Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Omelet, frittata, tortilla

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 Omelet, frittata, tortilla
Three Latin cuisines offer three similar-only-different approaches to the simple egg. I like them all.
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Omelet, frittata, tortilla

I love eggs and will eat them just about any way you can come up with to prepare them, with the possible exception of a glass full of raw henfruit or perhaps the Filipino balut, an almost fully-formed duckling still in its shell.

But make mine scrambled, poached, fried up or over easy, soft-boiled or hard-boiled; devil 'em or bake 'em, I don't much care. And if you add in a little dairy - butter, cheese and cream are the egg's natural companions in my book - and I'm there, be eagerly waiting with knife and fork.

I've always found it intriguing that just about every Latin culture has its own variation on a classic dish that turns the humble egg into a main course, equally well-suited for brunch, lunch or even a light dinner. In France it's the omelet; Italy has the frittata, and in Spain it's the hearty tortilla, not to be confused with the familiar Mexican flatbread.

Looking back over the FoodLetter archives, I see that I've preached the gospel of all three variations: Spanish tortilla (June 24, 2004); Mastering the omelet (Feb. 6, 2003), and Oven-baked frittata (March 1, 2002).

What's the difference? A casual observer might simply call them all "omelet" and be done with it. After all, all three dishes involve eggs heated in a shallow pan until they come together into a steaming, creamy and custardy mix, and usually filled, topped or stuffed with compatible ingredients that generally include onions and garlic, usually cheese, and on to peppers, potatoes or just about anything you've got in the pantry. Meat, poultry or seafood often show up at the party, and there's nothing wrong with that, although if you're in a vegetarian mood, a frittata, tortilla or omelet loaded with veggies can make a mighty fine meatless meal.

All three dishes offer variations of technique and style, but I would distinguish among them this way: A French omelet is light and very fast. The traditional methond involves putting the eggs into a very hot pan, stirring and cooking quickly until it forms a light and relatively fluffy round. Put down your filling on one side, flip the omelet on a plate so it folds over the ingredients, and you're ready to eat.

Both the Italian frittata and the Spanish tortilla use similar ingredients and procedure. They're usually much thicker than an omelet, and cook slowly and gently on the stovetop with the ingredients mixed in, taking 15 or 20 minutes to finish, in contrast with the quick-cooking omelet that needs only a minute or two.

In my experience, although individual cooks vary in technique, the tortilla is usually cooked entirely on the stovetop, either flipped over toward the end of cooking to brown the top side, or left alone until it's cooked through. A frittata may be cooked in the same way, but is often popped into a hot ovenor under a broiler to finish the top.

I probably make eight or 10 omelets for every frittata or tortilla that I fashion, partly because I love their light, fresh style and partly, frankly, because they're fast. But there's a lot to love about the Italian and Spanish options, especially when you're having it as your main dinner dish.

A classic Spanish tortilla almost always includes thin-sliced potatoes, which add a delightful flavor and textural element that goes very well with the custardy egg. It takes time, though, and both the blessing and the curse of the traditional method is that you start by cooking the potatoes in a scary amount of olive oil.

The other night, in the mood for a tortilla but not for the calories, it occurred to me to use the traditional tortilla ingredients but to make it as a frittata, parboiling the potatoes rather than frying them. I did use a bit of olive oil for a quick saute to keep the flavor in the dish, but was able to cut the amount way back. Here's how mine went. If you try it, I hope you'll check in to our ">FoodLovers Discussion Group forum to let us know how it worked for you.


(Serves two)

2 to 4 small boiling potatoes (new potatoes)
1/2 medium sweet onion, enough to make 1/2 cup (120g)
2 cloves garlic
4 ounces (120g) cooked ham
4 large fresh eggs
Black pepper
Hot sauce
2 tablespoons (30ml) olive oil


1. Wash the potatoes and peel them (or not, depending on your taste), cut them in half and cut each half into thin, half-moon-shaped slices. Keep them in a bowl of warm water so they won't turn brown.

2. Parboil the potatoes, giving them a couple of minutes in a saucepan full of boiling, salted water. If you sliced them thin, it should take only a minute or two. Drain them in a colander and set aside.

3. Peel and chop the onion; peel the garlic and mince it fine. Cut the ham into small dice.

4. Break the eggs into a bowl. (I think it's well worth the effort and cost to locate locally produced free-range eggs; extra credit if the vendor marks the carton with the date the eggs were laid.) Season the eggs to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and add a tiny drop of hot sauce of your choice.

5. Heat the olive oil in a saute pan, omelet pan or skillet over medium-high heat. Saute the chopped onions and garlic until they're translucent and starting to brown. Then put in the eggs, stir once or twice, and add the potatoes and ham. Stir gently to make sure the ingredients are well mixed, then reduce heat to low.

6. Cook, occasionally shaking the pan gently and slipping a fork or spatula beneath the egg mixture to ensure that it doesn't stick. In about 15 minutes, you'll see that the dish is becoming custardlike. At this point you can let it go for another five minutes to cook through from the bottom; or, if you prefer, carefully cover the pan with a plate and, holding it tightly, flip it over; then slide the eggs back into the pan with the side that had been the top facing down, and cook for a few moments more. Cut into wedges (a pizza cutter works nicely for this) and serve.

WINE MATCH: Egg dishes usually make me think of a crisp, dry white wine, or if there's plenty of dairy (butter, cheese, cream) in the dish, a fuller-bodied Chardonnay or similar rich white. In this instance, though, I thought the ham and browned onions would bring it up to meet a fruity red, and a Southern Rhone favorite, Domaine Oratoire St. Martin 2005 Côtes du Rhône, nicely filled the bill.

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