Originally published June 2, 2006
The first time I ever ate the simple Spanish dish known as Tortilla I was in a restaurant in New York City with my agent and my editor. They told me this place made a killer tortilla so I went ahead and ordered it, wondering in my stupid Southern Californian way about how I liked homemade tortillas as much as the next Mexican but did they really constitute a meal? Anyway, the lovely potato and egg pie that arrived in front of me set me straight.
Fast forward about 10 years. My agent and editor, along with any alleged publishing potential I may have once had, have dissolved into the sinkhole of time.
And yet. And yet. The tortilla abides. I cling still to that dream. So simple it’s silly. Egg and potatoes. Add whatever you want, it’s still a cheap and nutritious meal. Peasant cooking, really. Comfort food. Starchy. Filling. Good hot or cold, they’re ubiquitous in Spain, where they come in all textures and shapes and grace the counters of tapas bars high and low.
It’s one of those dishes that everyone knows how to make. Except for me.
I’ve got a thing about simple dishes. I want to master them. I want to be able to make good miso soup, or a dal that brings tears to the eyes. I feel like I should be able to whip up the simple but cockle-warming dishes that anyone’s grandma can make. And yet, it’s the simplest recipes that most elude me. My inattention, my many distractions, coupled with wretched self-esteem in front of the stove, foil my best intentions, no matter how elementary the recipe is in front of me.
This is my journey, though. Step onto the road to failure and fail, big time, until I at last get it right. It’s kinda fun when you think of it this way.
And nothing is more fun than trying to wring a basic recipe out of a bunch of flamencos who don’t really know and wouldn’t be able to remember anyway even if they did.
I’d been told that Antonio de Jerez made the best Tortilla in Los Angeles. If you’re into flamenco and you live in Southern California, you might have heard of him. But since you probably aren’t, and so haven’t, he’s a singer, from Jerez de Frontera, Spain. Been here since the mid -70s. Now in his 50’s. About this tall and bitter, and very close-mouthed when it comes to disclosing the secret to his outstanding, perfect tortilla.
I had it at a party once, and indeed, it was an extraordinary thing. Cool, cut into slices that you could eat out of hand or wrap in bread. The fresh, chewy, ever so slightly salted taste of egg cooked with potato. It was hugely satisfying with a salad. If I’d been left alone I could have eaten the whole of it by myself.
I asked him for the recipe. He laughed and walked away.
After a trip to Spain in which I ate a lot of tortilla, but only one, in Granada, that matched his own, I redoubled my efforts.
I pinned him at the bar of a crowded Pasadena restaurant where he was gigging with Tony.
“Antonio!” I call. I notice he cringes and tries to turn away.
“What do you want?”
“I want to make your tortilla. How do you do it?”
“I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.”
“C’mon! Tell her,” said his girlfriend, Maria-Jose.
“I can’t! I don’t really know. It’s different every time.”
This is standard Gypsy tact for squirming out of being pinned down on anything. Ah, but I was a journalist for years and years. I can counter squirm.
“Let’s say you have one medium potato,” I say. “How many eggs? Four?”
“More like two. Maybe Three.”
“Three eggs for each potato.”
“…er, yeah, I guess.”
“What about four eggs?”
“So three eggs then. Firm?”
So I used five eggs because that’s what I had left, and what’s the sense in leaving yourself two eggs in the fridge?
And I used one and a half russet potato because just one potato didn’t seem quite enough to counter five whole eggs. I peeled them and chopped them, doing my best to create orderly, proportional squares.
Olive oil. No idea how much. Enough to fry potatoes in.
A little tiny bit of onion.
Onion? Everything starts with an onion, remember.
But oh yeah, not every time.
“No! No onion!” Tony is alarmed when I ask him this over the phone. I don’t tell him that as we speak I am already sautéing an entire medium onion, chopped.
“So never any onion?”
“No!” he says. “OK, maybe just a little bit, for flavor. “But only the tiniest bit.”
Damn. I don’t know why I’m listening to Tony exactly, since I don’t think he’s ever turned on his own stove much less attempted a tortilla. But he grew up on his Dad’s tortilla, so presumably he knows a bit more about its making than I do. And I need a roadmap of some sort, so I take his advice. I spoon most of the onion into another pot, telling myself I’ll use it to make lentil soup later on that night. In my skillet, I leave only the “tiniest” bit.
Next I throw in the potatoes, and cook them up. But I don’t stir them enough or else I didn’t use enough oil, because as they cook they stick to the bottom of my skillet.
I whisk up the five eggs and add them to the mix. Then I put the heat on medium and watch.
There are always secrets with the simple dishes, I’m discovering. How much of this in proportion to that. How long to cook, and on what heat. When to turn, when to stir. Little details not ever articulated or written down in the cookbooks that will trip you up at every turn unless you know enough to intuit them.
“You’ve got to cook it just so,” Tony had warned me. “You don’t want to undercook it, but you don’t want to overcook it, either.”
“Well how long, exactly? What does that mean?”
“I dunno. You have to ask Antonio.”
I watch the tortilla bubbling in my skillet. I’ll just have to guess when it’s done.
There are also equipment requirements for a good tortilla, I’ve discovered. A simple iron skillet, medium sized, will allegedly do the job, but for me anyway, it’s not the right tool for the gig. Maybe there’s a special “tortilla” skillet – I imagine there is, since the high-end kitchen market is there to meet even the smallest of needs with an expensive and beautiful pan. Anyway, I don’t have such a pan. Only my two cast iron skillets, found at flea markets long ago, that have served me well so far and will be one day passed forward to whichever kid expresses the most interest.
Another tool I lack – a more flexible spatula, so I can get in there and flip that thing. Apparently that’s the challenge of tortilla for most people – the intact flipping of the thing.
Tony told me that his Dad used to use the lid of the pan, so I duly try it and, no surprise, fail miserably. It had not yet cooked enough to retain a solid shape. A quarter of the tortilla oozes out onto the lid while the remainder sticks to the skillet. I curse myself bitterly as I dig at it with my spatula, and eventually manage to flip the tortilla, in two pieces, onto its other side to cook.
Truly. I just suck the big dog in the kitchen. I’m not worthy of the apron I wear.
And so it sits. My first tortilla Española. In two steaming pieces on a square yellow plate. The top is burnt black, but not exactly scorched. I’ve done worse. Still, I wonder if I shouldn’t just throw it out now and save face. I decide to let it cool first.
Fifteen minutes later I decide to taste it. When I fall on my face, I like to wallow in the pain for a little bit. I’m funny like that. Not only did it look like crap, no doubt it was inedible too. Oh, the suffering. So I cut off a little slice, away from the burnt bits.
It’s chewy. Eggy. Potato-y. It’s not inedible at all. In fact, it’s kind of yummy. I eat another slice.
The girl walks through the kitchen. “What’s that smell, mom?”
“It’s my tortilla.”
“Wanna try some?”
Basically I bribe her, promising her fame and fortune on this very blog if she tastes it and tells me what she thinks. She slowly comes around and agrees.
She inspects her piece carefully. She smells it. She takes the smallest nibble. Chews. Considers. She takes another, slightly larger bite (this indicates success already in my book). She takes a THIRD bite and pronounces it “OK. But you burned it.”
Yeah, yeah. Of course I burned it. “But you liked it enough, didn’t you?”
She shrugs, pops the rest into her mouth, and flees my kitchen.
Later on Tony comes over and agrees to try my tortilla.
Imagine the hubris! My serving my first tortilla to a guy who grew up eating his Spanish father’s tortilla. I understood where I was on the tortilla totem pole. Would I deign to present this as an actual meal? Not me. To make clear that this was a taste test and not a meal, I handed him a piece on a napkin. Granted, Tony’s prone to forgiving my every fault, but in this instance of ethnic pride, I think he’d tell me if it sucked. The prospect of my total failure perversely excites me. At least I’m on the road to learning.
He takes a bite. I search his face for the horrible truth: It’s an abomination.
He raises his eyebrows and shrugs. “Actually not so bad,” he says. “A little heavy on the potato maybe.”
“You’re just saying that,” I say.
I decide that the proof will come if he takes a second piece. He doesn’t. But he does take a second bite of his first piece. And that, my friends, is not a small battle won.
Lessons learned from this, my first summit attempt:
Less potato. Balance the egg to potato ratio.
Fry the potatoes in a separate skillet to prevent burnage.
Pam that damn skillet up like a greased pig. My next tortilla should pop right out of there.
Cook a little longer over a medium flame. Since I didn’t really time it this first round, I can’t say how much longer that would be. I will try to intuit.
Stay tuned for Tortilla Española, Take Two. The plan is, we’re gonna pay Antonio de Jerez to make one, then we’re going to take it home and dissect it….