Friday, May 1

Aunt Mary's Spinach Dip from the Olde Country

In the annals of the Summer Soiree (TM) party series, there are many tales of inebriation, serendipity, and cuisine. This legend is of the origins of the landmark dish known as "Aunt Mary's Spinach Dip from the Olde Country", and it begins way back.

Way back.

2002... Psychic Jacque is an early Soiree regular. Still the swingin' "whoo girl" straight outta State College and newly transplanted to the Dirty Jerz, she is relied upon to always show up, and even better, bring food. We fall in love with her Pittsburgh charm and knack for whipping up a great party dish. Also, she comes armed with her forceful intuition, earning her the moniker Psychic Jacque (pronounced SIGH-kick-JACK-ee).

The beautiful bread bowl is a standout on the kitchen counter, bringing shame to the surrounding plastic bowls of chips and dip, and the fresh-out-of-the-oven Pizza Bites. From its center, a mound of creamy savory goodness speckled with nutritious bits of spinach beckons the veteran drinker, looking to line his stomach for the night to come. Sure, scraps of soft pretzels and Doritos might do the trick, but quality pre-gaming sustenance is notched up several levels with the squares of sourdough asking to be drowned in dip.

It is just a spinach dip, yes. But for those lucky enough to have personally enjoyed this experience, this is an unforgettable moment.

And for several more Soirees to come, it becomes an embarassment of riches being able to repeatedly partake in Psychic Jacque's spinach dip.

"Is Penn State coming?"

In the heyday of the Soiree, many evenings begin like this.

"Where is Penn State?"

"Is she coming? Is she bringing her .... y'know.... her ... Spinach Dip?!"

To those not familiar with Psychic Jacque's intuitive powers, she is simply known as Penn State, because she is remembered by many as the cute girl at the party proud to scream things like, "JOE PA!" and "WE ARE.... " (Recall, this is a pre-Sandusky era.)

To have her presence at a Soiree was quite the get for a seasoned hostess, and I recognized this early on.

And "early on" is when I began asking, "Tell me how you made this."

Now to those who know me, especially those who carry through their lives cherished recipes with "secret ingredients", I can be trusted with such information. Because I do not strive to compete with or steal your mojo. Food-bringing is not what I'm known for.

But "early on" is also when Psychic Jacque would swiftly close this dialogue with the phrase, "It's my Aunt Mary's Spinach Dip recipe from the Olde Country."

Meaning, I can't tell you.

Fair enough. I never planned on making it, and especially if it carried the curse (or blessing) of some old Sicilian woman who probably died standing next to her huge cauldron of tomatoes on simmer, waiting for her sauce to cook down.

On occasion, a drunk Psychic Jacque would reveal an ingredient or two—spinach... sour cream... scallions... mayo (but don't tell anyone!).... The revelation of the mayo made me feel like she was on the brink of upsetting the balance of the globe on its axis, so I took that one clandestine piece of information and held it close to my heart, pressing no further. And, for many Soiree seasons that followed, I simply enjoyed having Psychic Jacque grace us with her presence and dip.

As long as I ensured that Psychic Jacque would be in attendance, then there would indeed be Spinach Dip. The eventuality that a day would come where I'd be hosting a gathering without either popular "dish" would be a cross that bridge-kind of problem, and I was way inland, as far as geographical analogies go. That day was fast approaching for Captain Kirkham's Dirt as well, but again I was still "inland" on that problem too. (That tale and its tasty conclusion shall be dissected in a later post. Swear.)

I can't remember exactly how the events leading up to the Major Revelation came to pass, but let's dispense with the additional preface by revealing that the Major Revalation is that I was holding a packet of Knorr Vegetable Recipe Mix, and I was reading the back of the package.

Specifically the section entitled "Knorr Spinach Dip".

Words began flying out at me.

Spinach.

Sour cream.

Scallions.

Mayo.

Holy shit.

Knorr had cribbed Aunt Mary's revered spinach dip from the Olde Country.

This was epically bad on multiple levels, least of which was Psychic Jacque's family honor.


Hah. I should've known better, since we never established what "olde country" we'd always been referring to. Some ubiquitous place in Italy from where all Italian-Americans originate, that place where people eat manaGOTT stuffed with mutzaRELL and ruhGOTT?

Or had we always been referring to Psychic Jacque's Pittsburgh-area homeland?

I think in my head, I had specifically envisioned this mediterranean-inspired abode down the road from Heinz Field, near the off-ramp of the Sicily/Pittsburgh superexpressway, awash in sunlit grape vines and ripe tomatoes.

Turns out, "olde country" was Shoprite.

Truly, it was both exciting yet anticlimactic of a reveal. Psychic Jacque was now Mrs. Psychic Jacque with a bambino in the oven, so her Soiree attendance record had been getting into the single-digit percentages. The time for me to make spinach dip on my own was nigh.

The Filipinos could now be known for their olde country spinach dip, specifically, my Aunt Mary's, who did not exist until that day I was standing in the powdered-soup-mix-aisle.

Here is the official Knorr Spinach Dip recipe, verbatim:

INGREDIENTS

1 box (10 oz.) frozen chopped spinach, cooked, cooled and squeezed dry
1 container (16 oz.) sour cream*
1 cup Hellmann's® or Best Foods® Real Mayonnaise
1 package Knorr® Vegetable recipe mix
1 can (8 oz.) water chestnuts, drained and chopped (optional)
3 green onions, chopped (optional)

DIRECTIONS

Combine all ingredients and chill about 2 hours. Serve with your favorite dippers to your favorite people.

NOTES

Makes 4 cups
Preparation Time: 10 min
Chill Time: 2 hr
*To lighten up dip, substitute 1 container (16 oz.) nonfat plain Greek yogurt


So this could be the lame part where this tale ends. I gave the backstory, ended with the recipe, The. End. Right?

Completely wrong. Because I have additional information that can help you make my Aunt Mary's Spinach Dip from the Olde Country yours. And by that, I mean, some useful info that will make this task easier, better, and enable you to not get it wrong, ever.

Aforementioned info below:

You can low-fat the shit out of this dish, in addition to the Greek yogurt substitution suggested by Knorr above. Go ahead, use low-fat, even no-fat sour cream, but be advised that this consistency can get watery. Just a head's up.

You could also use low-fat mayo, but I am warning you: never ever ever use a product suggesting that it is mayonnaise without fat. Because it is shitty in taste, and will make your spinach dip also taste similarly shitty. There is no recovery for this, short of dumping it straight in the trash.

Managing the spinach. Sure, you could go fresh on this dish, but frankly, the key to this entire dish has nothing to do with oh-so-nutritious spinach. Just go to the frozen food aisle, and buy that store-brand square block of frozen CHOPPED spinach. Be careful not to buy the one that does not have the word "chopped" on it. The people you feed are not looking to eat a cold spinach salad, they want dip.

Managing the block o' spinach. So you've peeled this gross package open, and you're scraping bits of thawed chopped wet spinach out of the box, so you can get every return on your 99-cent investment. Mistake! Waste of time!

The moment you decide you're making spinach dip, The Very First Thing You Do is: open up the FROZEN square of chopped spinach, sliding it out of the box (much easier when it's frozen, right?) and straight into a bowl. Open up your packet of Knorr mix and sprinkle it all over the block of spinach, and let it all melt together. Don't worry about draining later. Let all the powdery goodness in the packet soak up the melty spinach juice. (Nutritional Note: by not draining, you are also retaining very valuable anti-oxidant byproduct). If you're in a rush, it's ok to nuke this combo bit by bit until you've created this aromatic chunky green blob looking much like an American tabouli.

Water chestnuts have nothing to do with actual nut nuts. They're like Asian mini-potatoes, the size of... well... chestnuts. Starchy like a potato, and usually sold peeled and canned, and found in the Asian/foreign food aisle at your grocery. (If you can't find it, look for the chile and flour tortillas. Mexican food is also "foreign", apparently.) If you have a choice here, it's usually between diced and whole. OK, it probably seems obvious to just go with the diced option because they'll need to be chopped anyway. But this is also the stupid choice, while a mistake easy to make. Diced water chestnuts are a smidge too big to be included in a biteful of spinach dip, but also too small to further chop. And since you'll have to pull out that knife anyway, it's easier to start with the whole water chestnuts, getting them down to a nice acceptable size for this purpose. Think "minced garlic, but bigger"as your rule of thumb.

And I know it says optional next to it, but this is NOT optional. The presence of this ingredient will make your spinach dip stand out to your guests. It will provide the subtle crunch that others often fail to produce in their entry-level options-less spinach dips. Again, to clarify, the phrase "not optional" means "mandatory."

Scallions (a.k.a. "green onions") are not optional, either. It'll provide an additional shade of green, a different texture and some crunch, and also an onion-y zip that the reconstituted dried onion cannot deliver on. As far as chopping these bitches up... shit, did you already put that knife in the dishwasher?! As you should, 'coz it's dirty from power-dicing water chestnuts. To manage the scallions, just dig out your kitchen scissors and snip snip snip into the bowl. Dunzo.

Eyeball 'it. I'm referring to the sour cream and the mayo. The sour cream may be a non-ish, since most sour cream is sold in the exact size container that you'd need for this recipe. As far as the mayo goes, you can just slap a close approximation of a standard cup size. Don't be chintzy here. People eating spinach dip should never (NEVER) pretend that they are eating something healthy, even though someone in the room has tried to rationalize this by emphasizing the word "spinach", or promising a healthy wonder of "low-fat" alternatives to the original ingredients.

That all being said, know this: MAYONNAISE is what makes this dip—nay, ALL dips—taste so spectacular. Accept this fact now. If your eyeballed "cup" is closer to "more than a cup", your dish will do the opposite of suffer; it will transcend. Just don't go overboard. You want dip here. Not a bowl of mayo with what looks like American tabouli buried in there with some sour cream.

The Bread Bowl. This wasn't mentioned by Knorr, but this is the key to making Aunt Mary proud. The bread bowl used as a serving dish is completely optional, but the "theater of the mind" goes a really long way in convincing others that you have set out one quality dish for their pleasure. (It also serves a functional purpose, explained a few paragraphs further down.)

Sure, go ahead and hunt down the perfectly rotund rye loaf. If you find it, you will first get hit with sticker shock right before the panic sets in that you don't know how to cut it up. First of all, spinach dip in a bread bowl is a silly novelty that simply doubles as additional vehicles for dipping when you get down to the end of the dip and can begin eating the bowl itself. Nobody really cares what the bowl looks like, or what shape it is. It doesn't even have to be rye. (Also rye, is occasionally hard to find, and when you do find it, it seems awfully expensive for a big stone shape of ... dark brown carbs. Set your sights on your grocery's clearance baked goods, you'll be surprised at what you'll find that will easily serve this purpose.) Your potential bread bowl just needs enough area to cut enough to make a bowl-ish-like shape, and not so much that it's falling apart. I say cut a circle-ish area around the top, then slice this circle completely off; use your knife and (CLEAN!) hands to pick out the soft bread inside. If you've managed to salvage the lid, it does make a convenient lid for pre-party dip storage. If you're nervous about removing too much of the bread guts, use your knuckles (still CLEAN, hopefully) to push in the soft bread against the bottom and side walls of the bowl.

Depending on what bread you found and the size of the loaf, you may not get all your spinach dip inside your bowl. No worries, it happens. Fill the loaf as much as possible, then store the rest in that empty plastic container that the sour cream came in. You didn't put that thing in the trash did ya? 'Coz it's already food-safe, you dummy.

But what about the bread I'm going to eat my dip with?! Yeah, so the above paragraph did not explain where you get the dipping bread from. Unless we all trust you to carefully remove neat bite-size squares of bread while bowl-ing out your loaf, your serving bread will not be coming from this loaf. In your grocery store, there is occasionally a bin of recently marked down bakery items. Here you will not only find the round, uncut mound that will become your bowl, but you will also often find pre-sliced loaves of their expensive artisan bread that no one else wanted to buy. And it's not stale, but squeamish, date-obsessed phobics will ignore it as long as it's still in the package that says it would've tasted better if it had been purchased by last night. (Trust me, they won't care when it's displayed prettily next to your breadbowl tonight. Just make sure you toss out the bag with yesterday's date stamped on it.) I usually tear up or cut these slices into smaller squares for dipping. Besides, the soft bread guts you got from bowl-making should be used strictly for the intial sampling, a right reserved exclusively for the chef (for tasting purposes only, mind you.)

And hey, who said you could only dip bread? That's right. No one did. If the Wheat Thins or Triscuits are on sale, these will be what you're putting next to your bread bowl. Extra points for the newfangled fancy flavors of crackers. Rule of thumb? Go with whatever is cheaper. If you spend more money on your dippable foods than on the dip itself, you are without question an idiot.

If your dip seems too watery, don't get pissed at me. If you regretfully wish you had ignored my advice and drained the goddamned spinach, then you're a fool. When the frozen block and Knorr mix have successfully merged, it won't be a sopping mess, trust me. If you went as low-fat as you could go, eschewing the original "full-fat" products that this and all great recipes rely upon, then this is likely why your dip is watery.

(Oh, this will also happen if you forgot to drain your water chestnuts. Which means you went with the "diced" water chestnuts straight out of the can, or you went with "whole" and didn't bother further chopping either. Which means that your spinach dip already has a bunch of problems, including a potential choking problem. In which case, this entire blog is not for you.)

And this is where your bread bowl will be more than just an edible container that won't require washing afterwards: that bread bowl will...(brace yourself) absorb any extraneous spinach dip juices. And double-bonus... when it's time to start consuming the bowl itself, these pieces will taste Pretty. Fucking. Amazing. Fact.

And there it is. I've laid bare all my spinach-dip related secrets. But you've benefited by reading them, as well as the accompanying backstory, and will now wow palates while charitably feeding others with your Aunt Mary's Spinach Dip from the Olde Country.

You're welcome.

2 comments:

  1. How could this have no comments? You are a comedienne culinaire! I would rather read recipes like this than a thousand Martha Stewart recipes. Also, my own aunt Mary would add a quarter teaspoon of "Chinese salt," aka monosodium glutamate to her spinach dip. But don't tell anyone #

    ReplyDelete
  2. How could this have no comments? You are a comedienne culinaire! I would rather read recipes like this than a thousand Martha Stewart recipes. Also, my own aunt Mary would add a quarter teaspoon of "Chinese salt," aka monosodium glutamate to her spinach dip. But don't tell anyone #

    ReplyDelete