An ode to the tortilla Española.
There are certain foods, I’m convinced, that are so familiar to us that we don’t crave unless they’re out of context.
Example? Potatoes. I grew up in an Irish-American family, and we were pretty true to the stereotype in that spuds made cameos almost daily. Baked, twice-baked, smashed, or covered with that packet of Lipton’s onion soup mix, they were cheap and cheerful and a big part of my mom’s go-to routine.
After a while, they lost their charms. I moved to Oregon for college and found myself knee-deep in Thai and Vietnamese food—totally new to me, and totally delicious. I wanted only to learn only about Asian food and this enticing new “fusion” cuisine everyone was talking about. (In my defense, it was the ‘90s.)
Potatoes fell by the wayside. No one around me was cooking or eating them, and they just didn’t occur to me. But after I graduated, I scraped together enough money for a trip to Northwest Spain—the Basque region—with my then-boyfriend. Glasses of wine at cafés were tiny and cheap. Platters of Idiazabal cheese—like Manchego, but even better—came drowning in good olive oil, with sizzling platters of chorizo and bread alongside.
At the end of the afternoon, as people left work and began to stroll—the Spanish paseo—the cafés and bars would throw open their doors. Glimmering on a glass cake stand on nearly every bar was tortilla. Eggs, potatoes, and onions, all layered together in some mysteriously fluffy riff on American quiche that I’d never seen before. It was sold by the slice, with a small glass of red, which you would take out to your sidewalk chair, and sit or smoke or gossip or people-watch.
It was divine. How’d they get it so sultry, so fluffy? The answer: Olive oil. Lots of it. “Whatever the recipe,” writes Seamus Mullen (chef of Manhattan Spanish restaurant Tertulia) in his cookbook Hero Food, “one thing is key: abundant olive oil.” Those ho-hum potatoes had been bathed in something like a cup or two of the stuff. Mullen’s own recipe calls for two full cups, although much of it is discarded and doesn’t make it into the finished product.
Properly made tortilla Española requires good seasoning, too: The ingredients are just eggs, olive oil, onions, potatoes, a hint of garlic, and salt, so—health permitting—don’t skimp on the latter. And best of all, tortilla can be served at room temperature. (In Spain, it sits that way for hours, but our USDA would frown on that.) Serve it with Romesco sauce or—as is traditional—on its own, as an easy brunch entrée, a slice to be shoveled into a baggie as you run out the door to work, a late afternoon lunch with a green salad, or even in the early evening, with tiny glasses of vino alongside.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.