Not long ago, following an exhausting and not-prosperous work trip, my flight home from Bilbao was delayed seven hours by a terrible wind storm that shut down several European airports. I spent five of those seven hours stuck in a line of hundreds, while two overwhelmed workers at the Lufthansa desk ever-so-slowly attempted to reroute 300-plus passengers. As the line trudged forward, I watched the board helplessly as flights departed, one by one, to Paris, to London, to Madrid, to Lisbon, all connections that would have gotten me home. I had an important meeting in the morning, and then my son’s first soccer game, which I’d committed to coach. As the hours passed, I knew I would miss both. By the time I reached the front of the line, there was no way across the Atlantic until the next day, and I was assigned an evening flight to Frankfurt. I was given a handwritten voucher for a hotel, and another voucher for a free dinner.
When I arrived, it was dark and rainy, and a taxi took me to a hotel in the middle of an industrial park in a suburb called Mörfelden. After checking in and explaining to my son that I would not be home in time, and hearing my boss’ dismay at my absence, I slumped down to the hotel’s overlit restaurant and grabbed a menu. I was a wreck. My career had suffered some recent blows and this trip was supposed to help turn things around; but it hadn’t. In any case, I badly needed some comfort food, and the first item that called out to me was wiener schnitzel. “Yes, please, may I have some wiener schnitzel,” I said, and presented my voucher. The stern waiter sneered and pointed over to a pathetic buffet: some stale rolls, a congealed soup, and a platter of rubbery chicken that had been sitting out for hours. This, apparently, was the Lufthansa Stranded Passenger Special that my voucher covered.
I waved the waiter back over. “Please sir,” I pleaded. “Please. I’ve had a very long day, and what I really need is to eat this wiener schnitzel.”
“It’s 21 euros,” he said. “That food over there is free.”
I had kept cool and zen all day long, but I suddenly had the urge to scream or cry. “Look, I don’t care what I have to pay for it,” I said, my voice rising. “I just need you to bring me this wiener schnitzel. Right now. Please.” Something in the stern waiter’s demeanor seemed to change, empathy washed over his face. He nodded, wrote my order and whisked away the menu. A few minutes later, he brought a plate with the schnitzel. And along with it, a bottle of Rheinhessen riesling.
“Sir,” he said. “I am so sorry, I cannot honor the voucher for your meal. But please. I asked my manager, and he said I could pour you this dry riesling in exchange for the voucher.”
I ravenously tucked into that schnitzel, and took a long drink from the wine glass. It wasn’t the greatest schnitzel or riesling, but for some strange reason, my eyes started to well up and tears ran down my cheeks. The waiter reappeared and said, “Is everything okay, sir?”
“Yes, yes,” I said. “Thank you very much. Everything is quite okay.”
Some of you reading this are probably offended by the aforementioned comfort food dish that I ordered on that long day, the wiener schnitzel — the breaded veal cutlet. Around my more, how shall we say, enlightened food friends (of which there are many) it makes me vaguely embarrassed — or at least uneasy — to admit that I eat veal. When I do, um, reveal this fact about my veal consumption, I usually downplay it significantly. “Yeah, I’ll eat veal maybe once in a blue moon,” I might say. Or I’ll feign a cosmopolitan yawn: “Veal? Meh, maybe if I’m in Italy or something, I might try some.” Or maybe I’ll mumble something aware but noncommittal, such as, “Well, it’s just so hard to find a shop that sells humanely raised veal around here.”
All of these approaches conceal the truth. Because the truth is: I love veal. I do. Breaded veal cutlets are among my fondest foods of memory, and one of the only I’ve consistently eaten from childhood through my first travels abroad as a young man up through today. I grew up in New Jersey in the 1970s, which may be the cultural epicenter of the Italian-American favorite, veal parmesan. Everyone ate veal parm where I lived. Even my mother, who grew up in West Virginia, learned how to make veal parmesan when she moved to New Jersey. It became one of her specialties.
Fifty years ago, Americans ate, on average, something like four pounds of veal per year. Now? Well, how much veal did you eat last year? The average is less than a half pound. Of course, people have legitimate reasons for not eating veal. Commercial veal producers over the years have not done veal lovers any favors by the way they raise and treat their animals, and so I do look for good, conscientious producers as much as possible.
But as you’ve probably gathered by now, this is a piece about wiener schnitzel. If veal is a problem for you, I will tell you that you can always make a very nice schnitzel from pork tenderloin. And if you don’t eat meat at all, this is probably not an article for you. That’s about as far as I’m going to wade into this issue. For me and my family, there will always be veal, and that may mean you don’t like me. I apologize.
Recently, I took my two boys, 12-year-old Sander and 9-year-old Wes, on a different work trip to Austria. Sander and Wes know that if they’re willing to wander through a winery or two, or to sit quietly and play Candy Crush while dad meets with a few winemakers, that the rest of the week we will have an amazing trip. And so we did.
My boys love culinary quests, and so we hopped from café to café, searching for the best strudel and torte in the city (the sour cherry strudel at Gerstner being my personal favorite; the boys favored the krapfen at Aida). We enjoyed the gulasch and the knödel and the sausages, and I loved the heurigen, the simple wine taverns that open so local wineries can sell new on the outskirts of Vienna when the weather gets warm.
One evening, as we walked down an alleyway, Wes pointed to a sign of a hand holding a plate with a gigantic schnitzel hanging over the edge. “What is that?!” he asked.
“That, my boy, is a schnitzel,” I said.
“What’s a schnitzel?” they asked. This is how we found ourselves inside the local institution Figlmüller, which dates to the early 20th century and the end of the Austrian Empire. Yes, Figlmüller is for sure a little bit touristy. But it also makes some of the best schnitzel in the world, and the period decor fit in well with the Habsburg historical tour we’d be making the next day.
The schnitzels were thin and larger than the kids’ heads. “A schnitzel should swim,” said the waiter, as he handed us lemon wedges (which I assume is a canned line). I paired my schnitzel with classic young zweigelt and blaufränkisch, one of those match-made-in-heaven pairings.
We don’t eat a lot of veal at home. So I told the boys about my mother’s veal parmesan. And then I told them of how I used to eat the Italian version of schnitzel, cotoletta alla Milanese, while I studied in Lombardia as a 19 year old student. That discussion led to my explaining that Milan, like a lot of Europe had fallen under the rule of the Austrian Empire. In fact, there is some debate over which dish came first, the wiener schnitzel or the cotoletta alla Milanese. For years, legend had it that famed Field Marshall Josef Radetzky had brought the recipe back from Italy after his battle triumphs in the mid 19th century. We also talked about why some people don’t eat veal, and to respect their feelings.
Later, as we wandered the Vienna streets back to our hotel, I thought about history and tradition, about how empires fall, and about how, amid change and upheaval, small anachronistic joys persist. Veal is not comfort food for everyone, but many of us look upon it fondly, just as many feel a nostalgia for the strange and incoherent Habsburg Empire. Veal, on the one hand, seems like a silly thing to argue over. Yet on the other hand, it seems like exactly the kind of thing we should always be arguing about.
There are dozens of ways to make breaded veal cutlets. In Italy, cotoletta alla Milanese calls for a thin veal chop on the bone, breaded with no flour, and fried in butter. While I like cotoletta alla Milanese very much, below is my favorite veal cutlet rendition, which is more like the traditional Vienna schnitzel.
While a veal chop is nice, it’s also expensive. For about $15 per pound, the top round cut of veal provides a lot of flavor, and is easier to work with. Be sure to pound it very thin. Instead of vegetable oil, which you’ll often find in Austria, this calls for sunflower oil. Kaiser rolls – traditional to Vienna, where they are called Kaisersemmel – make the best breadcrumbs. Let the rolls sit for a few days until stale, and then grate or run through a food processor.
The pounding and coating must be done at the last moment, right before cooking – not ahead of time. The trick to a crunchy schnitzel is, once the cutlet is in the oil, to keep the pan moving gently in a circular motion.
If you do not eat veal, you can still make great schnitzel from pork. In that case, use a tenderloin, and cut it about 1½ to 2 inches thick, then pound it about three times the size. Serve this with the Spring New Potato Salad and Radicchio-Fennel Salad below.
- 1½ pounds veal, top round, cut into 6-ounce cutlets
- Salt and pepper
- 2 cups flour
- 3 eggs
- 1 tablespoon heavy cream
- 2 cups bread crumbs made from 3-4 stale Kaiser rolls
- 3 cups sunflower oil
- 3 tablespoons butter
- Lemon wedges
In a thick plastic bag (such as a freezer bag) pound veal cutlets with meat mallet until thin (about ¼-inch thick, three times the size). Salt and pepper both sides and place on a large platter.
Arrange three wide, shallow bowls near the stove. In the first, add the flour. In the second, add the eggs and beat with cream. In the third, add the breadcrumbs, seasoning with pepper.
Heat about ½-inch of sunflower oil in a 3-quart saute pan on high. When oil is very hot (a pinch of bread crumbs should sizzle) add butter to the pan and adjust the heat to medium high.
Place one veal cutlet in the flour, coating well, then shake off excess. Dip it into the egg, coating well, then draining off excess. Place into the breadcrumbs, coating well, then draining off excess. Now, gently place the cutlet in saute pan. Fry for about a minute, continually moving the pan on the burner in a gentle, circular motion with the frothing oil. When breading starts to brown and gets slight bubbly in texture, flip it over and fry another minute. Transfer to a plate line with paper towels to drain. Repeat with all remaining veal. To reduce burning, you will need to strain out lingering bread crumbs after each cutlet (such as with a small sieve), and you will likely need to change the oil at least once as you go.
To keep the schnitzel warm until all of the cutlets have been cooked, you can place the drained schnitzel on a baking sheet in a low-temperature oven (200°F) for up to 15 minutes. When you are ready, serve it with lemon wedges.
Makes 6 servings.
Spring New Potato Salad
- 1½ pounds new (or “baby”) white potatoes
- ½ cup sour cream
- ½ cup fresh snipped chives
- ½ cup fresh dill, chopped
- Chive blossoms
- Salt and pepper
In a large pot, bring water to boil. Drop in potatoes and boil about 20 minutes, until tender. Take potatoes out of water and let sit for 5 minutes.
Toss the potatoes with sour cream, chives, and dill. Add salt and pepper to taste. Snip chive blossoms into florets and sprinkle on top. Serve while warm.
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1½ lemons
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- ¼ cup olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 1 head radicchio, rough chopped
- 1 fennel bulb, sliced thinly with knife or mandolin
For dressing: Smash garlic into a paste with mortar and pestle. Combine with juice of one lemon, mustard, olive oil; salt and pepper to taste. Let sit a few minutes.
Place radicchio and fennel in a salad bowl. Squeeze the additional half a lemon over the salad and season with salt and pepper. Add dressing and toss to coat.