Egg, potato, onion

I think it’s fair to say that I am not generally a fan of fusion cuisines, especially when they are perpetrated unthinkingly. Culinary traditions are rich cultural artefacts, developed over hundreds or thousands of years; to interfere in that simply for the sake of dinner seems trivial, insulting. Pasta used as a dumping ground for leftovers, bacon flung irresponsibly into couscous; worst of all, fashionably exotic food terms flung around menus, misapplied until they lose their meaning (a ceviche of shallots, a carpaccio of pretty much anything), seem like cultural vandalism, a colonialist looting of an alluring past. (Yes, I have been told that I take things too seriously).

Having said that, everyone needs a go-to dish, a vehicle for the current contents of your fridge, a base around which to build supper or a lazy lunch when the shops are too far away or too closed and you don’t give a damn about culinary traditions. Brunch is a good occasion for such dishes; the whole affair suggests a cheerful dissolution, and disparate ingredients can be brought together with the unifying influence of toast or egg. I’m a big fan of the hash in this context, and many differences can be resolved with a base of toasted bread, but my favourite catch-all dish is probably a tortilla. A sturdy structure of potato, onion and egg can be adapted to almost any cuisine, sharpened with chilli or spice, warmed with chunks or strands of cheese, enriched with little nuggets of sausage or black pudding or ham, freshened with clean herbs and vegetables. I’m sure the Spanish would be outraged, and when I’m feeling particularly high-minded I try to justify this bastardisation, pointing to the tortilla-equivalents across the world – the markode of Algeria, the Arabic eggeh, the Italian frittata, the Persian kuku – but fundamentally I don’t really care. Tortilla are pretty much universally delicious, the sweet, umami-rich combination of potato, onion and egg hiding any weakness in the rest of the ingredients.

i’m not going to give a recipe for tortilla, as that is not really how something like this is cooked – quantities depend on what else you want to throw in, which in turn depends on mood and resources. Even the basic method is up for debate. I will, however give a few general observations on tortilla-making. I’ve eaten a lot in my time.

ESSENTIALS

onion

potato

egg

For your own sake, the onion and potato should be cut as fine as possible. I like the onion diced, and the potato first halved lengthways and then sliced across, but that is a personal preference. Sweet Spanish onions and small waxy potatoes are the way to go, I think; the potatoes need to hold their own in the cooking process.

Never boil the potatoes first – you lose so much flavour (yes, potatoes have flavour) and so much of their protein-enhancing umami that way, as well as missing out on the beautiful, fudgy texture they get from a purely oil-based cooking. Chips are tastier than boiled potatoes. Learn from this. Sweat the potatoes together with the onions in plenty of olive oil (nice olive oil – you can always reuse it) and a good amount of salt until they are tender. If you’re adding meat you might want to put it in now so everyone gets to know each other.

You want to eat this delicious combination as the main event. The egg should be the binding agent, not the star of the show; it’s not an omelette in that sense. Two or three eggs to a 10-inch pan is fine. Let the onion-potato mix cool a bit before you stir in the eggs, to avoid weird lumps. Add other bits like fresh herbs and cheese at this point too.

I know it’s wrong, but I always start my tortilla on the hob and finish in the oven – it skips the whole messy hassle of flipping it. If you do this, let it set and colour on the bottom before putting it in the oven, which will help it slip out of the pan later. If you must flip the tortilla, on your own head be it. Don’t have the oven too hot. Let the whole thing cool a bit before you take it out of the pan, and then some more before you eat it.

EXTRAS

I’ve got a Turkish-style tortilla in the oven at the moment, with bits of halloumi, sucuk sausage, green chilli, and plenty of herbs. Other things I have added in the past include –

ham hock

black pudding

pork sausage

merguez sausage

chunks of manchego

grated manchego

grated Dapple

roasted peppers

pickled chillies

marinated artichokes

handfuls of dill

paper-thin courgette slices

tiny broad beans

frozen peas

and probably loads of other things I’ve forgotten. 

Have a go.

Artichokes and Lies

No one likes being lied to. Working in a restaurant, it’s easy to forget that, while this may be the hundredth plate you’ve sent out today, for the customer it might be a rare treat, a special meal – depending on the restaurant, it could be a once-a-month or a once in a lifetime thing. Get it right. Still, you can excuse minor inconsistencies. Eating at St John Bread & Wine, I had a dish of oxtail, turnip and watercress, which turned out to be a dish of oxtail, turnip and spinach. They had clearly run out of watercress, which they neither apologised for or even mentioned; pretty shoddy for such an establishment, perhaps, but I didn’t really care. It was a delicious, unctuous bowl, with the peppery bite of the turnip and, well, pepper, making up for the lack of the watercress. It certainly didn’t spoil our meal, which was one of the finest I’ve ever eaten. Still, with a short, ever-changing menu, and the brutal simplicity of the St John school of menu-writing (dishes are generally just written as “Ingredient, Ingredient, and Ingredient” – we had Rabbit Offal, Back Fat, and Dandelion, for example), they should be able to get it right.

A worse problem is when restaurants have such mistakes/lies built into their menus. I recently had a meal at a favourite cafe-bar in Norwich – our local, basically, and one I go to very often. It has an extensive menu of small mezze items that changes daily, and they make an effort, I think, to educate their customers, introducing unfamiliar words and ingredients. I’m told the owner makes frequent trips to the Turkish markets in London, giving him access to a range of produce not easily available in Norwich. All very laudable. Anyway, our meal was, for the most part, lovely – we had a beautiful braised chicken dish, a leg in a rich and shimmering broth shot through with Turkish pepper paste. One of our dishes was described as “roast Jerusalem artichokes with marinated feta and parsley and preserved lemon gremolata”. I had a problem with this from the description; I don’t particularly like the habit of shoehorning new ingredients into traditional recipes. Gremolata is a thing, and if you make it with preserved lemon it is a different thing entirely. Still, I can see why it’s done, as a form of shorthand or a shared reference point, and I’ve probably done it myself. In fact, I’ve done it myself on this blog. It’s a forgivable sin, anyway, and the dish sounded nice, so we ordered it. 

What arrived at the table was, yes, roast Jerusalem artichokes. They were perfectly cooked, soft and fudgy and just starting to char around the edges. They were covered in a thick paste of parsley, bound with olive oil, that might have featured a little preserved lemon – it was hard to tell – and sprinkled with a soft, fresh, mild cheese. It was quite a nice little mezze, if a little underpowered and underseasoned, and much of a muchness texturally; it was all squidge and no bite. What it wasn’t was roast Jerusalem artichokes with marinated feta and parsley and preserved lemon gremolata. Gremolata is a traditional Italian garnish, used to finish and cut through rich stews and seafood dishes; it is properly made with lemon zest, garlic and parsley. To quote Russell Norman, who is something of a pedant after my own heart and also knows what he’s talking about, “gremolata is a dry crumbly dressing and so requires no oil or other liquid”. So. A parsley and preserved lemon gremolata, if it must exist, should be parsley, garlic, and the rind of preserved lemon, finely chopped. That it wasn’t was offensive for two reasons. Firstly, the establishment in question makes a big deal about educating their customers; they have a (barely) passive-aggressive sign up by the till explaining the concept of a ‘sandwich’ or ‘wrap’ and why you shouldn’t need cutlery to eat it. If you’re going to do this, you really need to get things right. To make some kind of bastardised Middle-Eastern salsa verde and call it gremolata is rude both to people who know what gremolata is, as they will feel they’ve been lied to, and to people who don’t know, as they will now go around thinking that every other restaurant is wrong about gremolata, and be embarrassed in front of their supper club when they get it wrong. Secondly, the dish would have been nicer with actual gremolata on it, providing a freshness and a welcome textural contrast to the soft artichokes and ‘feta’. Oh, the feta. If the gremolata made me angry, the feta was just disappointing. More like ricotta than any actual feta I’ve ever eaten, I’d guess it must have been that insipid ‘salad cheese’ you get. At the time I assumed they must have just run out of feta, but I’ve since eaten the same parody of cheese in other mezze there. As for the ‘marinated’ part, it just wasn’t, unless it had been soaked in milk. It didn’t taste of anything beyond a mild lactic tang. Again, none of this would be relevant if it had made the dish nicer, but it didn’t. The salt and acid of a good feta, perhaps with a few aromatics in the marinade, would have been lovely. Did I complain? No. I don’t like complaining unless there is an actual mistake by the kitchen – under- or over-cooked meat, for example – whereas this dish was made with malice aforethought. Will I go back there? Yes, definitely. It’s still one of the nicest places to eat in Norwich, and this blog is something of an overreaction to a minor complaint. But I love it less, and I find their patronising signage more annoying, than I did. Here is my recipe for the same dish, by way of closure. 

serves a few, depending on what you’re serving it with

ROAST JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES

500g jerusalem artichokes

4 lemons

olive oil

thyme

Give the ‘chokes a scrub, cut into equal-sized pieces, and put in a pan of salted cold water with two of the lemons, halved and squeezed. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about ten minutes to parboil. Drain, then put in a roasting tin with some thyme sprigs, the other two lemons (also halved and squeezed) and a good glug of oil. Toss well. Season, then put in a medium-to-hot oven for around 20-30 minutes, until brown, fudgy, and starting to catch.

PARSLEY AND PRESERVED LEMON GREMOLATA

small bunch of parsley

2 preserved lemons

1 clove of garlic

Quarter the lemons and cut out the flesh. Peel the garlic (obviously). Finely chop everything, using your sharpest knife (the top, not the heel) and a little patience. Mix together.

MARINATED FETA

200g good feta cheese

100 ml extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp cumin seed

1 tsp coriander seed

1 tsp fennel seed

Pinch chilli flakes

zest of half a lemon

Put the oil in a bowl with the chilli and lemon. Separately toast all the seeds in a hot pan, then add to the bowl. Carefully cube the feta, then put that in the bowl too. Mix carefully, trying not to mash the cheese up. Leave to marinate for as long as you can be bothered.

Hot artichokes on a plate, cheese, gremolata.