Celebrity chef John Ash gives a lesson on schnitzel

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Schnitzel holds a very special place in my heart (and stomach). My grandmother used to make it often, and she was the master of schnitzels of all kinds. It was such a favorite that used to call me her “little schnitzel,” which I think spoke to how special this preparation was to her. If you like fried chicken, schnitzel is for you.

Schnitzel is a German-Austrian term which translates roughly to “slice” or “shave,” according to the Oxford Dictionary. It’s described as a slice or “scallop” of veal or other light meat that is pounded, then dusted with flour, egg and bread crumbs and fried. Not a particularly evocative description, but most would agree it’s damned delicious and easy to do.

In Germany, there are many variations that you’ll find in restaurants and homes. Wiener-Schnitzel is usually made with veal. The “Wiener” designation refers to its supposed origin in Vienna in Austria (though there is some dispute about this). Schweine-Schnitzel is made with pork or pork tenderloin, Puten-Schnitzel uses turkey breast and Hähnchen-Schnitzel is made from boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs.

In addition to different types of meat, a schnitzel can also be served with a topping or filling.

Some of the more traditional combinations include Jäger-Schnitzel, veal or pork schnitzel topped with a mushroom sauce; Zigeuner-Schnitzel, schnitzel with a “gypsy sauce” topping of paprika/bell peppers/onions; Käse -Schnitzel, any of the meat schnitzels topped with melted cheese; Schnitzel Holstein, a schnitzel topped with fried egg, onions and capers (a specialty of Berlin); and Cordon Bleu, a meat schnitzel from Switzerland that is stuffed with ham and Gruyère.

The schnitzel approach is not uniquely German. Other cuisines have developed their own variations on the theme, including the Italians, who call it scallopini, picatta or Milanese; the Japanese, who make the deep-fried pork cutlet known as tonkatsu; and the American Southwest, where German immigrants developed chicken fried steak in the mid-1800s because veal was too expensive.

This may be way more than you want to know, but I find recipe similarities fascinating as they morph and move around the world.

The method for making schnitzel is straightforward.

First, the meat is gently pounded between sheets of plastic wrap. This is done to achieve an even thickness (usually 1/4 inch or so) for even cooking and to tenderize the meat.

Use the flat side of your meat pounder to avoid tearing. If you don’t have a meat pounder, a rolling pin or even a heavy bottomed sauce pan works just fine.

The schnitzel then uses the classic 3-step breading process taught to every culinary student. It’s dusted in seasoned flour, takes a quick swim in beaten eggs and then gets coated with fine bread crumbs. Remember not to press the bread crumbs onto the meat, which can make for a clunky coating. You want the coating to be light and fluffy.

You can use either dried or fresh bread crumbs. Panko works fine, but I find it can be a little coarse. A quick roll under a rolling pin solves this. You’ll need 3 flat bowls for the breading ingredients.

Schnitzel can be made ready for frying a couple of hours ahead. Coat it according to the instructions above and then place on a rack uncovered and refrigerate.

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My Grandmother’s Simple Schnitzel

Makes 4 servings

4 veal or other white meat cutlets such as chicken, pork or turkey

— Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup or so flour

1 large egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon water

1/2 teaspoon Dijon style mustard (optional)

1 cup or so bread crumbs

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 small lemon cut into wedges

— Chopped parsley or chives

Trim any fat from meat and clip edges to stop edges from curling during cooking. Season the cutlets with salt and pepper. Gently pound the cutlets thin (1/4 inch or so).

The easiest way is to place the meat between two sheets of plastic wrap. Use the flat side of the meat mallet to avoid tearing the meat. Place 3 shallow bowls on counter.

In first one, put flour.

In second one the egg mixture and mustard (if using) whisked together until smooth.

In third one, the breadcrumbs. Coat schnitzel, first with a dusting of flour, then egg, and then breadcrumbs.

Heat butter and oil over medium heat in skillet. The reason we use both is that the oil gives the butter a little insurance policy against burning. There should be enough fat in the pan for the schnitzel to “swim.”

Sauté the cutlets, in batches if necessary, until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side. Though it only takes a couple of minutes on each side, check to make sure coating is browning and not burning.

Drain on paper towels and serve immediately, garnished with lemon wedges to squeeze over and chopped parsley.

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Jägerschnitzel is one of the most traditional of German schnitzel recipes, it translates to “hunter’s cutlets” in English. It’s basically the simple schnitzel above topped with a creamy mushroom sauce.

Many variations of the sauce exist, including the addition of bacon or red wine, but the most common is sautéed mushrooms with white wine and cream.

Use any mushroom that you like from common buttons, chanterelle (pfifferlinge in German) or a mixture of several mushrooms. I’m a fan of the mixed exotic mushrooms sold by our own Gourmet Mushrooms in Sebastopol (mycopia.com) that are available at many retail locations.

Use this sauce with the Simple Schnitzel recipe above.

Jäger Sauce

Makes about 4 servings

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive or other vegetable oil

3 tablespoons finely chopped shallot or green onion

8 ounces sliced mushrooms of your choice

2 tablespoons flour

3/4 cup beef or chicken broth

1/2 cup white wine

2/3 cup crème fraiche or heavy cream

— Salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons fresh parsley (chopped)

Heat the butter and oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and sauté until translucent. Add the mushrooms and brown lightly stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle in the flour and stir, breaking up any clumps and cook for a couple of minutes.

Whisk in the broth and white wine and cook for 3 or 4 minutes to make a smooth sauce. Stir in the crème fraiche or cream and simmer over low heat for a few minutes to get rid of any raw flour taste.

Season to your taste with salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper. Stir in parsley and keep warm to serve with the schnitzel.

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This version was cooked up in the late 19th century at the Berlin restaurant Borschardt, to please the palate of one Friedrich von Holstein (an influential German foreign policymaker from 1890 to 1909). This recipe was adapted from Saveur Magazine honoring the 150 best recipes in their 150th issue.

Schnitzel à la Holstein

Makes 4 servings

1 cup flour

1 cup fresh bread crumbs

1/3 cup milk

6 large eggs

4 3-ounce (1/4-inch thick) veal cutlets

— Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

8 tablespoons unsalted butter

8 oil-packed anchovy filets

1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley and/or chives

2 teaspoons drained and chopped capers

— Juice of 1 lemon

— Caperberries (for garnish)

Place flour and crumbs on separate plates, and whisk milk and 2 eggs in a bowl. Season cutlets with salt and pepper. Coat cutlets in flour, then egg mixture, then dredge in crumbs. Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2 cutlets and cook, turning, until browned, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel lined plate. Wipe out skillet and repeat with 2 tablespoons butter and remaining cutlets. Place cutlets on warm plates.

Wipe out skillet and return to medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons butter; crack remaining 4 eggs into skillet; cook until whites are firm, about 3 minutes. Place an egg on each cutlet; crisscross 2 anchovies over each. Return skillet to heat with remaining butter; cook, swirling, until brown and nutty, about 30 seconds. Stir in parsley, capers, and lemon juice and pour over cutlets. Garnish with caperberries and serve.

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This is chicken done in the style of Milan, Italy. Like all Italian dishes, there are as many variations as there are cooks who make it. This variation uses some grated Pecorino cheese in the coating. I like topping it with a simple arugula salad, but you don’t have to.

Chicken Milanese

Makes 4 servings

2 large boneless skinless chicken breast halves (1 1/2 pounds or so)

— Salt and freshly ground pepper

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 large eggs

2 tablespoons milk

1/3 cup freshly and finely grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese

1 1/2 cups or so dried bread crumbs

— Olive oil for frying

— Arugula salad (optional)

— Lemon wedges

Cut the breasts lengthwise into 2 halves. And trim away any fat. Lay the pieces out on plastic wrap, cover with another sheet of wrap and pound gently until they are 1/3 inch or so thick. If you don’t have a meat pounder a rolling pin works great.

Season the chicken well with salt and pepper. In three shallow bowls, put flour in the first; beat the eggs in the second with the milk and pecorino; and put the bread crumbs in the third.

Dredge the breasts in the flour, shaking off any excess. Then dip into the egg mixture, allowing excess to drip off, and finally into the bread crumbs to get a nice even coating. (You can prepare these a couple of hours ahead. Place on a rack over a baking sheet uncovered and refrigerated.)

Set a large skillet over medium high heat and fill with about 1/4-inch olive oil. Heat until oil is shimmering, and fry chicken two at a time (important not to crowd) until golden brown on both sides.

Top with salad if using and serve immediately with lemon wedges to squeeze over.

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This deep-fried breaded pork cutlet is, in its own way, as popular in Japan as tempura and was no doubt imported from the West.

Done well with pork loin or tenderloin, it doesn’t have to be greasy or heavy and makes a great sandwich. Remember to use good. Clean oil with a relatively high smoke point, and keep the temperature in the deep-frying “sweet spot” of 350 to 375 degrees. There are commercial tonkatsu sauces, but I like to make my own.

Tonkatsu

Makes 4 servings

4 1/2-inch slices pork loin or tenderloin (about 6 ounces)

— Salt and freshly ground pepper

3/4 cup flour

2 large eggs

2 teaspoons mirin (optional)

11/2 cup fresh or dried bread crumbs

— Oil for deep frying

— Finely shredded cabbage

— Tonkatsu sauce (recipe follows)

Lightly slash the fat surrounding the loin cutlet to keep the meat from curling when it is deep fried. Season both sides well with salt and pepper then dredge lightly in flour. Beat eggs with mirin if using. Dip into the egg mixture and then the bread crumbs to evenly coat.

Bring an inch or so of oil to 350 degrees in a heavy bottomed deep pot. Deep fry one or two cutlets at a time in the oil until golden brown, 5 –7 minutes. Skim the oil periodically. Drain on paper towels.

If you plan on eating tonkatsu with chop sticks, cut into 1/2-inch morsels. If you are using a knife and fork, don’t bother. Serve with cabbage and tonkatsu sauce on the side or poured over the meat and cabbage.

Tonkatsu Sauce

Makes about 1-1/4 cups

1 teaspoon Japanese dry mustard powder

2 teaspoons mirin

1 cup ketchup

1/4 cup Worcestershire

4 teaspoons soy sauce

Whisk mustard and 2 teaspoons water in a bowl until smooth. Add mirin, ketchup, Worcestershire, and soy sauce and whisk until smooth. Adjust flavors to your own taste.

John Ash is a Santa Rosa chef, teacher, James Beard award-winning cookbook author and radio host of the KSRO “Good Food Hour.”

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