This post and recipe for Treehugger Schnitzel was sponsored by Zehrs Markets. What does that mean? Zehrs arranged for my visit with in-store dietitian Leah Mete and paid me to develop the recipe for a vegetarian Schnitzel made with chickpeas. The ideas, opinions and wording of this post are entirely my own. Sponsored posts help me to cover the costs of maintaining this website.
When my husband and I got engaged 11 years ago, I figured it was time to take him to Germany to meet my extended family.
My paternal Oma welcomed him immediately. I can’t say the same about the tofu Schnitzel I brought home to her a few days later for my supper.
Oma Mayer decided we’d have Schnitzel for dinner and warned me early in the day. She knew I was vegetarian and wondered if I was OK with that decision, and what I might eat instead.
A visit to the local health food store, stocked with tofu Schnitzel, solved the dilemma. And while I think Oma Mayer might have been impressed that I made such a purchase, given I only spoke a German-English pidgin that involved a lot of pointing and gesturing, she was also mortified.
I remember her standing behind me, peering over my shoulder while I cooked it, equally curious and filled with trepidation. Processed food had never crossed this woman’s lips in the 100 years she lived, so a pre-fab, tofu spin on a German staple was entirely foreign to her.
She made sure I followed the cooking instructions — despite my poor German language skills, I can read a menu or food package with relative ease. And then she let out a halting guttural shriek that was a mix of horror and disgust when I offered her a bite of my handiwork.
It turns out cooking and eating together makes us all food lovers, but it doesn’t necessarily make us all tofu Schnitzel fans.
That was the last time I had anything vaguely resembling Schnitzel, easily one of my favourite foods when I was a meat-eater until 14 years ago.
Schnitzel with a side of spätzle, those doughy German noodles, may very well be my death bed meal when the time comes. But in the meantime, my days of eating breaded cutlets seemed behind me.
Modernizing a Family Classic
Then along came the ‘Modernizing Family Classics’ challenge in Zehrs’ Food Lovers Unite campaign. I was tasked with taking a family recipe to my local in-store registered dietitian, Leah Mete, to be updated into something healthier.
I hemmed and hawed for days, trying to think of something that needed a healthy makeover. As a vegetarian, most of what I eat is healthy, so I wasn’t sure anything could be done to make my favourite lentil recipe better for me than it already is.
I threw out Schnitzel as an idea, thinking Leah would come back with a plant-based version that involved a breaded slice of eggplant or sweet potato. It would be baked, not fried, of course, and voila. We’d have our healthy update.
But Leah had other plans, and for that I’m grateful because a baked slice of breaded eggplant or sweet potato sounded about as appealing to me as that tofu Schnitzel did to my Oma.
This was my second meeting with Leah, who helped me navigate the world of eating for half-marathon training a few months ago. She really is wonderful to work with, helping clients tweak diets and shopping with them to find the best options. I guarantee you’ll feel your spirits lift after five minutes in her presence, even if you’re already having a good day.
Seitan, or wheat meat, and tofu seemed too obvious a plant-based stand-in for pork, Leah mused. But what about a chickpea dough?
Pulses aren’t a tough sell for me, so I was game.
“Would you want to bake it or fry it?” she asked.
I figured ‘bake it’ was the right answer. After all, I was speaking to a registered dietitian who uses science-backed information to help people eat healthily. But I said “fry it” with both hope and hesitation instead.
“I think you should fry it,” Leah said. “I don’t think you should mess with the classics.”
This. Woman. Is. Awesome.
Leah Mete, RD (left) and Leah and I shopping at Zehrs.
Creating a Vegetarian Schnitzel with Chickpeas
We discussed using canola as the cooking oil. It’s a healthier option than olive oil, Leah explained, thanks to canola’s high smoke point. There’s no unhealthy fat formation at high temperatures, unlike with olive oil.
Spelt or chickpea flour could be used to give the Schnitzel dough body. Both have a good amount of protein, adding texture to the chickpea mix. Leah also suggested incorporating a local vegetable, such as carrots, peas or cabbage, into the dough because, well, vegetables. We can always use more, even if we have to hide them in what we’re eating (which I do to get them into my five-year-old daughter). And right now, during peak harvest season, Zehrs is my go-to grocery store for its plentiful local vegetable options to work into any meal, even a chickpea Schnitzel.
Leah took me around the store to find the ingredients, a service she is available to provide anyone by simply booking an appointment. We talked about the benefits of using different flours and I chose spelt, which has gluten but less of it than all-purpose. Spelt is known for creating superior doughs thanks to the abundance of glutenin, one of the proteins that makes gluten, in it. So spelt was definitely going into my Schnitzel dough.
We also compared the benefits of using dried beans versus canned. Price and sodium content make dried a winner but convenience gives canned the upper hand in a pinch. Checking out the local vegetables in the produce section was another stop on our shopping adventure. Then off I went with a downloaded recipe for chickpea Schnitzel that needed serious finessing.
I used canned chickpeas as the basis for my dough, filled out with shredded local carrots and spelt flour, then breaded and fried. Simpler ingredients, I’m sure, than that tofu version so many years ago.
The result was a plant-based cutlet with that shattering crispness you’d expect from a properly cooked Schnitzel. The texture of the chickpea dough itself doesn’t come close to a pork cutlet, but it was just as satisfying, channelling the recipe Leah provided me and some flavour hacks from Isa Chandra’s seitan recipe in her cookbook, Isa Does It.
I ate two chickpea Schnitzels in one sitting and felt like it was the closest thing to Schnitzel I’ve eaten in nearly 15 years. Closer than that tofu one, at least, and certainly healthier.
Served with a side of Gurkensalat, German cucumber salad, like what my Oma offered with her Schnitzel all those years ago, this meal hit all the nostalgic notes and wound up being textural perfection with the crunch of thinly sliced, macerated Ontario greenhouse cukes balancing the crispy, creamy texture of my Schnitzel.
Would Oma Mayer welcome it into her home like she did my husband? I’ll never know. But I’d like to think if this version made her scream, it would be out of sheer surprise at how good chickpeas can be when dressed up as meaty German classic.
- 2 slices of fresh plain white or whole wheat bread
- 1 19-ounce (540 mL) can of chickpeas
- 1 medium carrot, shredded (roughly half a heaping cup)
- 1/4 cup bread crumbs
- 1/4 cup spelt flour
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 tablespoons canola oil plus extra for cooking
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
- 3 large cloves of garlic, minced)
- 1/2 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 pinch chilli flakes
- Fresh lemon wedges for serving
For the dough:
Tear bread slices into pieces and blitz in a food processor until they are fine crumbs. Place them in a pasta bowl or on a deep plate and set aside.
Wipe out the inside of the food processor and add chickpeas. Pulse until they are crumbly and a rough mash.
Add shredded carrots, bread crumbs, spelt flour, water, canola oil and soy sauce, and pulse until everything is incorporated with no large pieces of chickpea remaining.
Dump the chickpea dough into a large mixing bowl, then add the nutritional yeast, garlic, tomato paste, oregano and chilli flakes. Combine the ingredients with a spoon or your hands. The dough should be moist and cohesive but not overly wet or liquidy and goopy. If it's to wet, add more flour, one tablespoon at a time, until it's a cohesive, paste-like consistency.
Cooking the chickpea Schnitzel:
Preheat oven to the lowest heat setting.
Warm up a skillet over medium heat, and coat the bottom with canola oil, about 3 to 5 millimetres deep.
Scoop out a portion of dough the size of a snooker ball and gently flatten it between your palms into the shape of a meat cutlet — not perfectly round. Press to a uniform thickness of no more than one-fifth of an inch (5 millimetres).
Gently place the chickpea cutlet in the bread crumbs, tossing crumbs on top to coat both sides. Carefully scoop out the cutlet with your hands and place in the hot skillet (see note).
Cook Schnitzel, one or two at a time, 2 to 3 minutes per side, until golden brown, using a large spatula to flip it. Put cooked Schnitzel in a baking dish lined with paper towels and keep warm in the oven until the entire batch of dough is cooked.
Serve with fresh lemon slices and your favourite side.
The chickpea dough needs to be handled carefully when being transferred from the bread crumb dish to skillet, otherwise, it will fall apart.
A large spatula will ensure it stays together when flipping during cooking. The Schnitzels will stay intact once cooked through on both sides.
The dough can be made a day ahead, and also freezes well if you don’t want to cook an entire batch at once.