Recipe: ¡Viva Tortilla! - A scrumptious take on "Spanish omelette", to welcome the return of al fresco dining

Spanish tortilla based on a "Moro" recipe.
Spanish tortilla based on a scrumptious "Moro" recipe.
When I was a wee lad, there was an advert on TV hailing from a major food producer.  It extolled people to be exotic in their cooking by preparing a "Spanish omelette".  I can't remember exactly which non-egg ingredients said dish was meant to include to make it "Spanish" other than frozen peas. I suspect some of you are realising which major food producer was the sponsor of the advert...


Exotic eating was very much in vogue in the 1970s, which represented a time of transition in terms of the UK's culinary heritage.  Historically, British cooking had been diverse and inventive, but coinciding - and probably as a result of - the great wars of the 20th century, our relationship with food seemed to lose its way.  Wartime rationing meant that our cuisine became bland and mundane.  At least until we discovered, and took to our hearts/stomachs, food from across the world.
 
Like many people growing up in urban areas of the UK in the 70s I became aware of, and fascinated by, the increasing prevalence of restaurants serving the food of India (technically, more usually that of Pakistan or Bangladesh), China and Italy.  This growth in "exotic" new fare was no accident, but resulted from those who emigrated to the UK from across the globe during the last century expressing their culture in culinary terms, and sharing this with people already resident here.  And we Brits loved it!

Yet surprisingly, there was one culture that Britons became increasingly familiar with during the 1970s and 80s that seemed to have scant influence on our eating patterns.  With millions of us annually jetting off to Spain each year, why was it that the superb food of that country failed to become ingrained in our culinary psyches?  Maybe it was because the nature of the package holiday meant that holidaymakers from the UK had only limited exposure to authentic Spanish cooking.  Or perhaps (at least until the relatively recent economic turmoil within Europe caused significant migration) there simply wasn't a large enough Spanish community within the UK to provide a genuine Iberian dining experience for those returning from the fortnight of sunshine on the costas.

This all goes to explain why the pea-festooned "Spanish omelette" of my youth bore little resemblance to the "tortilla española/de patatas" I first sampled in Barcelonan tapas bar in the mid-1990s.  It is a dish that exemplifies the, often, uncomplicated nature of Spanish cuisine (although Ferran Adrià might dispute that assertion). Fundamentally it comprises merely three ingredients; onion, potato and eggs - plus seasoning.  Yet it is also a dish the flavour of which is substantially greater than the sum of its parts, simultaneously being sweet, earthy and rich, but also fresh tasting.

In an ideal world, tortilla de patatas should be enjoyed on a sunny Spanish terrace, accompanied by a cool glass of beer.  But as balmy spring weather starts to make its presence felt in the UK why not rustle up this simple and delicious dish to be enjoyed - hot or cold - as part of some home-based al fresco dining?  The recipe below is pretty authentic, being my evolution of one contained within the truly splendid Moro - The Cookbook.  Rather than deep-fry the potatoes (as the original recipe requires) I prefer to parboil them until they are just cooked, drain them and allow any excess moisture to steam away.  I have also been known to add a small green pepper to the onion, to give an even greater sweet-earthy, grassy accent.


The 10 tablespoons of olive oil used to fry the onions may sound excessive, but this is needed to effectively confit these to the point that the sugars they contain become caramelised.  Turning the tortilla using a plate can also be somewhat tricky, so I have been known just to pop the pan under the grill to ensure both sides are properly cooked, as my adaptation indicates.  The outcome of the above tinkering is a dish that is delicious whether enjoyed hot or cold - and without a frozen pea coming anywhere near!

Provides 6-8 portions

Ingredients
  • 2 large Spanish onions, medium finely sliced
  • 1 small green pepper (optional), medium finely sliced
  • 10 tablespoons olive oil
  • 700g potatoes (Cyprus or any firm, waxy potato), wiped clean and medium sliced
  • 6 eggs, organic or free-range
  • sea salt and black pepper

Preparation and cooking    
  1. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy saucepan and when hot but not smoking add the onions and pepper (if using) with a pinch of salt. Give them a good stir, reduce the heat to low, and cook very slowly for about 30-45 minutes (stirring every five minutes or so) until golden in colour and sweet in smell.  Remove from the heat, drain, and reserve the oil.
  2. Meanwhile, cook the potatoes by placing a large saucepan, just cover with water and add a generous pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, turn down the heat and simmer until just cooked (about 8-10 minutes). Drain in a colander, return to the saucepan and allow any remaining moisture to evaporate.
  3. Break the eggs into a large mixing bowl and whisk briefly. Add the onions and potatoes and mix together. Taste for seasoning. The mixture may only need a little pepper.
  4. Pour the reserved onion oil into a frying pan approximately 20cm across, and set over a high heat. When the oil begins to smoke pour the tortilla mixture in with one hand whilst shaking the pan with the other. Reduce the heat to low and cook until the underside is golden brown - usually about five minutes.
  5. Take a plate of a similar diameter and rest it over the pan. With both hands and two kitchen cloths carefully invert the tortilla on to the plate. The uncooked side will still be fairly runny so watch out! Turning the tortilla helps to give it its distinctive shape.  
  6. Turn the heat to high again, pour a little extra olive oil into the frying pan and slide the tortilla back into the pan runny side down and tuck in the edges. Cook for another 3 minutes.   Alternately, place the pan under a hot grill for a couple of minutes until the uncooked side of the tortilla becomes firm and golden.
  7. Both sides of the tortilla should now be golden brown in colour. If not, it requires a little more cooking. The tortilla will be cooked if the middle feels solid. If it still feels a little soft continue to cook until firmer. Remove from the pan and slide it onto a plate. Allow to cool for a few minutes before cutting into diamond shapes. 

The tortilla is also delicious served cold.

The original version of this recipe can be found in 'Moro - The Cookbook' by Sam and Sam Clark, published by Ebury Press, ISBN: 0-09-187483-1, 25.00
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