I still don’t completely understand why my husband, Peter, threw me a big 40th birthday surprise party. It was a surprise all right – I’d only turned 32. “I just thought it’d be funny,” he told me.
Peter hadn’t told the guests my real age, either. Most arrived with joke presents: black plastic flowers, towels embroidered with “Over the Hill” and the like. I was a bit put out that everyone so easily accepted the idea of me being so old, but the party was lots of fun; not least because of Peter’s deception.
The food Peter served was another complete surprise: tapas. These days, tapas are everywhere, but back then, almost nobody in America had heard of them. Peter and I had recently read about “The little dishes of Spain” and bought a cookbook, (Tapas, by Penelope Casas) – but had not used it. At least that’s what I’d thought, but Peter had been cooking from it for a week, waiting until I was asleep, then tiptoeing down to the kitchen.
Everything was wonderful: Chorizo-filled, bacon wrapped dates; shrimp in garlic sauce, meatballs in a sherry almond sauce, and….tortillas. But not the kind of tortilla you’re probably thinking of.
Spanish tortillas have nothing in common with Mexican tortillas except their name, derived from the Latin torte, round cake. Spanish tortillas are omelettes, similar to Italian frittatas. Potato is the most common – in fact it’s called Tortilla a la Espanola. Casas says it’s “the all-time tapas classic, and I doubt there is any tapas in Spain that doesn’t serve it.”
There are dozens of other fillings, however. Tortillas are great for breakfast or brunch; because they’re served room temperature, tortillas make wonderful picnic food, too. It’s easy to create your own different fillings, flavorings, or cheese. Use between two to three cups of filling for six eggs, avoiding things so juicy (for example, fresh tomatoes) that would make the tortilla watery.
(Note: Penelope Casas virtually introduced Americans to tapas and Spanish food. I highly recommend Tapas and her other books. )
Basic instructions for cooking tortillas
The traditional way of making tortillas is to add the egg-plus-filling mixture to a hot, oiled skillet. When the eggs begin to solidify on the bottom, the tortilla is flipped upside down onto a plate, the skillet wiped out and re-oiled; the tortilla is then slid back into the skillet. The process is repeated until the tortilla is cooked through. Sometimes another same-size skillet is used instead of a plate. Tortillas made this way have nicely rounded edges, but the method is tricky, and has great potential of creating a mess. Over the years, I’ve come up with a couple of alternative less risky ways to cook tortillas. All three are listed below.
- 6 eggs
- 2 or more T. extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
In a large bowl, beat the eggs just until combined. Add the filling(s) and season to taste with salt and pepper. Let stand for 15-30 minutes.
Heat a nine- to ten-inch nonstick skillet over high heat and add 2 T. olive oil. When hot (but not smoking) add egg mixture. Immediately turn the heat down to low and shake the pan gently. There are three ways to complete the tortilla:
TRADITIONAL METHOD: Stir mixture a few minutes without touching the bottom. Once it’s begun solidifying, flip the pan upside down onto a plate, then wipe out the skillet if necessary, add another tablespoon of olive oil and slide the tortilla off the plate, back into the skillet. Repeat until the tortilla is cooked through.
BROILER METHOD: After the tortilla has formed a solid mass on the underside, transfer it to a broiler that has been turned to high heat. Check every couple of minutes. When the tortilla has formed a solid “crust” on top, stir that cooked surface into the liquid egg mixture underneath and return to the broiler. Continue until the tortilla is cooked through. This is the easiest method.
COMBINED METHOD: Follow step 2 until the tortilla’s center is creamy and almost completely solidified. Then proceed as in the traditional method until the tortilla is completely cooked through. This gives the tortilla the traditional rounded-edge shape with less potential for mess than the first method.
Turn the tortilla onto a large platter. Cut into wedges or squares. Garnish with appropriate grated cheese or herbs if desired. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 4 as a main course, 6 or more as part of a tapas spread.
Potato tortilla filling
- 6 large waxy boiling potatoes
- 1 large onion, NOT super-sweet.
- 3 T. extra-virgin olive oil
Steam or boil the potatoes until they can be pierced through easily with a knife. When cool enough to handle, peel them and cut into approximately 1/4-inch slices, then spread them out to cool completely.
Cut the onion in half lengthwise, then peel it and cut into thin slices.
Heat the 3 T. oil a nine- or ten-inch nonstick skillet on high until it’s hot but not smoking. Add the onions and stir to coat them. Reduce the heat to medium low and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and golden. Remove from the heat and cool completely.
Onion tortilla filling
- 3 lbs. onions, NOT super-sweet, chopped
- 6 T. extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tsp. dried thyme
- 1 T. sherry vinegar, preferred, or other wine vinegar
- 6 large eggs
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Grated aged cheese such as parmesan or an aged Spanish cheese, such as an aged Manchego, and chopped chives or chive blossoms for garnish, optional
This all-onion tortilla is especially succulent.
Heat 6 T. of the olive oil in a very large skillet over medium heat, add the onions, thyme and vinegar, and stir to combine them with the oil. Sprinkle with a teaspoon of salt. Cover the pan, and let the onions sweat until they are translucent, 10 –15 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and cook until the onions are golden and meltingly soft, about an hour.
Uncover the onions, raise the heat slightly, and continue to cook until any liquid in the skillet has evaporated, about another 15 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat and let the onions cool completely.
Asparagus and cheese tortilla filling
- 2 c. thinly sliced asparagus PLUS 1/2 c. of asparagus tips.
- 1 bunch scallions, both green and white parts, thinly sliced
- 1 c. cheese, either coarsely grated or crumbled*
Steam the asparagus or cook in a little boiling water until just barely tender, then immediately rinse under cold water until the pieces are cool. Drain thoroughly on a tea towel. Reserve the tips separately for garnish.
Add the cooled asparagus pieces, the scallion and the cheese to the beaten egg mixture, stirring to make sure everything is well combined and there are no lumps.
Garnish with the reserved tips.
*Many kinds of cheese work well in this, from Swiss and Gouda to chevre and Feta.
Artichoke, spinach, and blue cheese tortilla filling
- 1 c. coarsely chopped artichoke hearts or bottoms, either fresh cooked or canned
- 1 c. cooked chopped spinach, squeezed dry and tightly packed.
- 3/4 c. crumbled blue cheese, preferably Spanish Cabrales or substitute other blue cheese such as Gorgonzola
- 1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced, white and green parts separated
- 1 T. chopped fresh tarragon OR 1 heaping tsp. dried, optional
- 2 T. extra virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Add the artichokes, spinach, blue cheese, the white parts of the scallions, and tarragon to the beaten eggs and stir to combine. Be sure that the spinach is well incorporated and not stuck together in clumps.