When I was 19 and naively not realizing how good I had it living in Madrid for a semester, I basically lived off tortilla española—that egg and potato dish too potato-filled and thick to be compared to an omelette, but too unlike anything else we eat here to be compared to much else.
You could find tortilla just about anywhere there and eat it just about any time of day. I remember finding it funny that for lunch they would often put a slice of it between two pieces of baguette with a layer of mayo and call it a sandwich. Though after I tried it, it lost all sense of novelty and became strictly delicious.
It’s been on my to-make list for years, and I finally found a version that looked very promising in David Tanis’s A Platter of Figs, however, this is the same book from whence came the cold jellied chicken terrine, so all bets were off.
Since the list of ingredients made it feel so simple—eggs, olive oil, and potatoes—I felt compelled to add the optional salt cod to amp up the difficulty/weird level, but man oh man, if ever there was a dish that needed no more difficulty, it was this one. That said, the salt cod ended up being the easiest and coolest part of this tortilla-making operation, even if it made the kitchen momentarily smell like a wet dog had dragged in a dead fish from the sea.
To soften it, Tanis says to “shred the salt cod with your fingers," rinse it in a colander, and then soak it in cold water for 4 to 6 hours or overnight. Well, my salt cod was, in the approximated words of Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Leon, stiff as a mother-effing board, Larry. Shredding it with my fingers wasn’t an option. What ended up working was rinsing the fish in water, pulling the meat from the skin in long strips; then, with kitchen shears, cutting the meat into smaller pieces before placing it in the cold water to soak.
Some recipes should come with disclaimers, e.g., do not try this at home if it has suddenly become over 100-degrees outside. Or maybe: do not try to flip this at home if your tortilla has become so large as to become defined by its impossibility to flip. Truthfully, so many things went wrong that I couldn’t blame it on just one or two things. There was the fact that I began this recipe after so thoroughly cleaning the apartment that the tops of our ceiling fans were shining. There was the fact that when it came to simmering the potatoes and onions in two cups of olive oil, I didn’t choose a pan large enough and had to split the mixture into two separate pans, and in this process, splattered hot oil on my arms and legs. There was also the fact that the only pan the final mixture of salt cod, potatoes, onions, and eggs would fit in is this brand new Le Creuset braiser I got for my birthday (Thanks, Dad!), and how the heck are you going to flip something in a pan that large, heavy... and beautiful!?
And as funny as it can be when recipes fall apart right in front of your eyes, sometimes I’m just not in the mood for it. So when the dish ended up looking like this:
I was bummed. A main part of the beauty of this dish for me had always been in its consistency, in the way you sliced it like a cake, and—simply put—in the way it looked. Plus, how was I going to put a clean slice of this in a sandwich?
So, first, I mourned the loss of my perfect tortilla. And then I ate what I’d made. With hot sauce and a side of crisp, cold, arugula salad with lemon juice and olive oil dressing. And guess what? Surprise, surprise. It was delicious. There is a really lovely sweetness from all of that olive oil and the two onions; and the potatoes add a layer of comfort while the salt cod seems to do the same, albeit in a very different, this-meal-is-special kind of way. And as I ate, quite happily, I was reminded of the simple fact that everything need not be so perfect. I mean, isn’t that actually what I’m always going on and on about? Isn’t that my thing? That everything doesn’t have to be so pretty, like in the magazines. Ah, how soon our expectations can shift, and how quickly we can forget who we really are.
OK, friends. So, in short, consider yourself warned. And consider yourself eating some homemade tortilla despite it all! (I truly hope I haven’t scared you off.)
p.s. We are proudly filing this post away under the "aesthetic fail" category in our beautiful new, turn-of-the-century filing system that Matt unexpectedly brought home in about 30 heavy pieces.
p.p.s. Don't let all that olive oil go to waste. You can totally re-use it to fry other things up!
Potato and Salt Cod Tortilla via David Tanis's A Platter of Figs
4 large russet potatoes
2 medium onions
2 cups olive oil
8 medium eggs
1 pound dried salt cod, softened (optional) (see below on how to soften)
salt and pepper
Peel the potatoes and slice into 1/8-inch rounds. Slice the onions about the same thickness. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet [Like, a really really large skillet] and gently simmer the potatoes and onions, without letting them brown. When the potatoes and onions are soft, about 10 minutes, carefully drain them in a colander, reserving the olive oil.
Spread out the potatoes and onions on a baking sheet, season with salt and pepper, and cool to room temperature.
Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Add the shredded cod, if using, and the cooled potato-onion mixture. Stir gently to incorporate.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the reserved olive oil in a large cast iron skillet over medium heat. Pour in the egg mixture and cook gently for 5 minutes, tilting the pan now and then to help the eggs set. Put a dinner plate over the top and carefully invert the tortilla onto the plate [Best of luck to you on this maneuver!].
Add a little more oil to the pan, then slip the tortilla back into the pan to cook for 5 minutes on the other side. Flip the tortilla once more [in my dreams!] and cook for a few more minutes. Insert a small knife into the center of the tortilla to check for doneness--the knife should emerge clean. Put the tortilla on a serving platter and cool to room temperature. To serve, cut the tortilla into small wedges or squares.
To Soften Salt Cod
Shred the salt cod with your fingers. [Or, as I've explained above, place the fish under running water to soften it a bit in order to pull it off the skin. I also didn't have luck shredding it with my fingers so used kitchen shears to cut it up.] Rinse the fish well in a colander, then soak the cod in a large bowl of cold water for 4 to 6 hours (or overnight) to desalinate and soften it. [Tanis doesn't mention the refrigerator, but I put my bowl of soaking cod in the refrigerator and kept it there for two days.] Drain the fish and pat dry.