The Cracking Tortilla

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Economical, versatile and tasty, the tortilla or Spanish omelette is a dish that every cook should master. But, as Christopher Hirst explains, a properly-made tortilla demands a bit of practise

We all have embarrassing gaps in our knowledge. My blush-making secret is that, until quite recently, I did not know that the Spanish word tortilla applied to two equally delicious but completely different comestibles. From a press trip to Mexico, I knew that tortilla was a circular flatbread made with corn flour. It was only some years later that I discovered that tortilla also meant a large omelette. When I finally came across this great Spanish snack, it was not in Catalonia or Andalucia but in a cafe on the Essex Road in London. Studded with potatoes like the vast majority of tortillas, it looked like a cake and was sold by the slice. This dish had an instant appeal but I couldn’t put a name to it. Now I know it was a tortilla de patatas, a dish so ubiquitous in its homeland that, as Claudia Roden notes in her Food of Spain, ‘this omelette is known as tortilla Espanola because you find it eaten everywhere, in every region, in tapas bars and at home.’
Often the potato is combined with onion (a ratio of 7:3 is recommended). Both are sliced thinly and gently fried in olive oil until soft, but not coloured. After being dried on kitchen paper, the onion and potato mix is added to half a dozen beaten eggs. This mixture is again fried at a medium-low heat for 15-20 minutes. When the tortilla is pretty much cooked and golden brown on the bottom, you turn off off the heat, place a plate over the pan and invert the whole shebang so the omelette is upside-down on the plate. This is then nudged back into the frying pan for a few minutes to complete the cooking of the bottom, which was, of course, formerly the top.
It was a curious variant of this dish that first drew me to the tortilla. In their excellent book Morito, stemming from the North London tapas bar of that name, Sam and Sam Clark include a recipe for ‘crisp tortilla’, so called because the ingredients include ‘190g packet of Spanish crisps cooked in olive oil’. These are mixed with six whisked eggs (the Clarks recommend an electric whisk for ‘a faster and fluffier result’) and chopped wild garlic leaves or chives before being fried in the way described above. For the olive oil crisps, the Clarks direct readers to ‘speciality shops’. They use the La Fromagerie shops in north London. Rather unexpectedly, I have found them (albeit intermittently) in the food section of TK Maxx. Incidentally, do not be tempted, as I was, to try making this dish with ordinary crisps. Hopeless.
As the production of this dish progressed, I was somewhat daunted at the loss of a packet of the world’s best crisps but also fascinated to see what would happen. Maybe it was the title of the dish but I somehow imagined that the crisps would retain a bit of crispness in the tortilla. Of course, they didn’t. After turning soggy in the egg mixture, they mutated into the slenderest slices of potato imaginable. The result was a particularly elegant tortilla de patatas. Anyone who thinks that a particularly inventive mind must lie behind this ingenious combination is quite right. The Clarks reveal that the recipe is ‘a variation on one in Ferran Adria’s brilliant book The Family Meal, which documents the staff meals at elBulli’.
Potato tortilla utilising crisps de luxe is merely the beginning of the variants for this accommodating dish. As Nieves Barragan Mohacho, formerly head chef at Barrafina and now chef/patron at Sabor, remarks, ‘A tortilla welcomes anything, so you can be adventurous with what you add to the basis potato and onion mix.’ In her tempting book, also called Sabor (it means ‘flavour’), Nieves limits herself to tortilla with morcilla (black pudding) and piquillo peppers and tortilla with chorizo. Nor is it obligatory to include potato. Spud-free tortillas served at Morito utilise red pepper, spinach and jamon, and courgettes.
So, we have a dish that is cheap, appealing to both adults and children, relatively quick to make and tasty both hot and cold. But there’s a drawback if you want to make a tortilla in authentic style. Pretty much every Spanish cookbook utilises the somewhat blasé instructions in paragraph two above, which requires the tortilla to be cooked until ‘golden brown on the bottom’. How the hell do you do that? The simple answer is practise. You have to get to know your frying pan and your hob. Then there’s all that stuff about flipping the omelette upside-down. This is far easier said than done. As Claudia Roden admits in her book The Food of Spain, ‘Making tortilla is an art that has special methods and tricks, and requires skill and intuition.’ When she mentioned her use of a grill to avoid the need to flip, her Spanish advisor had a fit. ‘No! No! No!’ The advisor’s solution was to make two small omelettes rather than one large one.
This is exactly the technique recommended by Sam and Eddie Hart, owners of Barrafina, in their book Modern Spanish Cooking, they advocate non-stick blini pans for individual tortilla Espanola. The problem of ensuring the tortilla is cooked through does not arise since the Harts prefer their tortillas to be ‘nice and runny’ in the middle. This involves cooking them for around two minutes on each side. Claudia Roden is the only writer I’ve come across who concedes that a grill for the finale. ‘I have put the tortilla under the grill instead of turning it over and I can recommend this method to those who find it difficult to flip a tortilla.’
I too used the grill method to finish my tortillas but recently I have switched to the orthodox Spanish flipping. It has a number of advantages. If your grill requires the oven door to be closed, then you’re liable to end up with a very hot pan-handle. It also spares you some awkward manoeuvres around the kitchen with a hot pan. Finally, it’s satisfying to be able to make tortillas in the proper way – and they may even look and taste a bit better.

Crisp tortilla

(adapted from Morito by Sam & Sam Clark)

  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp chopped chives
  • 6 free-range eggs
  • 190g packet of Spanish crisps cooked in olive oil (Morito uses a brand called San Nicasio)

Break eggs into bowl and whisk for 5 minutes until pale and frothy (an electric whisk is recommended). Heat a large, non-stick frying pan over medium to high heat. Add the crisps and chopped chives to the eggs with a little salt and pepper. Mix until the crisps are coated in the whisked egg. When the pan is hot, add 2 tbsp olive oil and swirl round the pan bottom and sides. Pour in the egg and crisps while gently shaking the pan to ensure an even spread. Lower the heat and let the tortilla cook for five minutes. Using a spatula, check that the underside of the tortilla is golden brown and that it will move on the pan if nudged. Remove from the heat and leave to rest for a minute. Take a plate the same size as the pan or slightly larger and rest it over the pan. Carefully invert the tortilla on to the plate. Return the pan to the heat. When hot, add 2 tbsp olive oil and gently slide in the tortilla to cook the other side. Lower the heat and tuck in the edges of the tortilla with the spatula. Cook until golden brown, checking as before. Remove from the heat and leave for a few minutes, then turn the tortilla on to a clean plate. Serve warm or leave to cool.