Resist the urge: Do not pry open yet another tub-o'-onion dip, or whisk salad dressing mix into sour cream before this year's holiday party. You and your guests deserve better — much better.
More original dips and spreads take very little time to assemble, yet can cause big taste sensations.
At their most basic, dips and spreads usually involve pairing something fatty or thick with something assertive. Hummus, for example, pairs tahini, pureed chickpeas and olive oil (for fat and viscosity) with lemon juice and garlic (for flavor).
The other variable to consider is moisture — less produces a spread, more results in a dip.
Using that equation, it's easy to improvise. For example, puree goat cheese, smoked salmon and dill for a spread. For a dip, swap the goat cheese with creme fraiche or plain yogurt. And try both with crumbled bacon mixed in.
Whatever you end up adding to your dip or spread, remember that they usually get better with time, especially if some of your flavorings are dry when they go in. Two to four hours in the refrigerator should do nicely.
Still need inspiration? Here are some suggestions from the experts.
-- Cream cheese is a wonderful base for spreads or dips, the latter thinned with sour cream or mayonnaise, says Russ Zito, a culinary professor at Johnson & Wales University.
-- Among his favorite flavorings are ancho chili paste, chipotle paste, sun-dried tomato pesto with prosciutto and parmesan cheese, olive tapenade, roasted garlic paste, and roasted red peppers with parmesan.
-- For a sweet spread, try stirring all-fruit jams (especially apricot, raspberry or orange marmalade) into cream cheese. Even better, warm the jam slightly, then pour it over a block of cream cheese.
-- Seafood can be a great flavoring. Alison Ashton, senior food editor at Cooking Light magazine, suggests adding chopped smoked salmon or smoked trout to Greek-style yogurt with a bit of lemon juice and black pepper.
-- Vary your dippers. Get beyond sliced baguette, baby carrots and chips. Try a variety of sliced and toasted flatbread, as well as matzo crackers, breadsticks or sliced apples and pears (sprinkled with lemon juice to prevent browning).
Or slather a spread over crisp lettuce leaves or deli slices of prosciutto, ham or turkey breast and roll up.
Lucinda Scala Quinn, editorial director of food at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia suggests cutting vegetables into spears or chips (a mandoline is helpful for this) for a nice presentation.
-- Think sweet, says Tracey Seaman, test kitchen director at Every Day With Rachael Ray magazine. Use an electric mixer to whip equal parts mascarpone cheese and heavy cream with a spoonful of powdered sugar until fluffy.
--Butter is another often-overlooked base. Soften it, then blend in other ingredients and chill. Zito likes to add honey and sea salt, maple syrup, applesauce or cranberry sauce, and roasted garlic.
--Rethink onion dip, says Tina Ujlaki, executive food editor at Food & Wine magazine. Saute thinly sliced leeks in butter, then blend with a pound of goat cheese and 1/2 pound of cream cheese. Season with salt and pepper.
-- Don't ignore your grocer's pickle section. In addition to the obvious, it also has a wealth of great items for dips and spreads, including hot peppers, roasted red peppers and pickled onions.
Ashton combines a jar of roasted red peppers, 1/2 cup plain low-fat yogurt, salt and a bit of cayenne pepper in the food processor for an easy dip.
-- Make a simple Asian-style peanut sauce. Seaman suggests using a blender to puree peanut butter with a bit of soy sauce and heavy cream (try it with a splash of hot sauce, too). Serve with sliced apples or rice crackers.
-- The editors at Bon Appetit magazine say logs of goat cheese are their go-to almost-instant dip base. They suggest mashing a log with fresh herbs, jarred salsa or chopped dried figs, dates and cranberries.
-- Mayonnaise can be used to thin cheese-based spreads for a dip. But it also can be a base on its own. Zito combines whole or jellied cranberry sauce, mayonnaise, salt and pepper for a great sandwich spread (especially nice with turkey).
-- Spread softened goat cheese into ramekins, then top with a variety of ingredients, says Ujlaki. Tomato pesto, crumbled bacon and chopped toasted nuts are good. Heat in the oven until warm and creamy.
-- If dairy isn't your thing, use beans as the base for dips. Ashton says combine a can of beans (black, pinto or navy are good), a chopped chipotle chile, lime juice and salt in a food processor and pulse until smooth. Alternatively, buy a tub of hummus and doctor it with pesto or tapenade.
-- For another dairy-free option, Sandy Gluck, food editor at Everyday Food magazine, says to puree a small jar of roasted red peppers, a tablespoon of tomato paste, paprika and 1/4 cup toasted almonds.
-- Don't ignore presentation. Zito likes to serve dips and spreads on slabs of marble, slate or even floor tiles.
This is a rich, decadent take on the traditional warm crabmeat dip. Serve it with slices of warm French bread.
Servings: 8 to 12
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus additional to coat the baking dish
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 cup sliced white mushrooms
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 large egg yolks
1 cup heavy cream
2 1/2 cups grated Gruyere cheese (about 7 ounces)
1 pound jumbo lump crabmeat
Brandy, to taste
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Dash of hot sauce
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste
1 cup cracker crumbs, such as saltines, crushed with a rolling pin
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 10-inch gratin dish.
In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the shallots and mushrooms and saute for 1 minute. Add the flour, stir to form a paste, then turn off the heat.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and cream, then add the mixture to the skillet. Slowly bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, whisking to break up any lumps.
Add the cheese and simmer for 30 seconds, or until it reaches a creamy consistency.
Transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl and stir in the crabmeat, brandy, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, parsley, cayenne, salt and pepper.
Pour the crabmeat mixture into the prepared gratin dish and top with the cracker crumbs. Bake for 30 minutes, or until browned on top.
— Recipe from Kevin Garvin's "Neiman Marcus Taste," (Clarkson Potter, 2007) $45.