Chef Aaron shares a family picnic favorite — chicken schnitzel with lemon-dill cracked mustard spread.
Summer heat has been evaded in many ways throughout history. When traveling the U.S., you may find bars called icehouses because they were exactly that at one point. Often they were buildings, usually set somewhat into the ground (much like many basements today) and well-insulated. These icehouses could be packed with ice during the winter, and the ice could be stored for decent quantities of time.
At some point, some enterprising icehouse owner realized it would be a good place for a drinking establishment — and thus a Southern tradition was born.
In Europe, many cities have open-air parks near the riverfront, and this tradition was replicated in the U.S. as well. To this day, you can find Belle Isle packed with all sorts of Detroiters, from longtime city residents to new immigrants to families from across the region and the world, many cooking or eating food in the open river air.
There are as many strategies to summer cooling as there are people, and whether you find yourself splashing in a kiddie pool in a backyard, enjoying a river breeze or bicycling through the trails and parks of the area, you’ll need to bring food.
My grandparents arrived from Austria to the west side of Detroit to find a very different world than the Vienna they’d left behind, and yet they found something familiar in Cass Benton Park, part of the complex of parks along the Rouge River in western Wayne County. It’s named after Cassius Benton, a county road commissioner, who gifted the land to the parks department in the 1920s.
By the ’50s, when my mother recalls accompanying her grandparents to “Kaspenten Park,” it was a popular picnic spot, filled with picturesque hills and lovely wooded areas. (It extends from Northville Road to Hines Drive and now includes a disc golf course, a sledding hill, play structures and a picnic shelter.)
My mother specifically recalls a couple of picnic items being brought along: cold chicken schnitzel (how Austrian!) and a mustard-and-mayo potato salad. Today, we’ll focus on the schnitzel, with a little mustard to put on it (because what doesn’t need a little mustard?).
Chicken Schnitzel with Lemon-Dill Cracked Mustard Spread
- 2 chicken breasts, medium-sized or larger
- 1 cup all-purpose flour (more as needed)
- 3 eggs (more as needed)
- 1 cup plain breadcrumbs
- ½ tsp. ground nutmeg
- ½ tsp. ground white pepper
- 1 Tbsp. dried marjoram, divided
- 1 lemon, juiced
- Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
- Vegetable oil
- ¼ cup finely ground mustard
- ¼ cup whole mustard seeds (black or brown, if you can get them, or a mix)
- 2 Tbsp. ground turmeric
- 1-2 tsp. dried dill weed
- ¼ cup lemon juice
- Cold water (as needed)
- Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
1. Using a long, sharp knife, carefully filet the chicken breasts into two thin halves; keep your knife parallel to the board and draw it through the meat, watching to maintain an even cut line. Place these halves between two pieces of plastic wrap or a cut-open plastic bag and use a meat mallet to pound them as thin as possible. Make sure your mallet strikes are flat and even, so you don’t start cutting holes in the chicken with the edge of your mallet. In traditional schnitzel preparations, the goal is to make the surface area as big as possible, regardless of the thinness, as long as it could still be breaded — we’re trying to make our chicken go a long way!
2. Lay out the flattened and pounded chicken on a piece of parchment or a pan or some other place where it won’t contaminate the whole kitchen. Consider the size of each piece of chicken for the next part, where you’ll need to bread them. Sprinkle the chicken with the lemon juice, just enough to get a light coating across each piece, then season well with salt and black pepper. If you don’t season here, the chicken in the middle of the schnitzel will be dull and boring, and that’s not what you want.
3. Prepare a three-step breading station for yourself: Place the flour in a dish with 2-inch or higher sides (I love using cake pans for this.) Scramble the eggs well, add a splash of water and place them in another similar dish. Repeat with the breadcrumbs. All of these dishes should be able to comfortably hold one piece of chicken at a time, if not more. Season the flour with the nutmeg and white pepper, as well as a good pinch of salt. Season the eggs with a good pinch of salt and a couple grinds of black pepper. Repeat the same process on the breadcrumbs, also adding the dried marjoram. Mix everything up well and move it evenly across the dish surface. Once again, we want to make sure everything is properly seasoned, otherwise parts of our chicken will be dull and underflavored. Arrange your station from left to right as follows: Seasoned chicken, seasoned flour, seasoned eggs, seasoned breadcrumbs. At the right end, if you have a sheet pan with a rack (or a cookie cooling rack sort of situation,) so much the better! Otherwise, you’ll need a good place for your schnitzel to land safely before you cook it.
4. Begin by taking a piece of chicken in your left hand and letting any excess lemon juice drip off. Your left hand is now your “wet hand.” Place the chicken carefully into the flour and, using your right hand, begin to gently shake the pan of flour to coat the chicken with the flour. At some point, you’ll use your right hand to flip over the chicken piece and make sure that all surfaces of it are coated evenly with flour. Your right hand is now your “dry hand.” Pick up the chicken from the flour, shake off any excess and then carefully place it into the dish with the egg. Agitate with your dry hand but use your wet hand to touch the chicken once it’s in the egg wash. Flip it over, make sure all the floured surfaces have been coated with egg and then lift the chicken out, let the excess egg drip off and place it carefully in the breadcrumb dish. Agitate the dish with your right hand, then use your dry hand to flip the chicken over, coat it well and press the breadcrumbs into the egg a bit to help them stick. Carefully remove the chicken from the breadcrumbs, shake off any excess and place it on the landing spot. Repeat this process with all the chicken and see if you can’t stack up your work a little to make it more efficient: When one piece moves into the next dish, everything follows it along. Just remember to keep your hands separate, so you don’t end up breading them, too!
5. When all the chicken has been breaded, it can wait for a moment to be cooked. I like to let breaded things rest on a rack for at least 15 minutes before I fry them because the air circulation around them helps the breading to get crisper and stay attached to the food better. If you don’t have a rack for them to rest on, there will be a buildup of moisture under the chicken, and that side of the breading will likely come loose when you’re cooking or eating.
6. Let the chicken relax for a moment and turn your attention to making mustard. Combine the ground mustard, whole mustard seeds, turmeric, dill weed and lemon juice in a bowl. Mix well to create an even paste and add water by the tablespoon (or less) to achieve a desired consistency. Once you’ve gotten a consistency you like, cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap or another airtight cover and let it sit off to the side while you cook the chicken. You’ll season this after the mustard flavor has had a chance to develop.
7. Find a pan big enough to cook one piece of at a time, at least. Don’t worry if you got dinner-plate-sized schnitzel pieces and can only manage one in a pan at a time! That’s kind of the goal. Heat the pan over medium-high heat and add enough oil to create a film on the bottom, then give it another tablespoon or so of oil — you need to shallow-fry the chicken, and the breading will use the oil in its journey to crisping, so you may find yourself adding more as you go. Prepare yourself a landing station once again, this time with a clean brown paper bag underneath a couple layers of paper towel.
8. When the oil is shimmering and hot, carefully place a piece of chicken into the pan. Make sure you don’t have a lot of loose breadcrumbs on the chicken, as these will burn quickly. When you place the chicken into the pan, your goal is that the last part of the chicken to hit the oil is at the far side of the pan; this way, if any oil splashes, it hits the back of the stove, and not your wrist or forearm. It should sizzle and bubble around the edges immediately. If it doesn’t, increase the heat and cook until the sizzling starts. After a minute or two of sizzling, use a spatula or tongs, or both, to lift up a corner of the schnitzel carefully. If it feels like it’s sticking, don’t force it, just roll some oil around the pan carefully to make sure all the areas of the chicken are frying and not just dry-cooking on a pan. When it releases, check and see how it looks. If it’s golden brown and crispy, flip over and cook the other side just the same. If it’s a little under, carefully lower your corner back down and let it cook until it is nicely crisped. This could take a quick few minutes or more if you’ve got a cooler stove. Once fully cooked, remove the schnitzel from the pan, let the oil drip off for a moment or two, then carefully transfer it onto the landing pad. Season with salt and pepper here, too, while the surface of the schnitzel still has a little oil moisture on it.
9. Repeat with the other pieces of chicken. As you cook, you may get a buildup of blackening loose breadcrumbs that have come off the chicken and are frying away in the excess oil. Carefully pour the oil out into a heatproof container on a heatproof surface and set it aside. Wipe out the pan with a wad of paper towel and return to cooking, after heating up new oil. Allow all the chicken to cool to room temperature on the counter before patting it dry with a paper towel and refrigerating until it’s time to pack your cooler. The drier you can keep these, the more of the breading will stay attached to the chicken!
10. Test your mustard now that it’s had time to sit. Is it too hot? Add some sugar or honey to it to calm down the pungency. Is it not hot enough? You can make a little paste of just the mustard powder and water in equal parts and let it sit for 10 minutes, then blend that in. You could also add horseradish, if you like. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and then pack away in a tightly sealed container. Use it up over the course of a week, but don’t try to keep it around like commercial mustard.
11. Pack your picnic basket with this schnitzel and mustard (serves 4) and make your way to a park for a luncheon some time — and look for a couple of side dishes in the next column.