I want to do what Elena did in her pink frying pan.
Tortilla de Patatas. I try to follow her hand-written recipe to the letter, but her careful Spanish script gives directions so succinct they seem too simple for something that tastes of sunshine and salt and melting-soft potatoes.
It is a quintessentially Spanish tapa. I dig around online and in books and find (of course) that everyone swears by his or her own take on the perfect Tortilla de Patatas.
- Slice the potatoes.
- Actually, it’s best to dice them (Elena says so too).
- They must be waxy.
- No – floury works best (José Pizarro bucks the trend).
- Add onions.
- Never use onions (this from the Galician experts).
- Some like browned potatoes, others prefer only a little colour. But all agree that the potatoes should sweat slowly and gently in plenty of olive oil (pretty much swimming) and definitely not burn. Only remove from the pan when they are tender but not yet losing their shape.
I return to Elena’s recipe.
She offers no exact measurements or timings other than to say that the number of eggs should be in proportion to the amount of potatoes. Most cooks suggest the same, although Claudia Roden (an authority on Spanish food) favours a creamier tortilla, so uses fewer potatoes in relation to the eggs.
I settle for 4 eggs with 500g potatoes, and one red onion. Elena likes to use parsley so I add a handful too.
And then I do as Elena says (taking a couple of tips from elsewhere).
Tortilla de Patatas
500g waxy potatoes
200ml olive oil
- Peel and cut potatoes into small squares or thin slices and dry them with a clean tea towel. Finely cut the onion. Sprinkle salt on both the onion and potatoes, then fry them very gently in olive oil until the potatoes are tender (up to 30 minutes). Drain the oil and set aside (it can be reused up to five times).
- Beat the eggs in a large bowl with a dash of salt, then add in the fried potatoes, onion and chopped parsley. Leave the vegetable and egg mix to sit for 10 minutes to improve the flavour.
- Heat a little oil in a non-stick frying pan (no bigger than 22cm). Pour in the egg and vegetable mix and tilt so that it covers the base. Cook on a moderate heat for 3-5 minutes, using a spatula to ease round the edges.
- Slide the tortilla onto a plate, invert the pan over the top, then quickly turn the tortilla and pan so that the cooked side faces up. Carry on cooking for another 3-5 minutes or until the tortilla feels springy to touch.
- Serve warm straightaway, or you can leave it until later – it’s delicious at room temperature too.
- The amount of olive oil used can be more or less – it’s a matter of preference. I was wary about cooking the vegetables in as much as the 600ml recommended in one recipe, but as the oil is drained away for reuse, perhaps this would have made the potatoes even more mouth-wateringly good ..
- To serve more people, increase the ingredients but NOT the size of the pan. Most experts concur that 22cm is about as big as you should go. Simply use two pans instead.
Elena’s recipe was very brief, but she wrote from experience, and had (possibly) never written a recipe before. She described the making of Tortilla de Patatas exactly as she cooks it every week, just as her mother and grandmother did before her. (I admit that Elena gave me some verbal guidance too, which due to my meagre Spanish, may have been left behind in her shop).
My Tortilla de Patatas turned out just fine, but it clearly takes practice to make it perfect. My biggest mistake was not to have arrived an hour earlier at Elena’s shop that bright summer’s day, and seen her craft a dish so simple and Spanish, yet so complex and well-loved worldwide, for myself.
Is Tortilla de Patatas Spanish?
Claudia Roden writes about the Egyptian eggah, a clear cousin of the Tortilla de Patatas. Did this typically Spanish tapa arrive on Spanish soil along with the Moors? Further back perhaps both the Tortilla de Patatas and Eggah (and the Italian Frittata) descend from the Persian Kuku – in essence the very same thing.
None of which makes the Tortilla de Patatas not a thoroughly Spanish dish – but it does make it more interesting.