Deep winter is a good time to get into dips and fondues. They are easy and communal (for your safe little pod at home), and can be rich, decadent, and celebratory or junky and naughty for couch-tatering and watching sports. You can make a meal out of a cheese or beef fondue, and you can repurpose many dips to be a topping on vegetables, burgers, tortilla chips, fish, just about anything with a compatible flavor profile.
There are so many types of dips from around the world: chutneys and raitas, blue cheese dip from who knows where, baba ghanoush, hummus, salata de icre (a fish roe dip from Romania similar to Greece's taramasalata), urnebes from Serbia, which is very similar to Southern pimento cheese, tzatziki, bagna cauda, guacamole, brandade, muhammara, tapenade, chile con queso, bacon horseradish, clam, onion, cocktail, and on and on.
One of my guilty pleasures (very guilty) is chile con queso made with Velveeta "cheese" and a little can of Rotel's tomatoes with green chilies. Heat it up in an enameled cast iron dish and have at it. The cast iron dish will retain heat until you have a stomachache from eating too much.
When I go to someone's house and am served commercial hummus, guacamole, or salsa, I am pretty disappointed. I am not a food snob (see previous reference to Velveeta), but all three of these dips take no more than 10 minutes to make from scratch. Hummus takes three minutes. Of course, guacamole is reliant on finding perfectly ripe avocados or having planned several days ahead and ripening them yourself. Fresh salsa can even be achieved with mid-winter, not so great tomatoes.
Salt and onions can perform miracles with bland hot house tomatoes. Tomatillo salsa is another fast, healthy, and easy dip. Peel off the papery husks, toss them in a blender or food processor with a fresh jalapeno, cilantro, onions and/or garlic, a bit of salt, puree coarsely, et voila! You have a light zesty dip that can later be used to top cheesy chicken enchiladas or fried eggs in the morning.
Fondues require a bit more work and special equipment but are worth the effort and they can be an entire meal. I have written before about cheese fondue, which is the perfect New Year's Eve dish. It is easy to make and tailor to your taste. For the novice, just go to one of Cavaniola's locations where you can get the classic combination of cheeses already grated with a whisper of cornstarch added for foolproof meltability.
The usual cheeses are Gruyere, Emmentaler, fontina, Appenzeller, and Gouda, but you can add a bit of cheddar as well. Be sure to buy very high quality cheeses for maximum flavor. A splash of wine or beer or even lemon juice helps keep the cheese from getting stringy or seizing up. According to Harold McGee in his book "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen," "the wine contributes two essential ingredients for a smooth sauce: water, which keeps the casein proteins moist and dilute, and tartaric acid, which pulls the cross-linking calcium off of the casein proteins and binds tightly to it, leaving them glueless and happily separate."
You can serve cubes of bread, boiled or roasted potatoes, pickles, apple slices, steamed broccoli, cherry tomatoes, even bacon with your fondue. Each participant should have his or her own labeled or colored skewer to keep separate from others. You also shouldn't pop the food directly into your mouth from the skewers, you put it on your plate and eat it with a fork. Apparently, another rule of fondue etiquette is you must swirl your cube of bread in a figure eight pattern. And no double dipping, everything should be in bite-sized pieces anyway.
Beef fondue is another festive communal dish. "The Oxford Companion to Food" claims that this dish was invented by an American chef in 1956. Not true! The Japanese have been eating a form of beef fondue called shabu shabu for centuries. "Shabu shabu" is an onomatopoeia that means "swish swish," the sound the slices of wagyu beef make when swirled in boiling dashi broth.
I have had the honor and pleasure of enjoying a German version of beef fondue several times with my friends Betty and Bob Loughead. Betty serves bite sized pieces of tenderloin beef that are cooked in a mixture of hot oil and butter. You then have a choice of little condiments: finely minced onions, finely minced parsley, paprika, salt and pepper, and a delicious horseradish sauce. The meal is completed with a light crisp green salad. Perfect. You can also marinate the beef beforehand, cook it in broth rather than oil/butter, and serve a variety of sauces, but I like Betty's version best.
You can keep them simple or make them extravagant, either way, homemade dips and fondues make the party, the very small, intimate, safe party.
Betty Loughead's Beef Fondue (Fondue Bourguignonne)
Here is a recipe/guideline for Betty Loughead's beef fondue. The accompanying horseradish sauce recipe is from her friend Ramona Bacon. You can use a mild olive oil in combination with butter for cooking the beef, or use an oil with a higher smoking point such as peanut or grapeseed. You will need a fondue set with accompanying appropriate fuel source, butane, alcohol, or gel, depending on what you are cooking.
2 lbs. beef tenderloin, trimmed of any fat and cut into small bite-sized cubes
Lots of minced fresh parsley
4 tsp. paprika
4 tsp. kosher salt
3 tsp. freshly ground pepper
Approximately 1/2 cup minced mild onion
Approximately 2 cups mild olive oil or peanut oil
1 stick butter
Ramona Bacon's horseradish sauce:
Approximately 3/4 cup freshly grated horseradish (if you can't find a fresh root, then get bottled and drain it well)
1-2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
Lawry's seasoned salt
1 small container whipping cream, whipped
Sprinkle fresh horseradish with a bit of fresh lemon juice (about one to two teaspoons). Add Lawry's seasoned salt to taste (remember Lawry's?). Mix all together with whipped cream and place in individual ramekins for each guest.
Arrange the cubes of beef in small ramekins in the middle of or beside each plate. Arrange several tablespoons of the onions and parsley on the edge of each plate. Add about one teaspoon salt, one teaspoon paprika, and half a teaspoon of pepper on edge of plates. Have more individual ramekins of horseradish sauce beside each plate.
Heat the oil/butter mixture over medium high heat on stove until butter becomes slightly golden, then transfer carefully to fondue pot (with fuel lit). From there each person dips their meat cubes into the hot oil until done to their likeness. For rare, this takes 30 to 45 seconds, for more well done, approximately one minute. You'll get the hang of it.
Transfer bites to plate (don't eat off the hot skewer!) and dip into condiments of your choice.
You can, of course, add other things to cook in the oil/butter, such as blanched vegetables.
Follow with a crisp light green salad.
Creole Crab Dip
This recipe is from Ralph Brennan of the famous Brennan's of New Orleans restaurant fame. I cut this recipe out of People magazine years ago. Yes, I cut recipes out of People magazine!
Makes 10 to 12 servings for the Super Bowl.
3 shallots, sliced
5 Tbsp. butter, divided
1/2 cup heavy cream
11 oz. cream cheese, softened and divided
3 Tbsp. mascarpone
1/3 cup chopped green onions
2 dozen baguette slices
Salt and pepper
1 lb. crabmeat
2 oz. crumbled goat cheese
Saute shallots in three tablespoons butter until tender. Add cream and simmer until mixture reduces by two thirds. Reduce heat to low, add three ounces cream cheese and mascarpone. Gradually stir in remaining cream cheese. Cook until thickened. Add green onions, remove from heat.
Preheat oven to 350. Brush baguettes with remaining butter, season with salt and pepper, and bake until golden.
Heat cream cheese mixture over low heat. Gently fold in crabmeat, then pour mixture into a one-and-a-half-quart baking dish or divide evenly among ramekins. Sprinkle with goat cheese, then broil on top rack of oven six inches from heat source until cheese is melted and golden. Serve immediately with baguette slices and/or cruditŽs.
This recipe is from a 2006 Cooking Light magazine. Serve this dip with crudites such as jicama, bell pepper strips, steamed sugar snap peas, and carrots.
Makes two and a half cups.
1 1/2 cups frozen shelled edamame, thawed and cooked
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup chopped red onion
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
2 Tbsp. rice vinegar
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. salt (I add more)
1 1/2 tsp. chili sauce like sambal oelek
1 16 oz. can cannellini beans or other white beans, drained
Place all ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth. Serve immediately or cover and chill.