A Better Omelet: You Don't Have to Break Too Many Eggs to Make a Frittata
THERE ARE FEW better tests of a cook’s insecurity than making an omelet. Just as Giotto is said to have impressed a pope in search of an artist by sending him a perfect circle drawn freehand instead of a finished drawing, a chef is said to be able to demonstrate his mastery to a prospective employer by making nothing more than an omelet. As a teenager, I once spent an afternoon, on Julia Child’s devil-may-care instructions, tilting a pan away from me and practicing rolling omelets, throwing out the imperfect ones. After watching clumps of cooked egg land all over the stove and two dozen eggs disappear from the refrigerator, my parents decided that I had experimented enough. I never got it quite right, but I did learn that the easiest way to make a good-looking omelet that will come out of the pan is to use a lot of butter. This might have been the beginning of my disenchantment with French food. Imagine an omelet with all the usual virtues and many undreamed-of ones—the filling dispersed all through instead of bunched in the middle, and more of it, too; less grease; and no technical feats to learn. This describes the Italian frittata, a flat omelet that is cooked through, with none of the runny egg liquid that makes some people ill. A frittata is often served at room temperature or in a sandwich, so it can be made ahead; a cold omelet, all congealed butter and egg goo, is hardly welcome. At its best a frittata, hot or cold, is browned and crisp outside and airy and soft inside.
Frittatas in Italy are family meals, typical last-minute or Sunday suppers that get rid of leftovers. In Italian fare una frittata also means “to make a mess of things,” an idiom perhaps inspired by the first attempts of some noncooks—a frittata, along with pasta with tomato sauce, is a meal that every bachelor or hopeless cook is expected to know how to make. Tracing the origins of the dish is probably foolhardy, since some form of omelet has likely been eaten since man first heated eggs. But Apicius, who wrote the bestknown book of Roman cookery, mentions a sweet frittata; in the sixteenth century frittatas were at once sweet and savory, served with powdered sugar and cinnamon and a sauce of bitter orange, which points to Arab influence by way of Sicily. Frittatas are a favorite dish among Sephardic Jews, because they can be served with either milk or meat menus. Their appearance in both Sephardic and non-Jewish cookbooks from the regions around the Mediterranean where Sephardic Jews settled— Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and Turkey, for example—raises the question of whether Jews helped popularize them. Frittatas everywhere were served as light meals or betweenmeal snacks, either hot or cold; in Spain a tortilla, the Spanish frittata, usually made with potatoes and onions, is still a typical tapa, or little dish to be served with sherry.
Lidia Bastianich, an owner of the restaurant Felidia, in New York City, remembers her grandmother taking fresh sandwiches filled with frittatas to workers in the field as a midmorning merenda, or snack. She also remembers hunting for goose eggs in her native Istria, the region to the extreme northeast of Italy, which is now mostly Yugoslavia; her grandmother kept jealous count of chicken and duck eggs but encouraged the hunting of goose eggs, which were laid in random places. All went into frittatas.
EVEN THOUGH FRITTATA technique requires no wrist training, it did take me quite a few eggs to get a frittata I was happy with—four dozen, in fact. The problem was that I tried to make a frittata as fast as an omelet, which I had seen chefs do on a kitchen tour of New York Italian restaurants. My experiments using their techniques led to results that gave credence to Elizabeth David’s dismissal, in Italian Food, of frittatas:
[Italians] are particularly stubborn with regard to the cooking of omelettes, insist upon frying them in oil, and use far too much of the filling . . . in proportion to the number of eggs, and in consequence produce a leathery egg pudding rather than an omelette.
I much prefer oil to butter, and I love a lot of filling, even if it does tilt a frittata in the direction of a kind of cake; but I don’t like rubbery eggs, and that’s what I was making. (When there is so much filling that the egg only binds it, the dish becomes a tortin o, or little cake, and is usually baked.) The problem, I suspected, was the timing. Italian cookbooks are vague on how long to cook a frittata. One cooking encyclopedia points out that like all simple preparations, frittatas should be given great care. But then it pulls back, like the others, on timing; it’s one of those things you should know. Not everyone does. I have been served my share of leathery frittatas in Italy.
But as I made frittatas, in both senses of the phrase, I remembered the one that had reformed my opinion: a zucchini frittata made by a young woman friend in Italy, in general an unenthusiastic cook, who said she was preparing something very special she had learned from her grandmother. As I watched her fuss over a plain egg dish for what seemed much too long a time, I grew increasingly impatient and skeptical. She finally presented me with something tender and delicate, something different from omelets and equally delicious. I decided to slow down and try to recapture her frittata. (Although slow cooking is today more common in Italy for a tortino than a frittata, Apicius himself called for a very low fire, and Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, who is the owner and chef of The Ballroom, the first and best tapas bar in New York City, and the authors Marcella Hazan and Barbara Kafka cook frittatas a long time.)
Which pan to use is of course important. Italians use a light iron pan with rounded sides, of a weight that is rarely available here. Cast iron doesn’t work very well, because after an initial browning of the egg mixture the heat is supposed to be lowered for a long, slow drying; cast iron retains too much heat and cooks the frittata too quickly. I had very good results with an inexpensive light nonstick skillet. The ideal pan is stainless steel with an interior layer of copper in the bottom. A frittata should be a half inch thick, and so the pan should be small: eight inches for three eggs, ten inches for six eggs. It’s unrealistic to recommend keeping a pan solely for frittatas, and unnecessary if you use a nonstick pan. If you don’t, clean the pan by heating it and rubbing it with a generous amount of coarse salt and lots of paper towels.
Fresh herbs are a constant in fillings— for example, minced parsley leaves or chives or sage or basil. In theory, the filling is built around something delicate and rare, like elder flowers or wild mushrooms or truffles; in practice, the filling is what is left over and needs to be extended. Among the most common fillings in Italy—all sliced thin and sautéed in olive oil, with or without onion, according to taste—are zucchini, mushrooms, spinach, chard, thin wedges of trimmed artichoke (preferably young), peas, green tomato, red peppers, leeks, and potatoes. To make the frittata a onedish meal, Italians sometimes add rice or slices of bread fried in olive oil or even leftover pasta. Meat appears seldom, usually cubes of leftover sausage or ends of salami. Cooked or raw, the filling should be at room temperature when you start cooking, and so should the eggs.
To SERVE TWO people, heat two teaspoons of olive oil in an eight-inch pan until the oil just starts to smoke. (A nonstick pan needs no fat. Heat the pan.) If you are using an electric stove, set another burner to very low. While the oil is heating, beat three eggs with a tablespoon of grated Parmigiano Reggiano (the authentic Parmesan) cheese and a few grinds of pepper. Beat the eggs—with a fork, not a whisk—just to mix white and yolk and to break up any lumps of cheese, stirring into the mixture any cheese that sticks to the sides of the bowl. Add a half cup of filling and mix gently, so that the ingredients are well distributed but not broken up. To serve four, double the ingredients and use a ten-inch pan; to serve more, make several frittatas, not bigger ones.
Pour the eggs into the pan. The bottom should set immediately; cook it briefly, shaking the pan gently. Don’t stir the eggs, as you would with scrambled eggs or an omelet. One of the blessings of making a frittata is that you can leave it alone. If you are using a gas stove, turn the flame down very low; if using an electric stove, transfer the pan to the burner set on low. Cook a three-egg frittata, uncovered, for twenty-five minutes, and a six-egg frittata for thirty to thirty-five minutes. You should see little bubbles of simmering oil at the sides of the pan, but the cooking will be very slow. At the end of the cooking time the top should be all but dry—a bit of liquid is fine. Run a spatula around the sides and under the frittata to free it. Set a plate or a pot lid over the pan and with one motion unmold the frittata. Return the pan to high heat, add enough oil to make a film on the pan (unless it is nonstick), wait until it smokes, and brown the other side for a minute.
Some cooks—for example, Andrea Hellrigl, of the refined Palio, in New York City—prefer not to brown the other side. They like the contrast of crisp and soft, and want to show off the filling on the unbrowned side. I prefer the appearance and taste of a second browned side and advocate turning as a way of finishing the dish (in Italian the phrase “to turn the frittata” means to correct something you said). I don’t recommend running the pan under a broiler, an escape route well traveled by those fearful that the frittata won’t unmold in one piece. By the time you are ready to turn the frittata there is almost no danger that it will come apart, and broiling toughens the eggs unnecessarily and brings all the fat to the surface.
I wasn’t pleased with any of the shortcuts I tried. Covering the pan cuts the cooking time in half but results in a soggy bottom and a steamed texture. An acceptable second best is to transfer the frittata to a 375° oven after setting the bottom. This cuts the time to between ten and fifteen minutes, after which you can unmold the frittata and brown the other side. Nothing makes a frittata as tender, though, hot or cold, as cooking it for the full time uncovered on the burner. You can clean up, slice bread, and make a salad as it cooks.
Room-temperature wedges of frittata make an excellent hors d’oeuvre or picnic food, and as noted, slices of it are very good in a sandwich. Cooks in the Piedmont often put a few drops of balsamic vinegar on cold frittata, according to Bruna Alessandria, one of the first of a revolving cast of Italian women cooks at the new restaurant Le Madri, in New York. Perhaps my favorite way of eating frittata is a dish introduced to me by Sandro Fioriti, the big and exuberant chef of the Roman-style trattoria Sandro’s, in New York. Thin strips of frittata are heated briefly in a tomato sauce with torn leaves of basil and some grated Parmigiano Reggiano, and served as a first course. The sauce seeps into the frittata and makes it even more tender, and sets off the flavors of the filling. The dish is called frittata in trippa or trippata, because the frittata is cut in strips like tripe; it is variously attributed to Rome, Umbria, and Florence (all three places have famous tripe dishes). But whatever the source, the method for making frittata with tomato sauce remains the same, and the dish is enough to persuade anyone to forget about omelets.