Not too long after completing my year-long quest to make traditional Tortilla Española, I adopted an increasingly vegan diet. Just months after I learned to make Tortilla, I became vegetarian. At first, it was just an experiment to see if I could do it. I could, and it changed a lot about my relationship to food. Over time I continued to winnow out animal based ingredients from the foods I ate. I've never quite gotten all the way to veganism, but it's a big enough influence that I don't keep any non-vegan groceries in the house, for instance.
The long slow march towards a more vegan diet has meant evaluating the foods and dishes I used to eat and either coming up with vegan versions of those that were non-vegan, or abandoning them altogether. One of the hardest dishes for me to give up was Tortilla. Spanish Tortilla was such an emotional food for me to eat, connecting me to my time living in Spain and my triumph of perseverance in learning how to make it in the first place. Since Tortilla is such a pure and simple dish requiring simple flavors and few ingredients, egg among the most component of them, I never entertained the idea of fabricating a vegan version. I thought any such attempt would deviate so dramatically from something that is already a perfect form that it would defeat the purpose. It fit into the mental category of "What's the point?"
So I abandoned it. I stopped buying and eating eggs, and I stopped making and eating Tortilla.Fast-forward three years, one fateful day while wandering the aisles of my local cooperative grocery a bag of Polenta Corn Grits caught my eye. On a whim, I bought it and decided I'd try making polenta for the first time in my life. Not only this, but it would be the first time I'd ever even knowingly eaten polenta in my life.
At the time, I was headlong engrossed in a month-long challenge to run every day that saw me run 255.5 miles in August 2012. Amidst the physical exhaustion of this feat, I was constantly hungry and constantly famished in an effort to consume the calories my body was demanding. I suspect that this was a big reason why I bought something I'd never made before and gave it a go. It looked good to me.
So, I quickly found a simple recipe for Savory Polenta (modifying it slightly to make it vegan) and managed to make a successful batch on the first try (not without burning my hand quite badly in the process though!). I found polenta to be simple, humble, and quite yummy.
I continued to make more batches of polenta until one day while eating it I was struck by an undeniable memory of none other than Spanish Tortilla. You see, something about that particular bite of polenta reminded me exactly of the flavors and textures of the proper Tortilla I used to make. As soon as I realized this, my mind was spinning, excitedly pondering the mythical vegan Tortilla that was never to be.A week later, I gave it a try and low and behold, was satisfied enough with the polenta based approximation of Tortilla Española that I started sharing my discovery with others.
Vegan Tortilla Española*** Large portions of this recipe are copied verbatim from my original Tortilla Española Recipe
- olive oil
- 2 medium to large finely chopped red onions
- 4 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1 quart vegetable broth
- 1 quart water
- 2 cups coarse ground cornmeal/grits/polenta
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Add the vegetable broth and water, cover, and bring to a boil. Once boiling, slowly whisk in the coarse cornmeal/grits/polenta. When the mixture returns to a rolling boil, cover, and transfer to the preheated oven.
Cook in the oven for 5 minutes and then remove to mix and whisk the polenta to ensure it doesn't clump. Take extra care here to wear full hot pad mittens and keep them on while mixing as it's very easy to forget that the entire saucepan is hot and burn yourself grabbing the handle of the saucepan (this is extra dangerous because when your hand gets burned grabbing such a handle the muscles contract causing you to grab the handle more tightly, thus resulting in a more severe burn). Put the polenta back in the oven and cook for another 5 minutes before removing to mix again. Repeat this process 2-3 times more now at 10 minute intervals until the polenta has thickened to the point where it looks like it will congeal nicely when cooled (in my experience, this only takes 30 - 35 minutes total oven cook time).
Remove the polenta and mix in the remaining butter, salt, and pepper. At this point, you would ordinarily pour the polenta into a pan for cooling. However, since we're making a Vegan Tortilla, you will have been preparing the potatoes in concert with cooking the polenta and will be prepared to immediately incorporate the two when you take the polenta out of the oven.
- potatoes (I use Russet)
- red/Spanish onions (2 medium or 1 large)
- baked but not set polenta
- olive oil
Before you start cooking the polenta, peel and cut enough Russets to fill the skillet 2" deep. I usually use 3 - 4 largish baking type Russets or a handful and a half of smaller Russets. The cut you're looking for is one in which you end up with 1/4" - 1/3" thick pie slice shaped pieces of potato. For a baking sized Russet, I cut it in half long-ways, Then cut two 45 degree angled slices long-ways creating 3 pie piece slices the length of the long-ways potato (for the really big potatoes, I'd make three slices splitting it into fourths, instead of thirds). I then slice them perpendicularly into 1/3" thick pieces. (kinda hard to describe the slicing pattern in text; forgive me)
Dice the onions. The onions aren't essential. However, they do add an additional aroma to the Tortilla and a different flavor profile when biting into them directly.
Once you've got the polenta baking in the oven, place the potatoes and onions in the skillet and add quite a bit of olive oil. You're looking to cover the bottom of the skillet in oil about a 1/2" or more deep. It's the sweet-spot between deep frying and pan frying that you're looking for. Obviously, you may want to use your cheapest olive oil, or use a cheap non-olive oil (it shouldn't make too much difference).
Turn the skillet on medium-high - high. You're looking to cook the potatoes until they just become soft enough to easily put a fork through. They won't cook much in the rest of the process, so make sure they're done enough to be palatable to eat. Cook them too much and they will tend to break up and sort of disintegrate into the polenta, which will create problems getting the Tortilla cooked through and won't taste as good. While you're cooking the potatoes, you want the temperature to be hot enough to cook them, but not hot enough to turn the potatoes crispy or to smoke the oil. You want to mix them frequently while cooking because you are not looking for any browning to occur (a little is okay). While cooking them, add a bit of salt, enough to season the potatoes a bit (This helps the flavor profile of the end product. Without any seasoning, the potatoes can be too bland of a contrast and provide a distraction from the overall flavor).
A few moments before they're at perfect cookedness, grab some sort of lid that will allow you to drain out all the oil (or a strainer of some sort) and a bowl-ish type receptacle to catch the drained oil (could drain into sink if not saving oil). Drain off all the oil. Pour the potatoes into a large bowl. Put the skillet back on the stove (no-heat). The potatoes will continue to cook until you get to the next step, so this is why I mention doing this a few moments before they're perfect. Depending on how quickly you transfer them to a bowl and when your polenta is done baking, the potatoes could end up overcooked if you're not careful.