You’d think, after seven years of Spanish, I would’ve known how to say “to go.” As in, we want to take our food to go. We were two gringas, hoping to get tortillas to take to the park on La Gran Vía, one of Madrid’s busiest avenues. I tried so many combinations of words with the two men working at the nondescript, greasy diner: para ir, para comer lejos de aquí, quiero tomar afuera de este restaurante. With that last attempt, the waiter began leading us to one of the few tables just outside the front door. I shook my head, defeated. My temporary travel companion, an Australian named Kate, knew zero words of Spanish. Her solution was to shout at them in English, and make very dramatic hand gestures toward the door — even doing the international “walk” movement with her pointer and middle fingers. This continued for an eternity, until an older man popped his head out from behind the stainless steel kitchen counter.
“SI!” Kate and I cried out, relieved.
“Para llevar,” our savior informed us of the correct expression to use – literally, to carry. Humiliated, I suppressed the impulse to dash out of the place, tortilla-less.
In Spain, ordering a tortilla is akin to ordering a frittata or omelette — it’s a dish made by frying eggs and most frequently, potatoes, together in skillet until the eggs set. It’s a basic but gratifying meal, especially after a full day traipsing around Madrid in the scorching mid-August heat. By the time we got our styrofoam carry-out boxes and grabbed a bottle of the nearest bodega’s cheapest bottle of wine, it was almost dusk and the air had cooled just enough to be comfortable for dining al fresco. The small park, which was just a block or two from our hostel, was teeming with couples, rowdy teenagers and quarrelsome old men. Kate and I managed to seize a vacant bench, and quickly tore into our hard-earned tortillas. We had forgotten to ask for any eating utensils, of course (those diner employees really must have gotten a kick out of us.) So, there we were, two clueless strangers drinking red wine out of Solo cups and eating omelettes with our hands in a metropolitan public park. How do you say “hot mess” in Spanish?
The tortilla was nothing special — oily, rubbery and pretty much cold by the time we got to the park — but it remains one of the most memorable meals of my time in Spain. I was about to be a senior in college, and prior to my trip, I had all the lofty ambitions of a hopeful yet hesitant undergrad weighing on my mind. For ten days in Spain, I was liberated from all of it. My only objective was to see the country, and get home in one piece. Yes, I could barely order a carry-out omelette, but I reveled in the experience of having no one (and no smart phone) to turn to for help. It was freeing to fail, even at a task so minor, and have no one judging me but strangers.
A few days ago I came across a recipe for a tortilla española in Spain: A Culinary Road Trip. Apparently Mario Batali, Mark Bittman, Gwyneth Paltrow and a Spanish actress named Claudia Bassols planned a trip around the country together and made a television show out of it. The book is a hodge-podge of restaurant reviews, chef interviews, travel-guide type info, and celebrity anecdotes, but it does include some rustic, old-world recipes. This tortilla, for instance, is simple but hearty and comforting. I served it for dinner, along with a salad, and it was plenty for a meal for two. The thing did not slip out of the pan as easily as I would have liked, which is why I haven’t included any pictures of the final product. Like Kate and I and our greasy tortillas in the park, it was a mess to behold. It was flavorful and satisfying though — I especially loved the crispy browned bits of potato I had to scrape from the pan.
From Spain: A Culinary Road Trip
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/4 pounds waxy potatoes, thinly sliced (Batali suggests peeling them, but I didn’t)
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
8 extra-large eggs
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Heat the oil in a large cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until very hot but not smoking. Add the potatoes and onion, season with salt and pepper, reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally. Adjust the heat if necessary so that the vegetables do not brown. Cook until the potatoes are tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, 15 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, beat the eggs with some small and pepper in a large bowl. Add the potatoes to the eggs in the bowl, and then pour everything back into the skillet. Make sure the potatoes are spread out evenly in the pan. Cook for about 1 minute, just to set the bottom of the egg mixture. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 20 minutes, or until almost set throughout.
Batali will have you flip the tortilla over in the pan, or he says, you can invert the thing onto a plate, and then slide it back into the pan, bottom side up. I knew I’d be lucky to get away with one successful flip, let alone two, so I didn’t risk it. Since my pan was oven-proof, I just stuck the whole thing under the broiler on low for 4-5 minutes until the top was good and brown. Flip out onto a clean plate (or sheet of wax/parchment paper) and let rest for a few minutes. Sprinkle with a bit more salt and pepper to taste for serving.