Sometimes when I walk down certain Chicago streets in the morning after it rains, I'm transported to early-morning Madrid, after the power washers have come through to hose off the remains of last night's ir de tapas, before the hot sun singes away that glorious aroma of wet old stone. That's the hour I'm wandering around in search of a café con leche, a crust of pan smeared with tomato flesh and olive oil and a slab of tortilla española — the glorious all-day egg-and-potato omelet that comprises the country's unofficial national dish.
Spain looms large and visceral in my mind's eye, its food and places fusing together. Sipping dry, figgy tempranillo exudes the sunny, vine-capped hills of Logroño in La Rioja. The gently nutty funk of ribbons of aged jamón taste like snuffling, black Iberian pigs roaming Extremadura to feast on acorns. The blueish cobblestone streets of vieja San Sebastian recall the glittering Mediterranean sea, and the vinegary white anchovies I wolf down on sliced baguette with glasses of fizzy sidra. In every city I visit, I lounge in the porticoed Plaza Mayor and crane for snippets of idle chatter — at once furiously translating and intoxicated by the beautiful cadence. Spain is a place I ache for.
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Tortilla española owns a piece of all of that — not just because it's a ubiquitous Spanish dish, but because it's all-day food. You'll attack a skinny triangle of it with a plastic fork awaiting an early-morning flight connection at Madrid Barajas airport or on the ground floor at your little hotel in Leon or Barcelona while you peruse a spiderwebby city map. You'll elbow your way to the bar in a crowded San Sebastian pintxos joint for custardy slabs of tortilla de patatas doled out with an offset spatula, alongside lightly boiled percebes (barnacles) and sautéed mushrooms on toast.
I don't stake any claims on the simple, perfect Spanish omelet. My only essential takeaways from years of obsessive tinkering are to confit the potatoes first in olive oil, then let them sit in the whisked eggs for several minutes before baking to jumpstart the ingredient meld. I know adding cebollas and ajo are sacrilege in certain circles — maybe paprika, too — but I like the sweetness they add. I also like my tortilla a little runny in the middle. You may prefer solid clean through; simply up your bake time — and keep checking it.
As at any good tapas bar, make tortilla first thing, then let it hang around and slowly disappear throughout the day, slice by slice as it comes to room temp, beads with oil and gets even more delicious. Or cut it into cubes, and take it on a picnic; it's ideal on-blanket food.
Then, before long, tortilla española will ooze magically into all hours of your eating life. And you'll ache for it, too.
Recipe: Tortilla Española
Fills one 8-inch skillet
- 2 medium yukon gold potatoes, cut into ½-inch cubes
- 3 fat garlic cloves, smashed
- Kosher salt, as needed
- 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
- About 1 cup good-ass extra virgin olive oil
- 8 large eggs
- 1 shallot, minced
- Fresh parsley, for garnish (optional)
In a medium saucepan, add the potatoes, garlic, a generous pinch of salt, 1 tablespoon paprika and the red pepper flakes. Just cover the potatoes with olive oil, place the lid on, and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
When the oil starts bubbling, cut the heat to medium-low (small, steady bubble), and cook until the potatoes are soft all the way through when pierced with a fork, about 10 minutes. Drain, reserving the oil* in a separate container, and add the potatoes to a medium bowl to cool for at least 15 minutes.
In a separate bowl, whisk the bejesus out of 8 large eggs. Pour the eggs over the cooled potatoes. Sprinkle lightly with salt, and stir to disperse the potatoes evenly among the beaten egg. Let the mixture sit on the counter for at least 10 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In an 8-inch nonstick skillet over medium, add a few teaspoons of the reserved oil, 1 minced shallot, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon paprika and a tiny pinch of salt. Sauté until soft and translucent, about 6 minutes.
Pour in the egg mixture, and turn heat to low. Cook just to set the bottom, running a spatula around the edge a few times to coax raw egg into the edges. Remove from heat, and slide into the oven. Bake for 16 to 20 minutes, until the eggs are just set and top puffs up (if it is still jiggly in the middle, that's OK — well, if you like that sort of thing!). Remove with an oven mitt, and let cool for at least 20 minutes. Then cut into wedges, sprinkle with chopped parsley, if desired, and serve warm. Or wait a while because it's even dreamier at room temperature. Store the leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days. PSA: It likely won't last that long.
*Chef's Note: Reserved potato oil is wonderful for cooking eggs or searing meat, sautéeing veggies, making hash, tossing with pasta, griddling sandwiches — sky's the limit! Don't throw it out.
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