“Un pincho de tortilla y un café con leche, por favor.”
It was an almost-daily order. The café near my little casa in Madrid had the best tortilla española around. And with a cup of espresso with milk, I was a happy girl. My options at such cafés were usually limited because I was a vegetarian. I had underestimated how difficult studying abroad in meat-loving Spain would be. I usually had two possibilities: tortilla española and gazpacho. As winter was approaching in my time in Madrid, the chilled gazpacho was not usually served, so tortilla was my go-to dish.
The classic tortilla española has been ubiquitous in Spanish cuisine for centuries. It has nothing in common with the tortillas made in Latin America other than its name. Spain’s version is a simple, cake-like omelet with onions and potatoes. It’s usually served at room temperature as a tapa, which is a small serving that accompanies evening drinks, or as a pincho, a slightly larger slice served with a piece of bread that can pass as a light lunch. Not only is it a fantastic option for vegetarians who consider egg an exception, but also for anyone with a gluten allergy.
I actually had so many pinchos de tortilla that I left Spain sick of anything that had eggs, potatoes, or onions. But I enjoyed the dish, so I was determined to learn to cook it. The issue was that tortilla española is difficult to make perfectly. Even in Spain, I noticed that restaurants never cooked more than two or three for the day due to the time and patience required. When overcooked, the omelette is chalky and tasteless. When undercooked – well, who wants to finish a plate of runny eggs? But, when cooked perfectly, it’s entirely satisfying. What I enjoy most about this dish is its versatility. Usually it’s eaten alone, but add a little cheese or a few flakes of paprika and it can be specialized for any palate. I personally liked to spice it up, so at the corner café my order usually came with bottles of Tabasco and ketchup, unusual additions that not many Spaniards would consider.
The tortillas that I’ve made in the past have been based on recipes online. Of the recipes that I looked through, I noticed that most repeated the same process. Whisk up some eggs, dice some potatoes and onions, pour it all in a pan, and let it cook on the stove. Flip the tortilla, first onto a plate, and then slide it back into the pan. Let it cook. Seems simple, doesn’t it?
Not quite. In my nostalgia for all things Spanish, I recently blasted some Juan Magan and took over the kitchen. The result was a disaster. The eggs didn’t cook thoroughly. I used a red onion instead of a white one, and the taste was too overpowering. When I tried to flip the tortilla, the most exciting part of the process, it stubbornly clung to my pan because I hadn’t used enough olive oil. With a few adamant shakes, it landed on the plate in a pathetic heap. When my parents saw the “deflated yellow stuff” sitting on a plate in front of them, they politely took the smallest of portions. I didn’t bother to ask them to take more.
Despite my previous letdowns, I was determined to learn how to cook a decent tortilla. So I turned to a professional for help. Chef Adam Zensinger, head chef at Amada, Philadelphia’s finest Spanish restaurant, offered to give me a demonstration. I was thrilled! I hoped to learn something – anything – to produce a tortilla that tasted like the ones that I enjoyed in Spain.
In the kitchen at Amada, I noticed that the tortillas were not served as slices, but as small, individual cakes. Chef Adam took me through the process. He added two tablespoons of diced onions and two tablespoons of diced potatoes into a mixture of two eggs. The onions were sautéed briefly in a pan with a little olive oil. The potatoes were boiled, and I noted that it was easier than leaving them to sit in a pan for a half hour or so. The mixture was poured into a three-inch pan, where it was to sit on the stove on low heat for five minutes “until the eggs coagulate at the bottom and the sides” I understood what he meant, but I cringed at his choice of a very unpleasant-sounding word.
When Chef Adam put the tortilla in the oven, I was surprised. In Spain, a traditional tortilla española is cooked in a pan on the stovetop to perfection. At Amada, the oven speeds up the process. This shortcut doesn’t affect the tortilla experience; there isn’t much difference between the taste of a tortilla cooked entirely on a stove and one cooked partially in the oven. Then, he pulled out the tortilla and skillfully flipped it over into another pan of the same size. He didn’t seem too excited about the flip, but then again, he wasn’t taming fierce blue-orange flames like I’d seen the chefs on TV do.
Without any tortilla-flipping commentary or tips, he continued with his demonstration. He put the pan back on the stove for five minutes and then threw it in the oven for 10 more, exactly as he had done before the flip. The final product was a perfectly cooked tortilla that was slightly springy to the touch and fluffy on the inside. It was delicious! Amada serves their tortillas with saffron aioli, which they make at the restaurant. The sauce is made of saffron, egg yolks, lemon juice, olive oil, and garlic. I’ve never had tortilla with this before, but a bite with it was incredible. They complement each other so well that I definitely have to try making it sometime – if I can figure out how emulsification works!
Chef Adam doesn’t make the tortillas at Amada. Either Imelda Lorenzo or Beatriz Telez, who are prep cooks, makes them every morning.
“They make 30 of these at a time. It’s crazy,” and I concurred, knowing that I’d lose my head if I had to make even two simultaneously.
But of course, professionals make everything look easy. So when I had a few free moments from hectic week, I decided to apply what I had learned. As a student without a proper cutting board, a sharp knife, or a wide array of pans to choose from, I knew immediately that this was going to be a challenge.
This time when I bought my ingredients, I remembered the white onion and garlic as well. But I faced my first predicament immediately. I didn’t have a three-inch pan and neither did the closest grocery store. So, using higher math, I doubled everything that I needed and used a six-inch pan instead.
I began by dicing my potatoes and onions. Dicing to the size that Chef Adam had was extremely dangerous with my non-existent knife skills, but after a half-hour or so, I had about four tablespoons of each and a tear-streaked face. I whisked up four eggs, as established by my impressive mathematical skills. And then suddenly, I decided to use one more. For good luck or whatever, I don’t really know. It just seemed like four eggs were going to make a pancake while five could add an extra inch and actually look like a tortilla. I combined all three ingredients and finely chopped a clove of garlic into the mixture.
Then it all got a little crazy. On high heat (I don’t even know why I did that!) I added olive oil to the pan and poured in the mixture. Here was my first triumph: it was the perfect amount! However, I panicked when the sides and bottom began to coagulate (cringe) immediately. Quickly, I used a spatula to make sure that nothing was burning or sticking to the pan. Ignoring everything that Chef Adam had said (as if keeping the stove on high heat wasn’t enough), I threw it into the 360-degree oven after a minute. I second-guessed this move and took it out of the oven, stuck it on the stove, which was thankfully on low at that point, and left it there. Only an angsty minute passed until I threw it back into the oven. I decided to just leave it there for 10 minutes, but I checked on it obsessively with my overworked spatula, hoping that it wouldn’t be a burnt mess.
I took the tortilla out and set it back on the stove after 10 minutes of neurotically opening and closing the oven door to see what it looked like. The top was still liquid and uncooked, but I dismissed this as normal because the top was also slightly uncooked when Chef Adam took it out of the oven. And finally, it was time for the flip. Thanks to a little help from my roommate, the flip went perfectly. The omelette came right off the pan! It was exciting! I gave the flip a little more pizazz than Chef Adam had. And even better, I was so happy to see that the other side hadn’t burned at all. But transferring the tortilla back into the pan proved difficult when I realized that the uncooked side was so uncooked that the entire thing was in danger of falling apart in the process. But, when we eased the tortilla back into the pan, it miraculously held together.
Sadly, the other side did not cook well. It was a strange occurrence; the initial side had soaked up most of the olive oil and suddenly the uncooked side was sticking to the pan. The uncooked side did not hold together at all, even after repeating the process of cooking the tortilla first on the stove and then in the oven. When I flipped it for the last time to see what it looked like, a small bit of it stuck to the pan. No worries, it wasn’t catastrophic. So I tried my best to compose it, flipped it onto its good side, and observed the final product. Not bad. Not perfect, but really, a fantastic job!
It tasted pretty good, more like a normal omelette than anything else. I had clearly used too much olive oil because I could taste it in every bite. The garlic was inconsistent, strongly present in one bite but nonexistent in another. But all criticism aside, I had actually made a decent tortilla! Not one bit had burned. The perfectly-cooked side had a springy exterior and a fluffy interior. It was a drastic improvement from my previous tortilla escapades and I credited my success to the oven technique.
My cooking angst normally takes over whenever I’m trying something new in the kitchen. The next time I craved tortilla, I learned from my mistakes – I refrained from cooking on high heat and neurotically opening and closing the oven door. It took a little bit of patience, zen, and confidence, but thanks to Amada’s recipe, I now have a foolproof way to be prepared for the next time I’m nostalgic for that corner café in Madrid.
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 small onion, diced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 2 potatoes, peeled, blanched and diced
- Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oven to 360° F.
In a skillet over medium, heat the oil. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft.
In a medium mixing bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Fold in the onions, garlic and potatoes. Season with salt and pepper.
In a three-inch non-stick pan, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons oil. Pour the mixture into the heated pan and cook on one side on low heat for 4 minutes until the bottom and side are cooked.
Put the tortilla in the oven for 10 minutes.
Flip the tortilla into another non-stick pan of the same size.
Cook on medium heat on the stove for 5 minutes.
Bake the tortilla again, covered, for about 10 minutes. Serve at room temperature with garlic aioli.
Recipe courtesy of Chef Jose Garces, Amada
Photos by Rachel Wisniewski