Adding animal fat is a tried-and-true method for making things taste better. Pasta sauce too wan? Stir in some heavy cream. Watermelon too sweet? Crumble a little feta on top. Chili too vegetarian-friendly? Cook it with bacon grease. Nine times out of 10, this works like a charm.
The 10th time, it renders a dish nauseatingly heavy and obscenely oleaginous. Such is the case with many recipes for spinach-artichoke dip, a crowd-pleaser that shows up at virtually every holiday party this time of year. Many artichoke dip recipes call for Parmesan, mozzarella, cream cheese, sour cream and mayonnaise, a quintet that coagulates into a pool of glop slicked with a layer of grease. Such a condiment is great for slowing alcohol’s absorption into your body, but not so great for conveying the nuanced, sunny flavor of artichoke hearts. Your standard artichoke dip has about as much nuance as Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” and is not nearly as healthy.
It is possible to make spinach-artichoke dip that is rich but not overwhelming, creamy but not unguent-like, cheesy but not chewy – an artichoke dip that tastes like artichokes, enhanced. The key is to figure out which fats you need and which fats you don’t. Cream cheese you need, as it’s what gives artichoke dip its thick, spreadable texture. Parmesan you definitely need – its nutty, umami-rich flavor is the essence of savory party snacks.
Mozzarella, though? Not very flavorful, and too stretchy – you end up with elastic strings trailing from your pita chip or baguette slice, which make for messy eating. Mayonnaise is pointless: It doesn’t add much in the way of texture, and it’s mostly oil, anyway. You’re better off skipping the middleman and adding a drizzle of flavorful extra-virgin olive oil to thin out the cream cheese. As for sour cream, its primary contribution is tartness, but lemon juice adds acidity much more efficiently.
An artichoke dip made with cream cheese, Parmesan, olive oil, and lemon juice isn’t healthy, exactly, but it is more elegant and flavorful than the usual cholesterol-laden version. As for the vegetables, thawed frozen artichoke hearts and spinach are the easiest options, but you can use two cans of artichoke hearts, well drained, if they’re all you can find. You also can steam fresh spinach, if you like, but whether you use fresh or frozen, be sure to squeeze as much water out of it as possible – nothing ruins the texture and appearance of artichoke dip like excess spinach juice.
HEAT oven to 450 degrees F. Put cream cheese, Parmesan, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and crushed red pepper in a large bowl. Season with salt and black pepper, and stir to combine. Stir in artichoke hearts and spinach. Transfer to an 8- or 9-inch square pan or a gratin dish and bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Serve hot.Yield: 12 to 16 servings