Cheap Eats:
Tortilla Española

Just as there is more to food than filling a plate, there is more to food literature than recipes. The following are some favorite "foodie" books from my collection.

On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee is probably the most perfect book ever written for a Mensan cook. From Plato’s views on cooking to electron micrographs of cheese to a description of how eggs form in a chicken’s body to the history of beer and chocolate, this book offers an intoxicating wealth of food information, trivia, and science. Did you know that the cell walls of mushrooms aren’t made up of cellulose, like other plants, but rather of chitin, the carbohydrate-amine complex that makes up the outer skeletons of insects? Or that raw lima beans contain sugar-cyanide complexes that can shut down your respiratory system? Or that a strawberry is a "false" fruit? If you want to know which vegetables were available at the court of Richard II, why fish is white, or the chemical composition of a saturated fat, then this is the book for you. Practical information, like how to tell stale eggs from fresh, is liberally sprinkled amid the science and anecdotes. Even if you don’t cook and only rarely eat, this is a fascinating book.

In this century, and in this country, the individual acknowledged as the premier food writer is M.F.K. Fisher. W.H. Auden said of Fisher, "I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose." The Art of Eating combines five of her most memorable books, including Consider the Oyster and How to Cook a Wolf. With verve and wit, she shares memories of boarding school cooks and World War II frugality, anecdotes on travel and dining, and observations about mankind as relates to food. As Fisher notes, "There is a communion of more than bodies when bread is broken and wine is drunk. And that is my answer when people ask me, Why do you write about hunger, and not wars or love?"

Jacque Pépin, in addition to being a great chef, is a wonderful teacher. I picked up his book La Technique about 20 years ago, and still find it a source of inspiration. There are a few recipes, but the book is primarily an illustrated guide to cooking techniques, from holding a knife properly to preparing chicken for grilling to folding napkins. If all you want to know is the basics, you can probably find the book at the library, since not everyone wants to know how to make roses out of tomatoes or prepare faisan en croûte. But if you delight in knowing how to do it, and doing it well, this is a reference worth owning.

Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony shows us the interweaving of food and life in the Middle Ages, a time when food was a prime motive, a sign of character, a definer of social class. From the horrors of polluted waters and larcenous food vendors to the commonalties of planting and harvest to the joys of the king’s table, this volume sheds light on a side of the Middle Ages not often treated in standard histories. And since Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales has several hundred food references, this book might interest a Lit major, too. Even more fun: 100 recipes from medieval manuscripts have been translated for modern kitchen, so you can try Farsed Chycken, Saumon Rosted, or Fruyte Frittours.

Joy of Cooking is the all-purpose classic that everyone should probably own. I use it often for details on how to treat specific fruits or vegetables, what types of utensils work best, times and temperatures for roasting, and just about any other practical information I might ever need. There are also over 4,500 recipes. It is a wonderfully useful reference work.

Enough about books — let’s eat. This recipe is Spanish, and can be served as an appetizer (tapa) or main course. For all its simplicity of ingredients, it is remarkably delicious. A true Tortilla Española always includes potatoes. I recommend trying it "straight" first, so you know how good it is plain, then go ahead and improvise. Roasted red pepper, ham strips, sautéed asparagus — almost anything could be added to the basic recipe. But the original is so tasty, you may never want to change it. Be sure to use a skillet, which has sloping sides, not a frying pan, which has straight sides. Nonstick pans make this recipe a lot easier.

Tortilla Española

Olive Oil

2½ pounds baking potatoes

salt and pepper

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

5 large eggs

1 clove garlic, chopped

Peel potatoes and slice ⅛ inch thick. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 13"x9" roasting pan with 2-3 tsp. oil. Arrange a layer of potatoes in the pan, sprinkle lightly with salt and scatter with some of the onion. Drizzle with about 1 Tbs. of oil. Continue to make layers with potato and onion, salt and oil, using about 3 Tbs. of olive oil in all. Roast for 45 minutes, loosening and turning potatoes occasionally with a spatula.

In a large bowl, beat eggs with a fork until a uniformly lemony color. Season with salt and black pepper. Add the roasted potatoes and onion, separating them as much as possible, then pressing them down in the bowl so that they are covered with egg. Let sit about 10 minutes.

Heat 1 Tbs. olive oil and chopped garlic in a 9- or 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Quickly add the egg-potato mixture and flatten with the spatula. Shake the skillet occasionally to prevent sticking (if you’re not using a nonstick pan, shake constantly). When the underside begins to brown, slide the omelet onto a dinner plate. Place another plate on top of the omelet and flip it over. Again, heat 1 Tbs. oil in the skillet. Remove the top plate from the omelet and slide it back into the skillet, pressing it down and smoothing any ragged edges. Continue to shake the skillet. Brown nicely on the second side, then turn again, and cook until egg is set. Slide onto a plate for serving. Cut into wedges or small squares. Can be served hot or at room temperature.

As a tapa, serves 8 to 10; as a main course, serves 4.

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