Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Viva Espana

This past weekend, while in Delaware to attend a wedding, I went out with my family to a tapas restaurant. Most people who pay attention to food trends at all will know what tapas are: they’re basically bar snacks that are served in Spain to tide people over while they have drinks before dinner. Since the dinner hour is very late in Spain, it is common to go “bar hopping” beforehand to drink a few glasses of vino and chat with your friends after work, and most places will offer a variety of small plates to go with drinks (sometimes for free: I studied in Spain one summer a few years ago, and my friends and I were delighted and surprised to be served some ham and bread with our sangria. Unfamiliar with the “snack” concept, we kept waiting hungrily for more food to arrive, which of course it never did, as you’re supposed to finish up and move on to the next place.).

The small plates concept, both in Spain and other countries, has evolved from simple bites like olives and cheese (which are still included in the tapas repertoire) into a whole cuisine and can get quite gourmet. Any and all world cuisines are adaptable to the small plates craze, it seems, but the place where we ate on Saturday night stuck mostly to traditional Spanish tapas, and I have to say they were excellent. The papas bravas (fried potato chunks with a spicy aioli) were even better than the ones I ate in Madrid (though of course those had the advantage of location), so good that we ordered a second round even though we were getting full. The Galician fish stew, the sautéed mushrooms with chorizo, the empanadas stuffed with vegetables and goat cheese – all were excellent. The dish I want to talk about, however, is the tortilla.

I first had Spanish tortilla on that study abroad trip, on a weekend excursion organized by the program to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. The Cathedral there has been a destination for religious pilgrims since the 9th century. The giant stone building where we stayed, just steps from the Cathedral, housed a seminary school and a hostel set sup especially for pilgrims (and apparently for groups of rowdy American students). Galicia was like a completely different country from the area around Madrid where the program was based; while that part of Spain was dry and brilliantly hot, Santiago was rainy and misty, with rolling green hills reminiscent of Ireland. The thick walls, flagstone floors and gloomy gray outside the windows made our hostel seem like something out of Harry Potter as we roamed the halls in search of the room where dinner was to be served. The meal was prearranged with several courses, one of which was a wedge of tortilla.

Tortilla espanola, not to be confused with the Mexican tortilla used for tacos, is an omelet-type dish made of eggs and potatoes. Not a huge fan of eggs, I had always avoided it on the trip before then, but now I was hungry and it smelled fantastic, so I bucked up and tried a piece. It was delicious – mostly slices of potato just barely held together by egg, so it was more like a thick potato cake than an eggy omelet. I ate the whole piece and would have eaten more.

When my parents visited Spain, my mom also became enamored of tortilla, and it has become her fallback meal on nights when my dad works late and they need something quick, filling and nutritious for dinner. Since I, as a newcomer to cooking, am on a quest for just those types of dishes once Todd and I are back in California, my mom recently showed me how to throw together a tortilla.

Tortilla Paisana, aka Frittata for Two

A true tortilla espanola contains only potatoes and egg; once you add other vegetables, cheese and meat, it becomes tortilla paisana. The more common term in the U.S. is the Italian name for the dish, frittata. When I said “throw together” up above I meant it; you can use almost anything you want in almost any amount as the filling for this dish. Because of this, I feel silly writing out a typical recipe, and instead will just try and walk you through it. Hopefully, you’ll make it enough that you’ll develop your own formula that works best for you on a busy weeknight.

My mom, a vegetarian, uses whatever vegetables and cheese she has lying around, but ham or chorizo would be typical Spanish additions as well. Go crazy with the veggies – potatoes, onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, you name it; if you like it, toss it in. This particular night, our frittata contained about one and a half onions, two or three small potatoes and a couple bell peppers, both red and green:

 Whatever vegetables you choose, make sure they are completely cooked before the eggs go in, otherwise you’ll end up with crunchy undercooked vegetables in the finished dish (this doesn't hold if you're using tomatoes - add those in at the end). This is a really good way to use up greens that are slightly past their prime, and zucchini if, like many people this time of year, you are faced with a boatload of squash. If using potatoes, boil them in salted water until just tender; sauté the other vegetables in olive oil with salt and pepper, then add the potatoes, brown them a bit, and spread everything out in the skillet.

Next comes the eggs. As for number of eggs, again personal preference will play a big role in this: we typically use three eggs for two people, as we like a high ratio of veggies to eggs, which act as more of a binder than a main ingredient. If you want the eggs to be the star of the show, use one or two more. As long as you don’t overflow your frying pan, you’re good! Beat however many you’d like in a bowl (we use a large measuring bowl with a spout that makes pouring them much easier) with a good handful of grated cheese (we used Parmiggiano for this one; Monterey or pepper jack, cheddar, even goat cheese would work well) and more salt and pepper (add some red pepper flakes or Spanish paprika for a bit of a kick), then pour the mixture over the vegetables.

You may notice that the vegetables are different here: this is another frittata we made containing Swiss chard (actually rainbow chard) and onions from our CSA box.

Cook until the mixture is browned on the bottom, about 10 minutes, then stick it under the broiler for a few minutes more to brown the top. Then you can either serve it straight from the pan or, for a prettier presentation, as in the photo at the top of the page, and you're feeling brave, you can flip it out onto a serving platter (if it breaks into pieces, just stick them back together on the plate; no one will know the difference). Voila! One of the great things about this dish is that it can be (and usually is in Spain) enjoyed at room temperature, so you can make it ahead of time (leftovers are good cold for breakfast too). Enjoy with good bread and a glass of wine, sangria or beer and pretend you’re on the Costa del Sol. 

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