If I went into a tapas bar and could have only one of the huge array of nibbles on display, it would have to be calamares a la romana — batter-fried squid was the first tapa I ever ate and I have a kind of umbilical attachment to it.
But there’s more to it than that. Another reason I’m so fond of calamares a la romana is that no matter how frequently I eat them and have to review them, they always give me something to write about.
Calamares a la romana, however, aren’t everyone’s favourite — the top three tapas in Spanish bars are the potato tortilla, patatas brava and croquettes.
I never order potato tortilla in a bar unless I know it was made within the previous half hour. A potato tortilla that’s been lying around for a few hours is not my idea of a nice nibble.
However, when restaurants do a potato tortilla to order I invariably have it because they can be most memorable — and you can have them slightly runny, if that’s to your liking. Most of today’s connoisseurs want them like that.
That potato tortilla is the top tapa didn’t come as a surprise because various surveys have shown that this dish is the nation’s favourite. In a Coca-Cola poll a few years ago, 45 per cent of Spaniards named the potato tortilla as the dish they like best. Paella, shellfish and gazpacho filled the other three places.
Spaniards develop such a psychological attachment to the tortilla that if they have been out of the country on a three or four week holiday, the dish they miss most is a potato tortilla.
Spanish children meet the tortilla at a very early age and it becomes an essential part of their diet for the rest of their lives. I don’t know a single Spaniard whose face doesn’t light up at the sight (or thought) of large tortilla.
I’ve seen buffet tables laden with all kinds of up-market dishes, but it’s the potato tortilla that gets scoffed before everything else.
Before you make a tortilla, two decisions must be taken. One is whether you are going to include a little chopped onion, and the other is whether the potatoes will be sliced or diced.
Spanish connoisseurs can talk for ages on the merits of either case. For some, the tortilla must contain onions. But the purists say it is a potato tortilla, not a potato and onion tortilla — so it should contain nothing but potatoes and eggs.
The sliced or diced potatoes debate also produces fiery pros and cons.
I have made hundreds of tortillas with and without onions. I sometimes dice the potatoes and sometimes slice them. But after decades of making tortillas I have no real preference.
A tortilla made with diced potatoes will always be that little bit thicker, but sliced potatoes give an attractive layered effect when the tortilla is cut. The best way to make up your mind is to try the various combinations to see which you like best.
The Coca-Cola survey came up with a result that surprised me: potato tortillas made in the Baleares are among the worst in Spain. The vast majority of the tortillas I have eaten in Mallorca have been more than passable, some were very good indeed, and a few were worth a 10. And I rate highly those I have eaten in Majorcan and Spanish homes.
A good Spanish potato tortilla should be about 3-4 cms thick. The amount of potatoes and eggs in the following recipe will give you that depth. You will need a frying pan with an inner base of 22-24 cms in diameter and a depth of 5-6 cms.
Don’t use a Teflon pan because any kind of tortillas made in them never taste right. Buy one of the cheap Spanish iron frying pans you’ll find in supermarkets with a hardware section, or on the fifth floor of El Corte Inglés in the Avenidas. But don’t use them for tortillas until they have been well seasoned.
You will also need a slightly concave plate that sits neatly atop the frying pan. This allows you to turn the tortilla with relative ease. You can buy special plates called ‘gira tortillas’ (or ‘tomba truites’ in Catalán) with a little knob that gives you a good grip.
What you will need to make a tortilla
It’s a good idea not to attempt a huge tortilla. If you are cooking for a party or a family get-together, make two medium sized ones. For a good-sized tortilla you will need five or six large eggs (XL size), one kilo of potatoes suitable for frying, one biggish finely chopped onion, and 250 mls of virgen extra olive oil.
If you have decided to slice the potatoes, cut them into rounds as thick as a €2 coin. You can do this by hand with a sharp knife, but it is easier with a mandolin and a good deal less bother with a food processor. If you are dicing, do just that: cut them in dice sizes, not chunks.
Put the sliced or diced potatoes into a colander and rinse under running water to get rid of excess starch. Sliced potatoes produce more starch and need more rinsing. Let the potatoes drain and dry them with a tea towel.
Heat 180 mls of the olive oil in a frying pan big enough to hold the potatoes. If you are using onions, stir-fry them over a moderate heat for five minutes. Then add the potatoes and turn them over several times until they are well coated with the oil.
Add salt to taste, cover the pan with a lid and cook the potatoes over a less then moderate heat for 15-20 minutes, turning them over frequently.
When the potatoes are soft, take the lid off the pan and cook for another five minutes, turning them constantly. This helps to get rid of excess moisture. Season the potatoes if necessary, take them off the heat and leave uncovered while you beat the eggs.
Break the eggs into a bowl big enough to hold the tortilla mixture and beat them well. Add the warm potatoes and mix them well into the beaten eggs.
Heat the rest of the oil over a medium heat in a clean frying pan of the dimensions I have given above. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the tortilla mixture. It will immediately fill the pan and start to cook.
Give the mixture a few vigorous stirs with a wooden fork and then keep shaking pan gently while the bottom cooks. It helps to move the edges of the frying pan over the flame, so that they are getting most of the available heat. If you cook the edges, the centre will look after itself.
After about five minutes, when the edges have set and the tortilla moves around when the pan is gently rotated, put a plate over the pan, hold it firmly in place and quickly lift up the pan and turn the tortilla. This stage is more easily achieved if you have one of the special ‘gira tortillas’ mentioned above.
Put the pan back on the heat, and carefully slide in the tortilla. Using a spatula, immediately go round the perimeter of the tortilla, tucking in the edges. This gives a nice rounded edge, without which the tortilla looks flat and fallen.
Turn the tortilla again after five minutes and continue turning it every minute or so until it has a rich golden colour on both sides. The tortilla should cook for about a total of eight minutes on each side. If necessary, cook it for a little longer in order to get a golden finish.
But at this stage you must use your eyes and your head. You don’t want to cook the tortilla for too long or it will dry out. If the tortilla feels firm to the touch, it’s better to take it as ready than to go for a golden finish and over cook it. The side of the tortilla that first hits the frying pan always looks better, so you will serve that side up.
A couple of Majorcan friends, housewives of the old school, mix in two smallish peeled and finely chopped ‘tomates de ramellet’ about 10 minutes before the potatoes are ready. This gives a nice touch of succulence. A finely minced clove of garlic mixed into the potatoes about 10 minutes before they are cooked, gives a garlicky finish that’s worth trying.
This recipe produces the traditional sturdy potato tortilla that is ideal for taking on picnics, going to the beach, taking on a train journey (if you still do train journeys) or for a light summer lunch with a mixed salad done with a vinaigrette using lemon or lime juice.
If you want to do a runny version, follow the recipe to the point where the cooked potatoes are added to the beaten eggs and then make individual tortillas, which you cook until they are as runny as you like them. Undercooked potato tortillas are eaten immediately. They are not suitable for picnics or train journeys. Not even from Palma to Bunyola.
You’ll take about 50 minutes from start to finish to make a Spanish potato tortilla. If you’re making a good plain French omelette, on the other hand, the beaten eggs will be in the frying pan for no more than 50 seconds.
Apprentice hotel cooks in the bad old days had to roll up their sleeves and do the omelette on the small back burner with the big front burner turned up full blast.
The only way to avoid burning their forearms was to turn out the omelette at top speed — 50 seconds at the most. Sometimes there’s nothing like a little cruelty to ram home the message. Ask any RSM and he’ll confirm that.
Cast-iron frying pans that retain the heat are excellent for doing French omelettes but those with the know-how also get splendid results with the thin cheap iron pans on sale here. The right size is fundamental.
Making a well-made omelette
For a three-egg omelette the inside base should not be less than 15 cms and not more than 17. That will give an egg mixture of about 1 cm deep, just what is needed for turning out an omelette with a characteristic layered structure.
Never use frying pans made of stainless steel or aluminium. The frying pan should be on a high heat until the base is very hot. Teflon and other non-stick frying pans should never be heated in that way, so avoid them when attempting to do a perfect omelette.
The eggs should be mixed only enough to blend the yolks and the whites. I find that stirring gives better results than beating. Never mix the eggs until you are ready to add them to the frying pan and any salt should be sprinkled in at the last moment.
Put a good heaped tablespoon of unsalted butter into the very hot frying pan on a high heat, swirl it round the sides and the base and tip in the freshly mixed eggs. The 50-seconds countdown starts now.
As soon as the egg mixture hits the bottom of the hot pan it starts to coagulate and a skin is formed on the underside. With a spatula, and starting at the edge nearest you, push the egg mixture towards the centre.
Keep tilting the pan so that the uncooked egg on the surface runs down to occupy the space you have made for it. This new inflow of egg mixture will form a skin that should also be pushed towards the centre.
As this process is repeated you get the series of layers that are the hallmark of a well-made omelette. When the surface is as runny as you like it, fold the omelette over on itself and serve immediately.
If the heat was high enough you should have made the omelette in not more than 50 seconds. If you didn’t, then you must practise until you get under that mark.
There’s a reason for doing it at a sprint. If the protein in the eggs cooks for too long, the eggs will go past the coagulation stage and will become dry and leathery. And that’s the last thing you want in a plain omelette.