Archive for the 'cooking' Category

The tortilla story

The tortilla española was a great mystery to me for the first few years I lived in Spain. At first I just couldn’t understand all the hubbub about a thick omelette with potatoes. Later, when I grew to love it, it took me a while to learn how to actually make it. Since it’s something you can count on finding in virtually every bar in the country, I never really made the effort. The prospect of deep-frying all those potatoes and the fact that so many people make good ones seemed to make my learning how to do it rather redundant (see photo below: the amazing tortilla con cebolla confitada at Juana La Loca).

I remember watching my Spanish roommates (most of whom had recently started living away from la cocina de mamá) make their first tortillas in my old flat. Once they had a little practice, they debated the virtues of slicing versus cubing the potatoes, using onion or not, and how to get the salt right. Tortilla-making, I learned, is actually something of a science. I made my first tortilla in that kitchen that had seen many an amateur tortilla maker and it was pretty bad. I had grown up in a household where salt was a no-no because of my father’s health and used little (or no?) salt in the omelette. I also hadn’t used enough oil to fry the potatoes and had sliced them too thick to cook well or to lie flat (see lumpy tortilla above).

Ultimately it was my American roommate in my new “grown up” flat who taught me the secrets of making a good tortilla—four years after my arrival in Madrid. She moved in to our completely unfurnished new place with a key utensil: a heavy, deep pan with rounded sides, almost like a wok, with a good quality non-stick surface (see left). Tortilla lesson number one: the pan is very important. Non-stick is great, and if not, you really need to make sure your pan is well-oiled (we lightly oiled the non-stick).

The way you slice the potatoes is also key. She’d cut them in half lengthwise, and then each half again lengthwise, and then slice them as thinly as possible. The size of the slice doesn’t matter much as long as they’re just really thin. If you’re going to fry the potatoes, you need to make sure to use plenty of oil. Cover the potatoes with it. Yeah, it’s a lot (more on this below) but you can do as the Spaniards do and reuse it. My roomie’s rule of thumb was to use a tablespoon of salt, which taught me not to be afraid of it, though now I don’t use quite that much. Another of her tricks was to cover the tortilla with a plate while it was cooking.

The tortilla I now make is a slight variation of my roommate’s, though she also invented the genius of the variation: boil or steam those thinly sliced potatoes. Eliminates the excess-oil conundrum and, at least to our American palate, you don’t lose too much in taste. And leave the skins on for crying out loud! They’re good for you. Spaniards will call me a heretic, but my Spanish friends love this tortilla. Here’s how I do it:

Tortilla de patata a la Katie (with steamed skin-on potatoes and caramelized onions)

1. Take anywhere from 3-5 medium onions and caramelize them. I use this method, with just the oil and salt.

2. While the onions are working their magic, get your potatoes ready. You need 4 or 5 medium-sized potatoes. I just use the ones that come in my veg box, and I’m not sure what kind they are. Cut them as I explained above: first lengthwise, then again (so you have quarters), and then slice their width as thin as you can. Boil or steam the sliced taters until they’re soft enough that they break when you stick a fork into them (15-20 mins).

3. While you’ve got the veg going on the stove, break four eggs into a large bowl. Add anywhere from a teaspoon to a tablespoon of salt, depending on your preference. Grind some black pepper in there, too, if you fancy. Whisk it all together.

4. Pour your caramelized onions and cooked potatoes into the bowl with the eggs. Stir to mix and let sit while you get your pan ready. Put a little oil on the bottom and get it over medium-high heat. When it’s warmed up a bit, dump the raw tortilla into the pan. Use a spatula to get it all together and then rest a plate over the spatula so that the tortilla is covered (and you can later remove the plate with the help of the spatula). The plate should be the size of the pan if possible.

5. Cook on the first side until you can see that the eggs on the bottom have cooked and you can slide the tortilla around in the bottom of the pan (the top half will still be very raw), about five minutes or so—I usually have time to wash some of the dishes I’ve gotten dirty. Remove the spatula so that the plate rests on the raw top of the tortilla, put a potholder over the plate (it will be very hot!) and flip the pan over the plate in a swift, sure motion (this might take a little practice, but it’s really not hard). Put the pan back on the burner, add a little oil if necessary, and then again, in a swift motion, slide the tortilla (raw side down) back into it. There’ll be a little goo left on the plate, but there shouldn’t be lots of chunks.

6. Cover the cooked side now with a clean plate with a (clean) spatula under it. Cook another 5 minutes or so. You can stick a knife in the middle to check how cooked it is. When it slides freely around the pan when shaken, you’re golden. Flip it onto the plate and let sit a few minutes before serving. Or even better, let it get to room temperature. It’s also really excellent after it’s been refrigerated (mmmm, tortilla leftovers).

Note: the last two photos are of the tortilla I made this afternoon and that inspired me to finally blog again. The green stuff is chopped spring onion greens that I had and threw in with the eggs. And yes, I did eat half of it for lunch.

The taste of spring

Thanks, Recapte!

Why the veg box rocks

A while back I wrote about a friend and my quest to get an organic vegetable box here in Madrid. I thought it might be worthwhile to post a follow-up because both my friend and I are so pleased that we decided to do this. All winter we’ve received boxes of very tasty fresh fruit and vegetables from Recapte and it’s really changed the way both of us eat (and, to some extent, live).

For starters, I’d say that the primary component of most of my meals this year has been vegetables, complemented by a good amount of fruit for dessert or snacks. Secondly, while some vegetables are ready to eat, most take a bit of preparation, which means we have to dedicate more time to getting meals ready and investigating ways to use vegetables that we haven’t cooked with before. I do believe that this is time and energy well-spent. One of the best changes is that I’ve greatly reduced the number of trips I make to the supermarket. In fact, I hardly go. I usually go to NaturaSí for basics like oats, yogurt, rice, and pasta, and to my local panadería for loaves of bread. My cousin taps maple trees in upstate New York and makes syrup, which I always bring back from the States and for the past few months I’ve been using honey from a friend of a friend’s bees and sheep’s cheese from a student’s finca. The time I save by not going to the supermarket is probably reinvested in cooking my vegetables. Fifteen euros a week has really never been more valuable.

All of these experiences were reaffirmed as good things by my reading Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma last November and really starting to think about where my meals come from. It’s good to care (peanut scare: case in point). By no means do I feed myself the perfect diet, but I think the changes brought on by the box are a step in the right direction.

I leave you with highlights from the veg box, October-February:

Boniatos (sweet potatoes): easily our favorite product of the fall. Mashed or as oven fries, there’s never been such a vast improvement on the potato.

Granadas (pomegranates): another fall treat, great in salads and out.

Calabaza (squash/pumpkin): I turned a big one we got into many cups of purée and made two pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving and froze the rest. Last week I defrosted it and made pumpkin soup and three loaves of pumpkin bread.

Aguacates (avocados): we’ve been getting the most amazing ones for maybe two months and haven’t tired of them yet.

Chirivías (parsnips): started appearing sometime in January. Love ’em roasted!

Acelgas (Swiss chard): a staple for months now and a green I’ve grown to love, steamed or sautéed.

Giving thanks


My roommates have been asking me to make a Thanksgiving turkey since I arrived in Madrid more than three years ago. But this September some friends made a proposal for the dinner and, mainly since an American friend agreed to brave the Thanksgiving cooking with me, I acquiesced. Needless to say, my roommates were a bit miffed. But they got some leftovers and my practice pumpkin pie.

Spaniards are intrigued by Thanksgiving, probably because it’s at once strangely foreign yet familiar. (If my students are any guide, they appear to get most of their idea of Thanksgiving from films or TV.) But they are also drawn to the holiday because it has a rather universal appeal: eating with those you care about and giving thanks for whatever you feel like, no strings (in the form of religion and/or gifts) attached. Several students threatened to show up at our dinner after I told them everything we were going to cook and the butcher I bought the turkey from was more than happy to be of assistance in our preparation for the big day.

After weeks of planning, inviting, and coordinating, and a solid 12 hours of cooking the day before, Thanksgiving Saturday began with a 9 am trip to the butcher to retrieve the turkey. I watched, eyes bugged out, as he slung the naked 7.5-kilo bird onto his chest for the short trip from fridge to counter, where, at our request, he hacked off the remaining stump of the neck with one swift blow of the cleaver. And he put our dear pava (that’s right, it was a female) in a plastic bag, swiped my debit card, and sent us on our way with wishes for a happy día de acción de gracias.

And about nine hours later, after stuffing our bird and fitting her into the pan, washing and steaming three kilos of Swiss chard, making several kilos of mashed potatoes, improvising gravy, and reheating sweet potatoes, roasted carrots, red cabbage, and broccoli casserole, fourteen people sat around the table and were thankful.


Organic fruit and veg

After a month in the States this summer eating amazing pesticide-free local fruit and vegetables both in upstate New York and in the D.C. area, I decided I’d try to change the way I eat my greens in Madrid. Neither the CSA model, which has spread like wildfire across the United States and Canada, nor local farmers markets really exist in Spain (or Madrid, at least) to the extent that they do on the other side of the pond. Generally the produce you can get in Spain is quite good, and much of it is from somewhere in the country, but it’s not always easy to know where it’s coming from, or how many pesticides have been used to grow it. I do have a good natural foods store in my neighborhood, and there are a number of these throughout the city, but the produce has never looked particularly great.

So this month a friend and I have ventured into the world of weekly organic fruit and vegetable boxes. While these are not exactly CSA, they are an opportunity to buy boxes of seasonal, organic produce from farms. Both places we’ve ordered from have been just under 300 miles from Madrid, which is not incredibly local, but relatively speaking, it’s not bad. The first was Daiquí, a farm in Ourense, Galicia (northwest of Madrid), where we paid 25 euros (including delivery to my flat) for a 10 kilo box that included Swiss chard, apples, green beans, adorable little green peppers, potatoes, a huge zucchini, a beet, and lovely heirloom tomatoes. All of it was really delicious, and very fresh. I’ve just checked the Daiquí website, and it seems that you can no longer request the box, you have to order things by weight, like an online store. Though I’m guessing the seasonal box will make a comeback.

At any rate, we’ve now signed up for four boxes from a farm in Lleida, Cataluña (northeast of Madrid) that has a lot of promise. It’s called Recapte, and you can sign up for a minimum of four boxes and as much as a weekly box for a year. Each box is 30 euros, also including delivery to your house. What I like about Recapte is that every week they post the available fruit and vegetables on their website and you can choose the 10 things that you want in your box (you have a choice of more than double that number). You can also take a week off by notifying them that Monday.

We received the delivery from Recapte today. It was much greater in quantity than last week’s box from Daiquí and included—as requested—apples, peaches, pears, tomatoes, carrots, rainbow chard, cucumbers, lettuce, red peppers, and sweet potatoes. It all looks quite good and I can’t wait to start cooking and eating it.


Tonight I finally made bread—real, wholegrain bread—from nada. It’s late now, but I had to try a little bit right out of the oven (hence the missing end). Oh man, was it good. It was quite the process, but, as people had told me, it’s very relaxing, and, as my roommate’s boyfriend said as he watched me punching the risen dough, it’s a good way to get your anger out. I followed my sister’s preferred recipe from the Tassajara Bread Book, using whole wheat flour, yeast, water, honey, olive oil, salt, and a little wheat germ, rolled oats, and corn meal for good measure. The house smells amazing and tomorrow I’ll be eating homemade toast for breakfast.


It’s Semana Santa here in España (that would be Easter Week for you non-Spanish speakers) and what’s on the menu? Torrijas! Torrijas are French toast, Spanish style. Meaning made with olive oil. That’s right, instead of frying the milk- and egg-soaked bread in butter, you drop it into a pan of hot olive oil.

I helped my boyfriend’s mother make them yesterday morning. She had three bowls: milk, egg, and cinnamon-sugar. She dipped the day-old bread into the milk bowl, then the egg, and then the oil-filled pan. When the bread had turned a lovely golden color, she dunked it into the cinnamon-sugar bowl and covered it with the stuff. I ate the leftovers this morning with bananas and strawberries on the side. ¡Qué rico!

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