Putting a vegetable bed to rest for the winter can be a meditative task, calming in the repetition it demands, satisfying in the sense of near completion involved: as energy moves through me to soil by means of a hoe – a simple, vital thing, like all good tools are. The process that transpires, the work itself, takes and gives energy. What’s living within the cow manure (it has gone through five stages/weeks of decomposition and is mixed with other organic bio-mass along the way) joins with the dirt to make something new. Sometimes I stop and am amazed that I am a part of and witness to it all. I’m in a good spot.
But yesterday, in the midst of contemplation and work, the whole thing left me soaked to the bone. I think it has been raining for 47 hours straight. I should probably stop counting things like this. I’ve changed full sets of bottom inhabiting clothes – jeans, underwear, socks – twice already, and the work day is only half over. Wet hangs over every last surface in my normally cozy woodshed-turned-cabin (today, Jasper handed me rain pants: thanks!).
In all of this, little potato gifts appear – round, oblong, smooth and scabbed, from a planting season one, or more, back. They surface like air bubbles, signs of another life form that are happy to be discovered. I take care not to nip them with the hoe’s edge, collect them in a pile off to the side with intention and desire to cook them (mmm.. actually, just to eat them, but I know the drill). And, so, a classic potato recipe, perfect to make with gleaned potatoes, comes to mind. These hearty roots, able to survive years in the dirt without any fuss, only require one to cut around the nicks, blemished or rotted parts. What remains should be fine to use.
Tortilla de potato is a recipe I’ve got down: one of few that is relatively new to committed memory and so conjures good-gone times, shared meals, old friendships. Making it was perfected in Albany, NY, under the careful instruction of a former neighbor and friend, Jesus, who is originally from Spain. Part of moving around so much means that as we leave places we also leave people, and then other people connected so tenuously (who could’ve known?), then more places.. Somehow the spiraling effects of loss can only be accepted as a natural extension of modern life. Though I can’t fathom how to control this I am grateful for wisdom that is shared and passed; recipes, stories, skills and traditions. This is the stuff connecting generations, lifetimes, and I’m thankful that they die harder than the weaker, human parts of us.
This Spanish tortilla, or omelet, is a traditional picnic food but can also be brought to parties and celebrations. I’ve enjoyed it equally for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But never topped with salsa, hot sauce or the like, as tempting as that sounds. Jesus would say that’s sacrilegio. Just eat it as is.
So: Jesus’ explicit instructions, as I remember them, on making a tortilla de potato.
You will need a few medium sized russet potatoes, one medium sized white onion, a few eggs, good olive oil (very important), salt, pepper.
- Slice as many russet potatoes as you want to use, thin. You can use Yukon Golds or whatever you have but Russets, being starchy and low moisture holding roots, really work best. Slice them in consistently sized and shaped pieces (I tend to make half moons out of them – seems easier).
- Slice 1 medium sized onion, thin. Be consistent in the way you slice it so that the pieces cook at the same speed, temperature, etc.
- In a well-seasoned cast iron pan sauté the onion in a high quality, preferably organic, olive oil with some salt and pepper. Do not use any other kind of cooking oil: the flavor of this dish is best with high quality olive oil.
- Sauté the potato slices in a separate, well-seasoned cast iron pan in a lot of high quality olive oil, salt and pepper. Since the potatoes cook at a different speed than the onions it’s important to keep them separate at this stage (you combine them later). The oil should almost cover the potato slices because potatoes absorb a lot while they cook. Stir now and again, gently enough to avoid breaking the pieces apart. Cook them through: you should be able to stab them with a fork but they shouldn’t crumble, get soggy, or break too much.
- Combine the cooked potatoes and onions in a bowl, let cool mostly but there’s no need to wait until they’re completely cool. Pour off any olive oil: you can reuse this in the next step.
- Prepare the pan that you’ll cook the tortilla in while the potato/onion combo is cooling. To do this decide whether the cast iron pan you have is truly well-seasoned enough for things to not stick and burn to the bottom of it. If it is not, admit it and use a non-stick pan. I know we all hate them but most of us have one anyway.
- Whether using a non-stick coated OR cast iron pan heat it to a low, consistent temperature and add enough olive oil so that it puddles in the bottom of the pan (again, use high quality oil and don’t skimp on quantity).
- Break several fresh eggs into a bowl – as many as you think will cover the potato/onion mixture, and beat them with a fork. Add salt and pepper.
- Add the egg mixture to the potato and onion mixture, stir once or twice with a wooden spoon just to coat and combine everything. Immediately pour this in to the heated, olive-oiled pan.
- Allow the tortilla to cook, covered. Check on it frequently and when the edges are browning and firm consider making your move:
- This is the hard part: using a spatula, ease the omelet off of the bottom and sides of the pan. If it is cooked it will want to be released but, still, always seems to need a hand. Once it is free from the pan slide the omelet in one single motion, if possible, onto a dinner plate.
- Prepare your pan to cook the second side of the tortilla: on a consistent and low/medium heat, olive oil supply replenished.
- FLIP the tortilla, quickly and suavely, so that the uncooked side falls onto the pan. Cook this side until it is also brown, firm and done.
- Move the whole thing onto a dinner plate and allow to cool. Actually, one has choices here: eat this right away, warm, or savor the smell and warmth it brings and enjoy it hours later, even the next day. I’d refrigerate it before going to bed or cover it if you’re just going out for a while.
Cooking this fills any kitchen with a sweet thickness, a lingering joy that is worth every moment of time it takes to make. Although there are a lot of steps to it there are only SIX ingredients, all of which you probably have at home, can source locally (predominately) most times of year in any growing zone, and once you’ve made it twice it’s just there: appears when you’re in need and doesn’t disappoint. As a dish it is lasting, simple, dense and decadent.. can even taste better the second day it’s enjoyed. Jesus A.G. – thanks for showing us this recipe, ages ago, it seems. And thanks, too, for years of friendship.
For an engaging, fictional read/contemporary commentary on industrial potato farming in the Midwest check out “The Potato Gleaners” in Sweet Land: New and Selected Stories, by Will Weaver
For a more bookish version of this recipe, and great food blog in general, see Smitten Kitchen