Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Tortilla (Spanish omelette)

Spaniards are somewhat obsessed with tortilla, and rightly so. It's pretty simple - just a set omelette with potatoes and onions - but when done right it's really delicious. Cookery book explanations are never quite right.

The cooking times and proportions of egg to potato are often wrong, tending to produce a rather dry tortilla. And they often fudge the process of flipping the tortilla over (or even tell you to stick it under a grill). Another problem is that the Spanish concept of frying and the British one are a little different. When Spaniards fry, they use quite a lot of oil, whereas people in Britain tend to try to use as little oil as possible (which kind of defeats the purpose of frying).

The undisputed tortilla queen of Cadiz is Manolita, the mum of Gemma's friends Ana-Cristina and Alejandra, and the method below is hers. As you can see from the photos, she doesn't believe in fancy nonsense like chopping boards. (And I thought I was austere with my prejudice against garlic presses.)

Like many things, I wouldn't usually measure the ingredients when making a tortilla, as it's all about proportions rather than absolute volumes. All you have to do is make sure that you have a few more eggs than you think you need. However, the last time round I decided to measure everything and make a note of it - the quantities below make one good-sized tortilla.

It's also difficult to be precise with cooking times. The perfect tortilla should be a little runny in the middle. However, some people prefer theirs more well-done, and if you're taking it on a picnic you may also want it to be a little firmer.

Plenty of olive oil
1 medium-sized onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed or very finely chopped
1 kg of potatoes, peeled and quite finely chopped
8 large eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon of salt

  1. Place the onions and plenty of oil in a medium-sized non-stick frying pan, heat gently, and fry until the onions are translucent. Add the garlic, and cook for another minute or so. Place a colander over a large bowl, strain the onions and garlic through it, and return the oil to the pan.
  2. Add the potatoes to the pan, and add more oil if required, so that the potatoes are just about covered. Heat gently, with the lid on, so that the potatoes are both frying and steaming at the same time. Once the potatoes are cooked, straing them in the colander containing the cooked onions. (The oil which gathers in the bowl below can be reused.)
  3. Allow the potato and onion mixture to cool for a few minutes, then add the beaten eggs and the salt, and mix well. If the mixture looks too 'potatoey', add another beaten egg.
  4. Return a little of the oil to the frying pan (just enough to form a very thin layer on the bottom), heat it gently (being careful not to let it get to hot), pour the omelette mixture into the pan, turn heat to minimum, cover and cook for about 10 minutes, until the bottom and sides of the omelette have set, but the top is still runny.
  5. Flip it over using one of the methods described below, and finish cooking for another 3 minutes on a low heat. Flip the tortilla out of the pan onto a serving plate (see below).

The flip
One of the scary bits of making a tortilla for the first time is how to flip it over when it is halfway through cooking. Here are three ways of doing this.
Method 1: Two Pans
This is my method. I have two identical pans. When the tortilla is cooked underneath, I put a little bit of oil in the second pan, place it face down on top of the first one, hold the two together (using oven gloves!) and flip them over. The tortilla thus ends up face down in the second pan, ready to continue cooking.
Method 2: One Pan - Two Plates
This is an adaptation of the traditional Spanish method, made a bit easier for guiris. When the tortilla is ready to flip, place a large dinner plate face down on top of it and flip it over (using oven gloves) so that your tortilla is now cooked side up on the plate. Now get another plate, place it face down on top of the raw tortilla, and flip again, so that the tortilla is raw side up on the second plate. Finally, put the frying pan face down over the tortilla, and flip so that the tortilla is raw side down in the pan, and carry on cooking.
Method 3: One Pan - One Lid
This is the authentic Spanish method. When the tortilla is cooked underneath, place a large frying pan lid face down on top of it and flip it over (using oven gloves) so that your tortilla is now cooked side up on the lid (As in Method 2.) Now slide it back into the frying pan so that it is raw side down, and carry on cooking.

As a child, I remember my mother making 'Spanish omelette', and it turning out as scrambled egg with some sauteed potatoes in it. (Still good, but not quite the real thing.) Since then, my mum has had a masterclass from Manolita and now produces top notch authentic tortillas.

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