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Schnitzel's delicious simplicity
A friend and I were talking the other day about -- brace yourself -- what we were going to make for dinner. I said, "Nothing special, just some schnitzel." Her eyes got big and she said almost in a whisper: "I love schnitzel." We then spent five minutes reviewing our favorite schnitzel variations.
So far no surprises, I mean, what's not to love about schnitzel? Take a pork cutlet, pound it thin, roll it in bread crumbs and quickly fry it. It's sweet, it's tender, and did I mention that it's fried? Serve it with a green salad and you have a terrific dinner that's made in less than 45 minutes, including time for resting.
Dance real fast and in the same amount of time you can serve it with German potato salad, a pairing as perfect as bacon and eggs.
I had almost exactly the same conversation the next day. (Yes, I do spend a lot of time talking about food. . . . Got a problem with that?) When I mentioned the meal to a co-worker, her eyes almost glazed over in pleasure as she said, "Schnitzel? I love schnitzel."
OK, so everybody loves schnitzel. But the question then arises: Why is it so hard to find one? When was the last time you saw one on a restaurant menu? (I know, Wolfgang Puck serves it occasionally at Spago, but ordering schnitzel at a place like that would be like ordering meatloaf; oh, right, he used to serve that too, when he was up the hill.)
Maybe we can blame the schnitzel shortage on that hot dog chain that somehow perverted the name of a classic dish into a sorry excuse for fast food. What's even worse, despite its name, it doesn't even serve schnitzel. What's next? A hamburger stand called Hot Dog?
Actually, I can think of one more place for schnitzel and that's my house, where I serve it every couple of months. It's a perfect dish for those nights when I hit the grocery and can't find anything to cook. The ingredients are staples that are always there: pork cutlets, eggs and bread crumbs.
Veal or pork?
Traditionally, of course, schnitzels are made with veal. But that is in Europe's dairy country, where young male cattle are expendable and their meat is cheap. That's not the situation in the U.S., where veal costs the moon. An old restaurateur's cheat is substituting pork for veal, and it works -- handled right, they're very hard to tell apart.
Pork loin chops make perfectly good schnitzel, particularly the thin ones that aren't much good for anything else. With pork bred to be leaner and leaner, these meager chops overcook at a warm glance. Bread them, though, and cook them quickly and they stay moist and flavorful.
(My buddy Evan Kleiman says she prefers schnitzel made from thin steaks cut from pork shoulder -- that's also truer to tradition as the best veal cutlets are crosswise slices from the upper part of the leg.)
Trim away any excess fat around the rim of the chop, and any stray bits of other muscles as well -- you want just the loin. Place the chop between two sheets of wax paper and pound it to a uniform one-eighth-inch thickness. That cutlet that started out the size of your palm will turn out to be as big as a salad plate.
A meat pounder works best, but if you don't have one, you can use a baton-style rolling pin or even the bottom of a skillet. Start pounding from the center and work your way out.
Once you've flattened all of the cutlets, bread them. This is best done assembly-line fashion: flour, then egg and finally bread crumbs. The flour ensures the surface of the cutlet is dry so the egg wash will stick to it, keeping the bread crumbs in place.
The flour goes on a plate, the egg wash in a wide bowl and the bread crumbs on another plate. I find it works best to flour all of the pounded schnitzels first, patting them briskly afterward to remove any excess, before proceeding to the egg wash and bread crumbs. Once your hands get eggy, things can get real messy real fast when you're dipping them back into flour.
Turn the cutlet in the egg wash, removing the extra with your fingers, then place the cutlet in the bread crumbs and scoop more bread crumbs over top. Press down firmly. Turn it over and do it again. When you pick up the cutlet, give it a light shake to get rid of any loose crumbs.
Fine dry bread crumbs make the nicest crust, but if you have only coarse fresh crumbs, don't let that stop you . . . just remember you'll need to use about twice the volume. Also, some cooks add extras to the crumbs, such as grated Parmesan.
It's best to let the cutlets sit for at least 15 minutes before frying. This lets the breading firm up so the coating will adhere to the cutlet and not fall off during cooking. You can also let them sit for longer; just put them on a cookie or cake rack over a plate to allow the air to circulate, and stick them in the refrigerator for as long as a couple of hours.
Turn up the heat
Up to this point the process of making schnitzel has been pretty foolproof. But the art of the dish is in the frying. And it really comes down to just one factor: having the oil at the right temperature. You want the oil to be hot enough that the breading will crisp and brown before the meat in the middle dries out. With a pork cutlet, that's only a matter of minutes. Frying with good hot oil also means the bread crumbs will form a crust before they begin to soak up the fat.
It can take three or four minutes for the oil to get hot enough. You'll know it's there by dipping a tip of a cutlet. If it sizzles angrily, it's hot enough; if it merely foams, it's got a little while longer to go. You'll probably be able to cook only a couple of schnitzel at a time; keep the fried ones warm in the oven.
With something as delicious as schnitzel, the accompaniments should be simple. At my house, it's usually nothing more than a green salad tossed with a nice, tart lemony vinaigrette. I like to pile the salad on top of the cutlet so you get a combination of crisp and tart in every bite. Just be sure to add the salad at the very last instant to keep both the salad and the schnitzel crisp.
But the classic accompaniment is a German potato salad. What makes a potato salad German? Instead of binding it with mayonnaise, you pour over it a hot combination of beef broth and a lot of vinegar. This way you need only a couple of tablespoons of oil. The trick here is slicing the potatoes and dressing them while they are still quite hot. This allows the seasonings to penetrate before the starch on the outside cools and sets.
Schnitzel and potato salad. Serve them together and it's almost enough to make you forget those horrible hot dogs.