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It's About More Than Just the Beer
By Kirk Leins

Oktoberfest - It's About More Than Just the Beer - By Kirk Leins

When you think of Oktoberfest, the picture that most likely comes to mind is of dirndl-clad waitresses serving fistfuls of super-sized beers. While this image is far from inaccurate, the annual Bavarian festival is also about eating hearty portions of traditional German food. As a personal chef and a first generation German-American, I felt obligated to share some of my favorite German dishes.

What is Oktoberfest?
You may be wondering why I am putting forth an article about Oktoberfest in the beginning of September. I'll answer that question by telling you that contrary to what the name dictates, Oktoberfest actually starts in late September. Traditionally, the festival has included the 16 days leading up to and including the first Sunday in October. After German reunification in 1990, the celebration was extended to October 3rd (German Reunification Day). This means that for any year when the first Sunday falls on either the 1st or the 2nd of the month, Oktoberfest lasts for 17 or 18 days.

Your next question probably concerns the reason for a suds-soaked festival in the first place. For starters, it's a fun time. But historically speaking, the festival was created in Bavaria, Germany in 1810 to celebrate the marriage between the Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The couple's marriage actually took place on October 12th, but as the festival evolved over time it was moved up to late September when the weather was better.

Modern Oktoberfest kicks off in Bavaria's capital of Munich with a 12-gun salute and the traditional tapping of the first keg. Along with the consumption of beer and delicious German food, the festival features a parade of citizens dressed up in the traditional garb of dirndls and lederhosen, as well as an array of entertainment such as live music and dancing. There are 14 main tents at Oktoberfest that last year hosted over 6-million visitors from around the world. While there is plenty more that can be said on the history and the evolution of Oktoberfest, I think it's time to talk a little about the food.

Oktoberfest Food
German cuisine is a very interesting subject. The reason is that most of the foods we think of as being German are actually southern German or Bavarian. I'm not saying that people to the north don't eat these dishes. It's just that most of them originated in the south where they remain popular to this day.

That being said, Oktoberfest is the perfect excuse for all Germans, or any festival participants for that matter, to eat like a Bavarian. So, if you were planning an Oktoberfest party in your neck of the woods, gastronomic success would start by serving any number of traditional dishes. Grilled bratwurst with mustard, sauerkraut, German potato salad (YOU, June 2008), spaetzle, Sauerbraten, Königsberger Klöpse (YOU, January 2008), Roladen, apple pancakes; I could keep going but I think you catch my drift.

The following recipes are authentic versions of a few of my favorite German foods. They can be served all together for a wonderful Oktoberfest meal, or paired individually with a variety of other German and non-German dishes. I chose these recipes for their deliciousness, ease of preparation and tradition. Give them a try and let me know what you think.

Schnitzel (serves 4)
For those of you who are unfamiliar, a schnitzel is nothing more than a breaded veal cutlet that's been pan-fried. Since nearly every country has its own version of the schnitzel, it's rather hard to say where it actually originated. By most accounts it was invented in Milan, Italy and made its way to Vienna, Austria and then Germany. Germans love schnitzel, so I thought it would be a great recipe to begin with.

1½ - 2 lbs veal cutlets, thinly sliced
Wondra or all-purpose flour for dredging
4 large eggs, beaten lightly
3 - 4 C bread crumbs
3 tbsp vegetable oil
3 tbsp unsalted butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Lemon wedges for garnish

Place a large sheet of plastic wrap on to a cutting board. Lay one veal cutlet directly in the middle. Cover with an equally-sized piece of wrap and pound cutlet (using a meat pounder) into ¼ inch thickness. Be careful to not over-pound. The best technique to accomplish this is to start by pounding from the middle of the cutlet and working your way outward. Repeat with remaining cutlets.

Liberally season both sides of every cutlet with salt and pepper.

Lay out 3 pie tins or shallow dishes of like size. Fill the pan on the left with Wondra or flour and season with salt and pepper. Fill the middle pan with egg mixture and season with salt and pepper. Fill the pan on the right with breadcrumbs and season with salt and pepper.

Working from left to right, dredge one cutlet in seasoned flour, shaking off any excess. Then, lightly coat the cutlet with the egg mixture. Last, dredge the cutlet in breadcrumbs, making sure it's fully coated. Transfer cutlet to a cookie sheet and repeat with remaining cutlets. Allow cutlets to rest at room temperature for a half hour.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the butter and allow it melt. Once the mixture is quite hot fry the cutlets for two to three minutes on each side or until golden brown.

Transfer cooked cutlets to a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper or brown paper bags and keep warm in a 200-degree oven. Garnish plated cutlets with lemon wedges.

Traditional schnitzel is served with just a squirt of lemon on top, but there are several adaptations that are quite excellent. Two of my favorites are Jaeger Schnitzel, which is topped with brown mushroom gravy and Holstein Schnitzel, which is topped with fried egg, anchovy filets and capers.

As a side note, I sometimes like to deep-fry my schnitzel in an oil-filled wok. It is not traditional in any sense of the word. It does, however, yield some delicious schnitzel with an extra crispy crust.

Rotkohl (Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage) (serves 4)
Due to the sweet and sour taste of this dish it is the perfect vegetable side dish to anything fried, or anything with pork. You'll be surprised how much your family will enjoy this, even the kids.

1 large head of cabbage, rinsed and chopped
1 large onion, chopped small
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and chopped small
½ tsp Kosher salt
1 tsp ground clove
2 tbsp sugar
1/3 C apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp vegetable oil

Heat oil in large skillet and sauté onion for five minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer. Cover the skillet and simmer on low for 30 minutes or until the cabbage is soft and deep purple in color.

While it's not necessary or traditionally German, I like to finish off my Rotkohl by swirling in a couple tablespoons of unsalted butter. It lends creaminess to the sweet and sour bite and silkiness to the texture.

Bratkartoffeln (German-Style Fried Potatoes) (serves 6)
If the combination of crispy potatoes, onions and bacon sounds good, this is the perfect Oktoberfest side dish for you. While Germans do love their Pommes Frites (French Fries), Bratkartoffeln is far more traditional.

5 lbs. red potatoes
5 slices smoked bacon, cut into half-inch pieces
1 small onion, diced
½ C vegetable oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Chopped parsley for garnish

In a large pot, boil potatoes in their skins until tender but not fully cooked (about 8 minutes). Allow potatoes to cool and then remove the skins and cut into one-inch pieces.

In a large heavy-bottomed skillet, fry bacon until crisp. Using a slotted spoon, remove the crisp bacon from the drippings and drain on a paper towel.

Add the onions to the bacon drippings, season with salt and pepper and sauté until translucent. Using your slotted spoon, remove onions from the pan and reserve on the paper towel with the bacon.

Add oil to the skillet and allow it to get hot. Add the potatoes to the skillet and season liberally with salt and pepper. Sautee the potatoes until they are golden brown and crisp. Return the bacon and onions to the pan and stir to combine. Garnish with parsley and serve.

Our Oktoberfest meal is now complete and it is time to pair it with a beverage. Hmm, let's see. What sounds good to drink with Schnitzel, Rotkohl and Bratkartoffeln? Are you kidding? I'm pouring myself a tall mug of good German beer and calling it a day. One day down…and just fifteen more to go.


Kirk Leins has been cooking his entire life. No stranger to professional kitchens, he currently devotes most of his time to cooking instruction, food writing, and producing television. Kirk also provides his services as a personal chef in and around the Los Angeles area. He has made several TV appearances on both the national and local level, and is the Executive Chef for YOU Magazine. His free newsletter, The Everyday Gourmet, is available by contacting Kirk at

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