Sunday was a very big night in our home. ***WARNING! If you haven't watched the Amazing Race finale, and you plan to - STOP READING!***
As you may already know, I am a devotee. My husband and I have probably watched at least 6 seasons of this show, from beginning to end. It has become a very elaborate ritual in our home. On Amazing Race nights, I cook a dish inspired by the cuisine of the country that the contestants will visit during that week's episode. So for example, previously the teams raced through China - and I made moo shu vegetables (with homemade crepes!). The one week that really stumped me, probably three seasons ago, was Kazakhstan. Good luck finding a vegetarian-friendly, palatable meal in K-stan. They primarily consume ... offal. And other bits and pieces of animals that we are not accustomed to eating. It's difficult to do a vegetarian riff on horse balls ...
Often times, we invite friends over to celebrate our Amazing Race obsession alongside us. We have two friends in particular who are game. We love sharing the experience of eating new food and rooting on our favorite teams. Early in the season, we all pick a team that we think will win the big prize - $1 million! The team that makes it to the final pit stop first (the finish line), after traveling through all of the countries in the race, wins. My team never, ever wins. This season was no exception!
But ... we were excited to like two of the final three teams in the race. The third team included the Miss Teen South Carolina girl who talked about maps and "the Iraq" and became a You Tube sensation for her inability to cobble together a sentence. She (20 years old) raced with her obnoxious cross-eyed model boyfriend (28 years old ... see a problem there???). Our favorite team, Jet and Cord, were cowboy brothers from Oklahoma - actual cowboys. They had lovable personalities and never allowed nastiness to infiltrate their race strategy. We were really rooting for them, even though neither my husband or I officially picked them to win - they were the obvious favorites. They came in a close second, behind the ultimate winners, Dan and Jordan (also brothers). We didn't mind seeing them win, though it was bittersweet because the cowboys were our emotional pick. But at least it wasn't Miss Teen South Carolina, Caite (yes, really), and her obnoxious cross-eyed model boyfriend, Brent.
So what does one eat for the finale of the Amazing Race? Anything from my box would do for the occasion, since the final pit stop was in ... San Francisco!
Our farm, Full Belly Farm, services both the Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area. I thought it would be appropriate to really make anything using my local produce, since it would be SF-inspired no matter what. We had a wonderful spring panzanella (bread salad) recipe, from Smitten Kitchen, and a lovely Apple-Rhubarb Betty. The Betty recipe came from Deborah Madison, a great vegetarian culinarian and the owner/chef of the prominent Greens restaurant, a true San Francisco institution with an all-vegetarian menu. I have yet to eat there, but I will one day. I'm going to devote a separate post to the Apple-Rhubarb Betty - it was a fun treat to celebrate the Amazing Race finale.
Panzanella is a bread salad, made with baked or pan-fried croutons. I have had recipes using both methods (Ina Garten's is pan-fried and fantastic!). This base of this recipe, the bread cubes, are simply fantastic - PARMESAN croutons! These aren't your usual salad bar suspects, crunchy and flavorless. These are savory little morsels that soak up the vinaigrette and pair beautifully with the spring veggies and white beans.
This recipe benefits from day-old bread; if your bread is younger than that, you can toast it a bit longer in the oven to compensate. I find the salad maintains its structure better with the older bread.
If I were to do anything different, I would saute the leeks rather than simmer them. I thought the texture of the leeks was a bit loose and wet, but they tasted good and didn't detract from an otherwise fabulous salad!
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
For the bread cubes:
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 generous cups of day-old bread, cubed (I used all but the ends of a pugliese loaf)
6 tablespoons finely grated parmesan
Salt and pepper to taste
For the vinaigrette:
1/4 to 1/2 a red onion, finely diced (select the amount based on your personal taste)
2 to 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Juice of half a lemon (I used a bit more)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
For the salad:
3 leeks, green and root ends trimmed
1 bunch asparagus, cleaned and sliced into 2-inch pieces
1 can (15 oz) white beans, rinsed and drained
Make the bread cubes: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Mix together all of the bread cube ingredients in a big bowl; spread on a baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes (plus another minute or two for fresher bread), stirring once or twice. You want the bread cubes to be crunchy but still a bit tender on the inside - definitely not dry all the way through, like boxed croutons. Set aside to cool while you prepare the other components.
Make the vinaigrette: In a small bowl, mix the red onion with the vinegar and lemon juice; let sit for a few minutes to remove the rawness from the onions. Whisk in the olive oil and mustard, as well as salt and pepper to taste.
Make the salad: Place the croutons in a large bowl. Add the leeks, asparagus, and beans to the bowl and mix. Pour the vinaigrette over the salad and toss well. Add salt and pepper to taste.