A perfect dip enforces the good things in life: sharing and camaraderie and, oddly enough for something so casual, diplomacy. Just think of that moment when two chips are pulled simultaneously. Always, inevitably, one graciously tips theirs backward in a silent "you go ahead."
When polled for their signature dip, friends and acquaintances energetically shouted their loyalties: Dill dip! Reuben dip! Shrimp dip! Taco dip! Hot artichoke! It was clear that their favorites came with heartstrings. After all, few dishes can stir up a sense of place and home as well as a dip, preferably one pulled from an old recipe box.
That nostalgia, the very soul-stirring thing that we love about them, also pulls double duty as the dip's least exciting feature: Most of these recipes hail from a foregone era, which makes them beloved but, well ... historical. This does nothing to diminish their deliciousness, but it does mean that dips usually remain immune to culinary trends.
And in this era of farm-to-table and fresh everything, shouldn't we at least cook a bunch of caramelized onions for the onion dip? Might the chili-cheese dip taste better if we used unprocessed cheese and fresh chorizo? How about fresh herbs instead of dried? (As we freshen these up, one request: Hands off the dairy. No need to throw out the sour cream with the bathwater.)
It became evident that asking friends to update their signature dip would be like asking a toddler to trade in their old lovey for a new one: always a no-go. The trade only works if they have a new one in hand.
So we turned to the professionals. We asked three Minneapolis chefs for updated dip recipes. Not for anything that would mess with the holy flavors of these classics, but rather manipulations that would elevate the originals by virtue of good cooking techniques and better ingredients, i.e., fresh crabmeat instead of canned, fresh roasted chiles instead of canned green chiles, and so on.
An onion classic
Choosing whom to hit up first was easy. Landon Schoenefeld has an entire fleet of modernized Midwestern classic recipes on the menu at his restaurant, HauteDish. In his hands the humble Tater Tot hot dish becomes a sculpture of three distinct forms: braised beef, Parmesan béchamel and golden balloons of homemade tots. So it came as no surprise that he gamely took on the mother of them all, sour cream onion dip.
His version is a stunner, not the least because he turned it into a layered dip, another nod to his Midwestern heritage. First he caramelizes yellow onions until they turn soft and golden, then blends them to a smooth custard with a bit of butter. He layers the dip with smoked raisins for a mysterious sweetness and tops it all with a snowdrift of sour cream spiked with vadouvan, a curry paste with fried onions.
(When we said "dress up a dip," he took us at our word. Haven't got a stovetop smoker for the raisins? Soak them in bourbon and liquid smoke and call it a day. Never heard of vadouvan? Order it online or just substitute curry powder.) Kettle chips would be good with this one.
Curry with cool
Stewart Woodman of the newly reopened Heidi's also played with curry's affinity for cool dairy, coming up with a curry dip that sounds simple but plays freshly ground spices, lemon juice and Sriracha chili sauce -- acidity and heat, a chef's best tools -- against cream cheese's calm bass notes. Well-balanced and addictive, his curry dip highlights the purity of its dippers: asparagus, cucumbers, sugar snap peas, carrots, French fries, cooked shrimp. In the course of testing, he made a lunch of it, freely dipping stray kitchen vegetables. "My stomach hurts from eating so much dip," he teased.
Pizza without the crust
Ann Kim of Pizzeria Lola didn't forget about the action this weekend when coming up with her dip, a warm broiled mixture of Berkshire pork sausage, fresh mozzarella and peppadew peppers. Essentially, it's Lola's Sweet Italian pie, minus the crust. (And minus the crust recipe -- drat!) "This is a nice alternative to serving pizzas at a party, since you can keep it warm and dip pita, Italian crusty bread or homemade pizza-style flatbread in it," says Kim.
It's also just the thing for a sprawling, casual Super Bowl party, during which guests don't circle a table as usual but instead huddle along an imaginary line of scrimmage, all eyes burned on the game.
Call it pizza for the visually distracted.
Amy Thielen is a chef and writer from Two Inlets, Minn.