September 23, 2019

Ply Them With Schnitzel

In Israel, when you are a child, you pretty much live on schnitzel with mashed potatoes, with fries, as a sandwich, in a pita with hummus or just by themselves, eaten cold after school. It’s a very popular food that was introduced by Ashkenazic Jews, mostly of German origin, when they immigrated from Europe. During the early years of Israel, because veal was not obtainable and pork is not a kosher option, chicken was the meat of choice; it’s tasty and inexpensive.

In Israel, there are entire frozen food sections devoted to schnitzel, in case you don’t or can’t make your own. These tasty cutlets usually are made from processed chicken or turkey with skin and organ meat included — kind of like McNuggets — not that there’s anything wrong with that. I don’t think I ever met a kid (or a man) who doesn’t love these and can’t eat them by the plateful right out of the frying pan. 

On my last trip to see my maternal grandmother, she asked me if I still like schnitzel. She was 90 years old and in an assisted-living facility but still had her own kitchen. I watched as she gingerly floured, egged and breaded the schnitzel and then fried them with her grandmotherly hands so I could enjoy my childhood snack. Her eyesight was not very good at that point and I think she put about twice the salt in them than she should have but they were more delicious for it and I have since always generously salted my schnitzel. 

My favorite way to eat schnitzel, though, is cold, on a soft bun smeared with mayo and a bit of ketchup, preferably on my way to or from the beach. This is pure memory food. My auntie or cousin used to pack us a lunch for a day at the beach; we could never wait until lunchtime and would gobble them up in the car on the way. The delectable nature of a schnitzel sandwich is almost too much to believe and hard to hold out for. When I make them, I always make two per person because even fussy eaters love them. I’ve noticed that the people who eat your schnitzel sandwich will always be the ones who claimed not to want one in the first place. Don’t fall for that trick. Make them one anyway!

The delectable nature of a schnitzel sandwich is almost too much to believe and hard to hold out for.

I had some hungry kids over recently and, much like when I make this in the café, I served my schnitzel with sweet red cabbage, mashed potatoes and lots of gravy, but for kids, all you really need is some fresh buns and some ketchup and they couldn’t be happier. As much as I love every single component of this meal, the red cabbage is such a big star here. It’s by no means dietetic, and I don’t even try to make it so because I’m from the “go all-in once in a while” school of thought. I sauté onions and red cabbage low and slow until they are melting and soft in olive oil. I add chopped sour apples, salt, sugar, freshly ground pepper and apple cider vinegar and I let the whole mass just barely caramelize in its own juice. I think it cuts the richness of the schnitzel and gravy beautifully.

All around, if you have some calories to spare, this dish has definite “last meal before prison” status in my book and it goes without saying that if there are little people in your life who are in need some good cheer, you’d do right by them to ply them with schnitzel. They will love you until the end of time.

CHICKEN SCHNITZEL

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 1/2 cups bread crumbs or matzo meal
2 large eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon mustard
Water
Vegetable oil for frying (canola, grape seed, peanut, avocado but not olive oil)
Lemon wedges for serving
Fresh buns (if serving to kids)
Ketchup for dipping or a combination of equal parts ketchup and mayonnaise 

Butterfly chicken breasts by using a sharp knife to cut each breast in half lengthwise. Place a long strip of plastic wrap on your kitchen counter and place one half of one breast down. Lay another piece of plastic wrap on top and, using a meat mallet or a rolling pin, gently flatten the meat between the two pieces of plastic wrap until it is 1/4-inch thick and even. If the piece is too thick when flattened, then cut it in half again.

Set up a frying station with three flat bowls. Combine half the salt, black pepper, white pepper, paprika and garlic powder in the bowl with flour, and the other half of the spices into the bowl with breadcrumbs. In the third bowl, place beaten eggs mixed with mustard and a few tablespoons of water to thin. Place a flat sheet pan or plate nearby where you will place your coated schnitzels.

Pour 1/2 inch of oil into a frying pan and heat over medium. Place a small corner of bread into the oil; when oil is ready, the bread will begin to fry and sizzle. While you are waiting for oil to heat, begin coating the chicken breasts. Start with seasoned flour, dip into egg mixture and then into breadcrumbs, making sure to coat each part of the surface area in crumbs.

Set up a paper towel-lined plate to hold your cooked schnitzels. They should take 3-4 minutes per side to cook. Fry only a few at a time without crowding the pan so that the oil temperature doesn’t drop because that leads to oily schnitzel. Ideally, the frying temperature should stay at 375 degrees, so let the oil reheat between batches.

Sprinkle schnitzel with additional salt to taste, if desired, and serve with lemon wedges or with ketchup and mayonnaise on fresh buns for kids. 

Serves 4 adults or 8 kids.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.