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Frittata - a dustbin for leftovers or a gourmet treat?

"the tastiest way to clean out your fridge at the end of the week ... Frittatas aren't just good for using up leftovers, though—they make great leftovers themselves!" SELF

Frittatas are ordinary everyday food, which is an extraordinary thing to say in itself, for someone born in the middle of WW2. We had barely heard of omelettes back then, let alone frittatas. Anyway inspired by this particular frittata - Potato, tomato and onion frittata from Rachel Roddy in this week's Guardian Newsletter I decided I would give frittata a go and see if I could find out how it became a thing.

My eye was caught by this one, not just because it looked pretty but because it featured tomatoes, which are notoriously difficult to incorporate into things like omelettes, scrambled eggs or frittatas - even quiches, because they have a tendency to make the whole thing rather watery. When you read the recipe through you will see that this is really more of a cake than a frittata - because the tomatoes are cooked down to almost a paste, and then mixed with eggs and mashed potato. Then, and only then is the whole thing cooked. I will come back to cake.

Frittatas are very, very commonplace however. Only an edition or two of the supermarket magazines goes by before you find a frittata included in the mix. This one - Mushroom, spinach and feta frittata was in the May edition of the Coles Magazine, and this month Woolworths doesn't have a specific recipe but on its listicle page has this:

"Fridge rotate - Chop up leftover vegetables and add them to a frittata for a budget-friendly lunch or next-day breakfast."

Which is fundamentally what we all do from time to time I'm sure. And note that they assume that we all know what a frittata is. And of course we do - even the poor and ignorant.

I tried very hard to find when and how fritattas morphed from completely unknown to ordinary with a capital O but failed miserably. I saw some mild reference to the fifties, with nothing to back it up but really I think it's much later than that. Then late in my investigations I came across this in Elizabeth David's Italian Food.

"It must be admitted that very few Italian cooks have the right touch with egg dishes. They are particularly stubborn with regard to the cooking of omelette, insist upon frying them in oil, and use far too much of the filling, whether it is ham, cheese, onion, tomatoes, or spinach, in proportion to the number of eggs, and in consequence produce a leathery egg pudding rather than an omelette." Elizabeth David

Elizabeth David at her derogatory best which, for me anyway, explains why they did not become a thing - even though she does actually give a couple of recipes in the book. We were all in thrall to her opinions and if she said they were rubbish then they probably were.

I also learnt along the way that you won't find frittata on the menu in an Italian restaurant - they are considered to be home cooking not restaurant cooking. Which sort of sounds logical, but what about all those other home cooked dishes like cacio e pepe which even Michelin starred chefs might feature at some point? So I went looking and found this lobster and caviar version from a restaurant called Norma's in Le Parker Meridien Hotel in New York - so there you go. That's a lot of caviar! I suspect that many other Michelin starred cooks serve fancy frittatas as well.

Back to the real world and a tiny bit of possible history and origins. The name frittata basically means a fried thing from the verb friggere - to fry - 'fritta' being the adjective derived from it. Which also leads to one of the frittata controversies - of course there are some. One camp decrees that the frittata should only be fried. You fry until brown on one side, flip and fry the other. Others - like me prefer to fry one side and then put it under the grill, which makes it puff up and brown on top. Others still do the whole thing in the oven. Does it matter? Frankly I think it's probably a matter of taste as I suspect that the different cooking methods create a different result.

But I digress. Back to history. The best explanation I found was this:

"Alan Davidson writes in The Penguin Companion to Food that since we are finding out many of our favorite dishes had their beginnings in Persia which is close to the fertile crescent, that it most likely started with their version called Ku Ku and moved to Spain where it morphed into the Spanish Tortilla which is mostly layered sliced fried potatoes and the egg base. This egg and potato omelet became popular in many countries spreading to Northern Africa, then probably made it's way to Italy where they put a nice Italian spin on it besides potato to make the frittata. From Spain Davidson feels it probably went north where the French in character refined it to where the eggs became the focal point and the filling often added and folded in to make it fancy and called it an Omelette. The egg dish continued to go north to England and beyond and many variations developed. Practically every country has their own version." The Kitchen Project

All of which sounds entirely logical to me. After all Elizabeth David was more of a fan of the omelette and the tortilla which, I think, were popular well before the frittata. I certainly knew about tortillas before I knew about frittata, although in my own home cooking I found that I added other things to a Spanish potato omelette and fundamentally ended up cooking a frittata by default. The Italians, as almost always, won the battle because their version is easier and also in our nowadays 'waste not, want not', budget, quick and easy and healthy days (eat all those vegetables) it's much more acceptable - and also, it has to be said also more versatile. The Guardian, as always, sums it up well:

"The frittata: Fauvist mishmash of colours and textures, fantastic vessel for leftovers, great at room temperature or reheated, almost endlessly versatile ... It’s a packed-luncher’s eggy dream. If leftovers are the order of the day, chucking them all in a frittata will elevate your result above the habitual post-roast bubble and squeak, with the addition of eggs providing moisture and holding the whole thing together." The Guardian

Along the way I picked up a couple more tips/words of advice:

"Use a well seasoned skillet OR a non stick pan. You’ll cry if your frittata gets stuck! (Though if it does, just leave it for 5 minutes and it will sweat off in the pan" Nagi Maehashi/Recipe Tin Eats

Everybody said to use a non-stick pan but she is the only one who said that leaving it for 5 minutes would help. I just dig it out of the pan which leaves a few crusty bits around the edges, but that's alright - they wash off pretty easily.

The other bit of advice - 6-8 eggs and 2 cups of your other ingredients. If you have a mix of meat and veg then one cup of each. Oh and cook your vegetables first.

The other controversy that I came across is thickness:

"Feel free to make smaller or bigger frittatas - most of the good ones I've eaten have ended up 2.5cm/1 inch thick. Any thinner and it's not a frittata. Any thicker and I think it gets frumpy. You can serve frittatas cold as an antipasto or hot as a snack , or even instead of a pasta course." Jamie Oliver

I suspect that Rachel Roddy's opening frittata might fit into the too thick category and therefore really be a kind of savoury cake - like Ottolenghi's Cauliflower frittata/cake which I first found on a website called Anna's Masala Kitchen. Oodles of people have made and raved about this. I think I featured it before, when I was talking about cauliflower. I don't think Ottolenghi himself calls it a frittata but it certainly has the same mix of ingredients plus a little bit of flour. Others are slightly less sure:

"The cake is eggy with very little flour, just enough to take it out of the running for being a frittata, really." Maggie Mario's/Serious Eats

"a really high frittata, but with more presence and less wobbliness" The Lemon Apron

A hybrid.

Anyway here is a selection from the thousands of options online - not to mention the ones in your head and those dependent on what you have in the fridge: Easter frittata with herbs, spring onion & pecorino and Spring-onion frittata and sweet-and-sour onions both from Rachel Roddy; Cauliflower, manchego and chorizo frittata from Ottolenghi as is Courgette and ciabatta frittata but this is also not quite a frittata it seems to me - it's almost, in fact a savoury bread and butter pudding and, finally a selection from Lorenza de Medici in the Italy the Beautiful Cookbook

Two more - from the Jamie Oliver brigade - the first from Gennaro Contaldi who demonstrates how to make Pasta frittata which, it seems to me is barely a frittata, because it's simply a lot of leftover spaghetti mixed with the eggs and cheese and cooked via the fried technique. There is so much more spaghetti than eggs that you would have to wonder whether it could be called a frittata but I suspect that, in fact, this is possibly the most 'authentic' one of the lot. And he does show you some variations.

Then there is Jamie's own Best prawn and parsley frittata as featured on The Culinary Chase and which is a bit fancier than your leftovers frittata because it uses fresh prawns, and of which he says:

"To be honest, I'm a bit fussy about my frittatas. But this one hits the nail right on the head, especially when you get nice fresh prawns, giving you an incredible sweetness that perfumes the eggs. When I made this, I was putting the lemon zest in with the eggs, and, by mistake, I squeezed the juice of 1/4 of a lemon in as well. I thought I'd try it anyway, even though you're not supposed to mix eggs with citrus juice. I think the result is spectacular - a lemon curdy prawns frittata ... but in a nice way! The other key to this is to use plenty of parsley."

Jamie might not have any Michelin stars, but he does have that magic little extra touch that makes his food out of the ordinary. Rachel Roddy was all for using a lot of parsley as well - especially the stalks - chopped very finely - which she thought were tastier than the leaves.

So next time you're wondering what to do with all that leftover stuff in the fridge - try a frittata. Elizabeth David might think that's a sort of a dustbin, but it can be incredibly delicious - and therefore gourmet.


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