I grew up in rural suburbia an hour north of Seattle. Every year, on our acre of land, we raised two cows, two pigs (always named Roto and Rooter), and a hundred or so chickens. We also had a dozen egg-laying hens. That meant we ate a lot of eggs. Fried. Poached. Soft-boiled. Scrambled. But these were always — and only — for breakfast.
It was something of an adjustment, then, when I settled in Spain 20 years ago and found that eggs were frequently eaten for lunch or dinner or as a midmorning snack — but never for breakfast. And that they were prepared in far more interesting ways.
My adaptation began, appropriately enough, with the first dish I learned to make in Barcelona, the humble and iconic tortilla de patatas. A thick wedge of egg layered with tender slices of potato is one of Spain’s culinary highlights, especially when served alongside country bread rubbed with tomato and doused with olive oil.
My future brother-in-law taught me to keep the inside moist, with the egg still a touch runny at the center, and to mix in an equal amount of onions with the potatoes for both texture and sweetness. “The key to a successful tortilla is the flip,” he stressed, and demonstrated how to turn over the half-cooked mass using a plate without making a mess or burning myself. “If the bottom sticks, you are in deep trouble.”
Soon mastered, the dish has been a staple.
While matchless for many Spaniards, potato (and onion) is far from the only type of tortilla. Cooks make them with a range of fillings, including eggplant, artichokes, zucchini and mushrooms. In the Basque country, salt cod is typical.
It is a tasty coincidence that many of those vegetables are in season when, with the harshest of winter past, chickens start laying abundantly again. “Por San Antón, las gallinas ponen huevos a montón,” goes a Spanish refrain. “On the Saint Anthony Abbot’s Day” — Jan. 17 —“the hens lay a ton of eggs.” (San Antón is the patron saint of animals and also known here as el huevero, “hawker of eggs.”)
If my brother-in-law taught me the classic thick tortilla, it was my mother-in-law who showed me how to prepare one with zucchini or spinach for a quick meal. Her version with spinach, pine nuts and raisins makes a delightful midweek treat.
Spanish egg dishes go beyond tortillas, though, and I more frequently prepare revueltos, the local version of scrambled eggs. The name comes from the verb “revolver” (to turn or to stir), which is a more precise way of describing the light stirring used when cooking.
With no need to flip, a revuelto is easier to prepare than a tortilla. It also nicely absorbs the flavors of the changing seasons. Wild mushrooms, say, or asparagus with peeled shrimp (and, ideally, some tender garlic shoots) are sautéed, and then whisked eggs poured into the pan. After a handful of seconds to allow them to begin to set, the eggs are turned a couple of times with wide sweeps with a wooden spoon — no more, and certainly not vigorously “scrambled” — until just cooked but still moist. The eggs are silky and in large “pieces” rather than nubby.
Eggs in a tortilla or revuelto do more than simply absorb flavors or act as a binder for the other ingredients: They are also filling. “If you have some vegetables and some eggs, you have enough for a meal,” my mother-in-law says. That is perhaps the main reason these dishes were developed.
Traveling around Spain, I have often been surprised at the many other ways an egg or two can quickly convert a small dish into a meal. With a chopped hard-boiled egg, a bowl of gazpacho becomes enough for a light summer dinner, and by cracking an egg into sopa de ajo and allowing the whites to just set before serving, garlic soup moves from a first course to a main one in winter. In Andalusia, cooks give wilted spinach leaves a hearty dash of sherry vinegar and then top them with a poached egg for an easy supper or a delightful, sophisticated tapa.
Of course, the most common way to prepare eggs in Spain is fried in olive oil. Huevos fritos are nearly always sunny-side up, though as Spanish chef José Andrés demonstrated recently on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” you can also tilt the pan and keep turning the egg over with a spoon as it cooks to envelope the yolk within a cloud of cushiony whites.
I have found no better way to eat fried eggs than as huevos estrellados, “crashed” atop fried potatoes and often covered with a slice of dry-cured Spanish jamón Ibérico. This is the type of pure Spanish comfort food that certain elegant, clubby restaurants serve as well. With a glass of red wine, the dish gets elevated from divine simplicity to pure sublimity in a perfect combination of flavors.
While my parents have moved and no longer raise chickens (much less cows and pigs), when I am home there are still always eggs for breakfast. If my mom lets me cook, then there are often eggs for lunch or dinner, too — a tortilla or revuelto using produce from her garden or the farmers market in town.
If she complains that I am making a mess in her spotless kitchen, I have the perfect riposte: “No se puede hacer tortilla sin romper los huevos,” goes the hugely popular Spanish refrain. “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”