Comfort Foods, European Style

Schnitzel, beef bourguignon, shepherd’s pie and pierogies get spruced up for non-commercial customers.

Beef Bourguignon from New Jersey Institute of

There’s a reason people call certain dishes comfort food. European classics like beef bourguignon and shepherd’s pie bring diners feelings of home, happiness, tradition and family. “Our international students get so happy when they see dishes they are able to relate to,” says Peter Fischbach, regional director of culinary development for Gourmet Dining at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), in Newark. “The key is to know your population, find out what they like and then make a special day [to honor their country’s dish]. If all goes well, then you have a new menu item.” Here are four ideas for classic European dishes:

Germany: schnitzel

In an effort to incorporate classic dishes into his menu, Mark D’Abundo, executive chef for Gourmet Dining at Kean University, in Union, N.J., added a German schnitzel. Only it’s not so traditional. “It’s pan-fried, rather than deep-fried, and I put a Latin spin on it with salsa and manchego,” D’Abundo says. “It’s been so popular that students even want me to make it into a sandwich.”

For D’Abundo, it’s all about lightening up the classics, which he often does by switching up the protein, like swapping out veal—which the traditional Weiner schnitzel is made with—for a chicken cutlet. “I try not to think about what’s trendy, instead focusing on what students really like to eat and then making healthier versions of it,” says D’Abundo, who also recommends offering samples of foreign dishes so customers can understand what the dish is like. “Try new items in small doses and really listen to what the students are saying.”

France: beef bourguignon

Soups are one of the most popular items at Reid Hospital and Health Care Services, in Richmond, Ind., says Michelle McClurg, director of food and nutrition services, but customers wanted trendier items. So McClurg found a recipe for beef bourguignon, a traditional French stew made with beef braised in red Burgundy wine, often served with onions and mushrooms. “We tested it with our customers and they absolutely loved it,” McClurg says. “Though I often have to explain to customers what the dish is, they’re eager to try new items, especially anything with a different name.”

Another plus: Burgundy wine is an economical choice when bought wholesale, McClurg adds. That’s not the only cost-effective part of this dish. “Beef bourguignon is peasant food and uses tougher, less expensive cuts of beef,” explains NJIT’s Fischbach, who also menus a version of the dish. “It’s really just a fancy name for beef stew.” Like McClurg, Fischbach keeps his version very traditional. “We believe that classics should remain classic, [so] what makes ours special is that it’s as close as you will get to the original.”

United Kingdom: shepherd’s pie

Like D’Abundo, Steven Burke, foodservice chef for the Austin Independent School District, in Texas, lightens up classic dishes. In his latest recipe, Burke updated a traditional shepherd’s pie by using 100% beef—as opposed to a combination of beef and lamb—and a five-way vegetable mix for additional nutrient content, controlling portion sizes and making simple substitutions, like using skim milk for gravy. To put even more of his own stamp on this classic English dish, Burke also pipes potato rosettes on top, rather than spreading mashed potatoes over the entire dish. “Kids liked the flavor of it, but it was all white, so it wasn’t really appealing,” explains Burke, who admits students consider line presentation first. “Kids eat 90% with their eyes, so we piped mashed potatoes on top and sprinkled it with parsley. The dish became really pretty, and the kids ordered it much more.”

It’s all about trial and error, adds Burke, who holds focus groups to get feedback from the students. He’s created a short form where kids rate each dish and give an explanation of why they liked, or disliked, it.

Training is paramount, especially when it comes to classic European dishes, as the labor is more intense and there’s more scratch cooking involved, says Burke. “You won’t get the same flavor profiles if you cut corners.”

Fischbach seconds that notion. “We have standardized recipes for just about everything, but the most important thing is to make sure everyone understands what the cooking methods are and how to execute them properly.”

Poland: pierogies

In addition to schnitzel, D’Abundo also offers a variety of pierogies, which are dumplings traditionally stuffed with potato, meat, cheese or fruit in flavors like cheddar and potato, jalapeño and cheddar, and mushroom and potato. They’re one of his best-selling menu items, something Fischbach relates to.

“We like to have fun with our pierogies,” he says. One of Fischbach’s popular pierogies is tossed with Buffalo wing sauce, and his classic pieorogi is served pan-fried with kielbasa. “Make sure your staff understands what the foods are—if they can’t answer questions, then you can’t expect people to try them,” Fischbach says. “Don’t be scared of the classics,” Burke adds. “It’s classic for a reason; people love it.” 

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