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Just the Two of Us

I remember the worn Formica table, and not much else.

It was one of many such tables at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the kind with bare wooden chairs beside it, and brusque, Chinese-speaking waiters in white shirts and black vests who came by to take your order in a snap.

I was barely grammar school age then, possibly even younger.

I remember that place because my Dad would take me there. Just the two of us.

I’m not sure why my Mom and older brothers are absent from these memories. Maybe these father-daughter excursions happened when my Dad had days off from work. Maybe we’d end up picking up take-out for the rest of the family afterward. I wish I could recall.

What I do remember is how excited I always was whenever he brought me to this particular restaurant. You see, it wasn’t like any other restaurant in Chinatown. You could enjoy your standard Chinese food there, of course, but you also could order “American” food. At that age, that was a real treat to me then. And apparently to my Dad, as well.

My Dad would sometimes order a plate of Chinese beef stew, savoring the chewy tendon pieces most of all. Or he would sometimes have the same thing that I did. A creature of habit at that young age, I always went for the same dish: veal cutlet. It came with a gob of mashed potatoes, and a pile of those heated up, homogeneous looking frozen peas and carrots.

It was the cutlet I was most thrilled by, of course. There was just something special about that thin, tender slab, all perfectly crispy and golden brown sitting in the spotlight on that plate. I happily ate one fork-full after another, until it was all gone, and I’d have to wait until my Dad brought me back to that restaurant to enjoy it again. You see, it was the only place I ever ate that dish. My parents never cooked it at home. And I never ordered it anywhere else. Not even as an adult.

Then, a copy of “Relaxed Cooking with Curtis Stone” (Clarkson Potter) arrived in my mail. As I leafed through the cookbook by the host of TLC’s “Take Home Chef,” one photo in particular stopped me. There it was — a veal cutlet all crispy and golden looking like yesteryear.

Granted, this was a far fancier version — gussied up with grated aged Jack cheese in the breading, and served atop a mound of baby spinach leaves dressed with a zippy honey-mustard vinaigrette.

Still, I couldn’t resist making it for old time’s sake.

Instead of fresh breadcrumbs, I used Japanese panko crumbs because I had a box handy in the pantry. Although you do get your hands messy dredging the cutlets in flour, then eggs, and finally into the breadcrumbs, you really couldn’t ask for an easier dish. The meat cooks up in a hot frying pan in a quick six minutes.

The cutlets emerged super crispy, and tasting a little like a favorite guilty pleasure — fried cheese sticks, because of the savory grated Jack in the breading. The sweet-sharp-tangy dressing proved a wonderful complement. It’s a dish that sang with flavors both old and new.

Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of that timeworn Chinese restaurant that provided my first happy bite of veal cutlet. Nor do I remember all the little details about my times eating there beside my Dad. Just the two of us.

But I remember.

And I hope I always will.

Veal Cutlet Coated In An Aged Jack Cheese Crust

(Serves 4)

Aged Jack cheese, also called Dry Jack, has a firm texture, and a sharp, slightly nutty flavor much like Parmesan cheese, which makes a good substitute. When you gently pan-fry this thin piece of veal, the cheese melts and forms a delicious crust.

For vinaigrette:

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For veal:

1 1/4 cups fresh breadcrumbs

1 1/3 cup finely grated aged Jack cheese

2 large eggs

All-purpose flour, for dredging

4 veal cutlets (about 5 ounces each)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

For salad:

4 cups (lightly packed) fresh baby spinach leaves

Whisk honey, vinegar, chives, and Dijon mustard in a medium bowl to blend. Slowly add oil while constantly whisking. Season vinaigrette to taste with salt and pepper, and set it aside.

To prepare the veal: Mix breadcrumbs and Jack cheese together in a pie plate. Lightly whisk eggs in another pie plate to blend. Place flour in a third pie plate. Sprinkle veal cutlets generously with salt and pepper on both sides. Dip veal cutlets into the flour to coat lightly, then into the eggs, and finally into breadcrumb mixture, patting crumb mixture to make it adhere.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter with 1 tablespoon of the oil in each of 2 large nonstick frying pans over medium-high heat. Add 2 veal cutlets to each pan and cook for 3 minutes on each side, or until golden brown and just cooked through. Transfer cooked veal to a paper-towel-lined plate to absorb any excess oil and butter. Cut veal pieces in half.

In a large bowl, toss spinach leaves with enough vinaigrette to coat. Mound spinach on 4 plates. Arrange veal on the spinach, and serve.

Note: To make breadcrumbs, just tear sourdough into large chunks and grind them in a food processor until crumbs form.

From “Relaxed Cooking With Curtis Stone”