Vegan Tortilla Española Recipe

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

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

Polenta Ingredients
  • 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
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees fahrenheit.

In a 3 or 4 quart saucepan, saute the onion with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt until the onions become a bit browned and transparent. Lower the heat and add the garlic. Saute until the garlic becomes golden brown, but take care not to burn or overcook the garlic.

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.

Tortilla Ingredients

  • potatoes (I use Russet)
  • red/Spanish onions (2 medium or 1 large)
  • baked but not set polenta
  • salt
  • olive oil
I use a 10" cast iron skillet to make this. I adjust the measurements to fit the implement.

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.

Pour 3/4 of your fresh out-of-the-oven polenta over the potatoes. Gently fold the polenta and potatoes together. Add more polenta until it's clear that the potatoes and polenta have become one semi-liquid body. The amounts here may take a couple attempts to get balanced, but basically you're trying to ensure that all the potatoes are enfolded into the polenta but that you don't have excess polenta that will make the ratio uneven. Using the same skillet and amount of polenta the the above recipe yields, you should have 1 to 1 1/2 cups of polenta in excess that does not need to be mixed in (this can be poured into a small pan or storage container to be cooled and eaten as ordinary savory polenta).

Once you're satisfied with the mixture, pour it back into the skillet and even it out with a spatula. Place the skillet in the refrigerator and allow it to set for 2 - 4 hours. At some point shortly into the cooling process you should cover the skillet with a lid or some sort of plastic wrap so that the top does not dry and harden excessively.

Once cooled, you can remove the Tortilla from the skillet and place it on a large plate. I find the best way to do this is to run a turner/spatula around the edges of the cooled Tortilla and then place a large plate on top of the skillet and flip the skillet over, dropping the Tortilla onto the plate. This is one of the parts that deviates a bit from a traditional Tortilla. Instead of frying the whole thing, I find it's best to just slice the cooled Tortilla as you want to eat it, and then fry it like you would a piece of ordinary savory polenta just before eating. You certainly can fry the whole thing at once, for instance if you were serving it at a dinner party, but I've found it much more manageable to do so on a slice-by-slice basis with this vegan version.

To fry the individual slices of vegan Tortilla, you're really just looking to heat it up and give the outer surface a bit of a crisp texture and fried taste. I usually just lightly oil the skillet and then fry each side of the slice for 2-3 minutes on medium to medium-high heat. You'll have to modify the time and temperature to your stovetop to ensure it get's the crispness you're looking for but does not burn. Sometimes I'll place a lid over the slices while I'm frying them to ensure that they get fully heated all the way through, especially if they are particularly thick.

That's pretty much all there is to it. It's not a real traditional Tortilla Española, but it's close enough that I enjoy making it every once in a while. 

Kevin's Bookmarks