accomplish this, and everyone seems to have their own system. Mine usually involves making sure the “pie” is loose from the bottom of the pan, putting a plate over the pan, and turning the whole thing over, lifting the pan off, then sliding the frittata/tortilla back into the now-empty pan. What’s your system?
Enjoy and please let us know what sort of combinations you come up with for your frittatas!! Fresh herbs, leftover veggies, cooked chicken, tuna maybe? Mmmm…