For the first time on this food blog, a country’s national dish is also a global classic. You’ll find wienerschnitzel on menus around the world, with varying degrees of success. Wikipedia lists 41 countries where some sort of breaded cutlet is eaten. Done well and made fresh, these cutlets are a juicy, crunchy delight. Done wrong, or left to sit under cafeteria lights for hours, they can be rubbery and taste more like greasy slabs of sawdust. Austrians get billing as the world’s über-eaters, and -makers, of schnitzel. The clue’s in the name, after all! This week, then, was an exercise in learning about schnitzel from the best of them.
Choosing a dish for Austria was always going to be a toss-up between two iconic dishes. Sachertorte, the apricot-chocolate cake famously invented by a 16-year old apprentice at the Hotel Sacher in 1832, almost tempted me into another dessert week. But in the end I opted for the only-slightly-better-for-my-waistline wienerschnitzel. The thought of an entire chocolate cake sitting in the fridge all week, slyly whispering my name, just sounded too dangerous.
This week was special for two reasons. Firstly, I lived in Austria for two years as a teenager, so this was a little trip down memory lane. In fact, it’s the first country I’m blogging about that I’ve actually been to. Eating the food of a country is almost like being transported there for a Sunday afternoon. It was particularly nice to imagine sitting in dappled sunlight on the wooden benches of a heuriger, a traditional outdoor pub serving freshly-fermented cider and rustic home-made cuisine.
Hubby Joe was also particularly chuffed that we were finally covering an EU country. He’s a total EU politics geek (it’s his job, after all), and has been chomping at the bit to try the food of a member of the union.
There are a few theories regarding the origins of our dish for the week. According to some, schnitzel came from Milan, in Italy – perhaps brought over from Field Marshal Radetzky. Others say it may have been brought to Austria during the battle of Vienna in 1683 by Polish or German troops.
Despite some disagreement about its origins, schnitzel itself is a very simple dish, and it seems there’s little variation in how it’s prepared. The only choice you have is between veal, pork and chicken – but BY LAW you’re only allowed to call it wienerschnitzel if you use veal. These Austrians take their schnitzel seriously.
If schnitzel is the restaurant where people are chatting politely over the strains of violin, potato salad is the rowdy bar across the road where people are hitting each other over the heads with chairs. Austrians disagree as much as much about how to make a good Erdäpfelsalat (potato salad) as they agree about the perfect breaded cutlet. As usual, I asked a few locals for hints and tips – and specifically, how to make traditional potato salad. One, from near Vienna, recommended the mayonnaise-y dish so many of us are familiar with. But my friend Maria, from further south, disagreed violently:
In Vienna, they make it with mayonnaise and serve it cold, which is disgusting. Potato salad should always be served warm and should NEVER touch mayonnaise.
I just had to try this warm potato salad – if only to see what made it a ‘salad’ at all. Dressed with mustard and vinegar, it’s got all kinds of goodies in it: herbs, hot stock and even (sometimes) bacon.
What Did I Need?
For the schnitzel:
- 4 veal steaks (you could also use pork or even chicken, but you won’t be legally allowed to call it wienerschnitzel!)
- 1 cup flour
- 1 cup breadcrumbs
- 2 eggs
- a pinch of salt
- sunflower oil for frying
For the potato salad (adapted from this recipe):
- I kg waxy potatoes
- 3/4 cup hot beef or chicken stock
- 1 small onion, chopped finely
- 1/3 cup oil (I used olive, although sunflower is more traditional)
- 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons mustard (I recommend Dijon)
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 3 tablespoons chives or parsley, chopped (optional)
How Did I Do It?
For the schnitzel:
- Pound the steaks with a meat mallet, rolling pin or even a heavy saucepan until thin (about one centimetre thick).
- Set out three bowls: one with the flour and salt, mixed; one with the egg, beaten; and one with the breadcrumbs.
- Dredge the veal with flour until dry. Coat with egg, allowing excess to drip off. Finally, cover the veal in breadcrumbs.
- Heat 2 or 3 cm of oil in a frying pan. Fry steaks one at a time until golden brown.
- Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to drain excess oil.
- Serve with potato salad and/or a green salad. Make sure to include a wedge of lemon for squeezing over the schnitzel.
For the potato salad:
- Cut the potatoes into bite-size cubes and place into a large pot. Add enough cold water to cover them by an inch or two. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, and continue to boil until the potatoes are cooked through and a sharp knife pierces them easily. Drain and set aside to cool.
- Put the potatoes in a large bowl and carefully stir in the hot stock and onion.
- In a separate bowl, mix together the oil, vinegar, mustard, sugar, salt and pepper. Stir this vinaigrette into the potatoes, along with the chopped chives or parsley.
- Adjust seasoning to taste and serve warm or at room temperature. Let rest for an hour or two, if possible, to allow the flavours to develop.
So How Did It Taste?
Lovely! To be honest, I’ve always liked the idea of wienerschnitzel more than the reality – largely, I think, because of all the aforementioned bad breaded cutlets I’ve had in service stations and cafeterias through the years. I’ve also found it difficult to see the point of veal: for an animal that puts its eaters in such a moral quandary, I’ve always felt it to be a bit bland. I’ll give up my soul for eternal damnation for a bit of foie gras or spring lamb, but I’ve never been prepared to go the same length for veal.
This week did bring me around a bit – if you’re going to eat veal (and I’m still not 100% convinced it is ethically worthwhile), it seems you need to make it the star of the show, with little else to detract from its subtle meaty flavour. This wienerschnitzel was really juicy and succulent, with a crisp golden crust and little pockets of puffed-up air. It was also not too greasy, thanks to not frying for it too long. It’s one of the few dishes I’ve done so far that are easy and simple enough for me to definitely make again soon.
The potato salad was awesome too. The stock and vinaigrette mixed into a unctuous sauce that provided a rich and tangy base for the potatoes. I didn’t add bacon because I was already eating it with meat, but apparently it’s quite a common variation and one I’d perhaps try next time. I do think I prefer this mayo-free version to its more gloopy Viennese cousin.
Joe loved the dish, proclaiming at one point:
I love this blog! I’m living one of the the best lives that anyone could live anywhere!
Goodness – at that rate, I’ll soon have earned myself enough brownie points to get out of ever doing the dishes again. Mwahahahaha…