Spanish Tortilla Sandwich
by Lucy Madison
By Lucy Madison. Illustration by Tram Nguyen
It’s been a long time since I was any kind of student, but I still can’t let go of the thrill of that age-old autumnal back-to-school feeling. I will forever associate the fall with a trip to J.C. Penney’s for a nice new turtleneck set and a lavish first-day-of-school brown bag lunch, complete with homemade chocolate chip cookies baked fresh that morning. I am not really a lunch person, generally, but there is little I love more than the occasional decadent midday meal.
No one does a decadent midday meal better than (sweeping generalization alert:) the Spanish. I went to Spain for the first time a couple summers ago, and it took me awhile to wrap my head around the sight of so many people hanging out at cafes in the middle of the day, sharing a bottle of wine, and eating an enormous, carb-soaked meal. Despite my initial alarm, I adjusted quite nicely to this custom; after only a few days, I was a champion long luncher-and-subsequent-afternoon napper.
I ate a lot of great things during this trip, but the thing that stuck with me the most was also probably the least assuming. Hours after arriving in Barcelona, fresh from a flight, starving but not wanting to ruin my appetite for a more complete meal later on, I happened upon a little sandwich shop, a rustic little window-front kiosk with a smattering of sandwiches sitting on the windowsill. The whole setup seemed almost incidental. No one was at the counter, or anywhere in sight, and there was no menu. Once I finally flagged someone down, I just grabbed the first sandwich I saw without asking any questions because although I speak Spanish well enough I often feel pretty self-conscious doing it, unless I am drunk, which at this moment I was not.
It turns out I had grabbed a Spanish tortilla bocadillo (sandwich), which was a combination I had never heard of before, and which frankly I was worried might be a little bit on the starchy side. My boyfriend got a more familiar (to me) sandwich, something with prosciutto, and for a moment I was jealous of his choice. But it turns out the combination of the omelette — eggs, potatoes, olive oil, onion — and a Ciabatta roll spread with olive oil and the tiniest bit of arugula was magical. It was a perfect sandwich, the most luxurious possible egg sandwich, the kind of egg sandwich you should eat alongside a glass of wine at 11 a.m. I thought of it longingly for a very long time afterward, and I also felt occasional pangs of guilt that my boyfriend had missed out on the experience.
Finally, I sucked it up and decided to recreate it.
I was pretty pleased with what I came up with. If you are efficient and particularly enterprising, feel free to whip this sandwich up for your precocious child’s lunchbox. If you are a “freelance journalist” and spend much of your time “brainstorming,” feel free to take all morning making the sandwich before then spending the rest of the day eating it in tiny, aspirational portions while otherwise taking baths and staving off the daily panic attacks that come with your chosen career.
You will need:
An 8” nonstick pan
A slightly concave pan top that is a bit bigger than your nonstick pan, or a plate
½ a large onion (or a little less, depending on how much you like onions)
4 small (2” longish) waxy potatoes
1 cup olive oil (or just enough to cover the onions and potatoes when simmering)
2 sandwich-sized Ciabatta rolls
A small handful (less than a cup) of arugula
Yields 2 sandwiches.
Start by peeling and thinly slicing the potatoes and onions, to a thickness of approximately 1/8th inch. Heat the olive oil in your nonstick pan until it is hot but not smoking. You want the olive oil to just cover the onions and potatoes, but be careful not to spill any olive oil into the flame. That would yield some unpleasant results, and you’re dealing with a pretty small pan. Add the onions and potatoes and a hearty pinch of sea salt. Turn the heat to low and let the mixture simmer, covered, for 15-20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender but not brown, stirring occasionally. I keep the heat so low that the oil does not simmer. You’re basically letting the veggies stew. Some people do fry the vegetable combo (there are a zillion variations on this recipe), but I prefer the potatoes to be soft and pliant.
Drain the potato and onion mixture, but capture the oil and save it for later. Pat the potatoes and oil dry with a paper towel to eliminate some of the oil.
Beat the eggs in a bowl. Add a pinch of salt. Mix in the potatoes and onions.
Heat a teaspoon of your newly-oniony olive oil on the stove, on high, until hot but not smoking. Add the egg mixture and then turn the heat down to medium low. Cook the eggs for 4-5 minutes, until just solid enough to flip. This is where having a relatively small and light pan comes in handy. A seasoned cast iron skillet, though otherwise great for making eggs, may be a little heavy for purposes of flipping. It’s also easier to slide the tortilla back into the pan if it’s on the smaller side.
Once the eggs are ready to flip, hold your lid or plate in your other hand. You are going to use this as an intermediary surface; you will flip your tortilla onto the lid, face-down, so that the uncooked side touches the lid. Then, after adding a tiny bit more olive oil to the hot pan (unless you have a lot of excess olive oil in the egg mixture, in which case don’t worry about it), slide the tortilla back onto the pan, again face-down, so that the undercooked side is exposed to it. Let it cook for a few more minutes, until the eggs are just solid on the inside. It can be tricky to tell at first glance whether the tortilla is done, so you may want to cut into it to make sure it’s cooked through. Remove from heat and let it cool a bit.
Cut your Ciabatta in half. Spread a little of your olive oil onto the bread, and then add a few leaves of arugula. I like to sprinkle a little more sea salt on that bread, because I love sea salt, but I leave that to your judgment. Cut off a hefty slice of your tortilla and slap it on the roll to complete the dish. You can serve this as a hot sandwich, although it’s also pretty good (possibly better IMHO?) when the tortilla has cooled to room temperature, which also makes it a little more manageable to actually eat.