Pierogi with Potato, Leek and Spinach Filling

One of the most satisfying cooking achievements is striking an item off my culinary “bucket list.” I started my running list a couple of years ago as a way to challenge myself in the kitchen, and my late-night Pinterest surfing (which, unfortunately, coincides with midlife insomnia) is making it longer. Occasionally, I might see a Pinterest recipe I want to try as it is, but more often, I see something that inspires me in a different direction. Either way, you don’t have to be good at math to recognize that my habit (plus my imagination) can only grow the bucket list, so moving an item over to the “made it” column feels like a major accomplishment. Today’s dish has been on the bucket list for at least a year. It’s time!

These pierogi—yes, that is the plural—will be coming up again in rapid rotation, because they were delicious and filling, but also easier to make than I expected. In the big picture of comfort foods, these Polish dumplings are about as far as you can go—tender dough stuffed with potatoes, onions, vegetables or whatever else you like, then boiled and fried in a skillet. With butter! What’s not to love? The arrival of fall seems like the perfect time to tackle them, too. The challenge for me in trying a classic dish for the first time is choosing which recipe to use, and that’s what I’m really sharing today.

An internet search for “best pierogi” will yield at least two pages worth of results that declare to be the original, the best, the most authentic, etc. One person’s “perfect” pierogi dough will fully contradict the next, and here’s the deal on that—everyone had a grandma, and everyone’s grandma made dishes that were “original” for their family, and so that was the best for them. But my grandma was Scandinavian, so how do I know from a cultural standpoint what is truly authentic—at least when it comes to pierogi?

Simple—I research it.

I dig deeper to learn where a dish comes from, who were the people who created it, what was their life and what foods were common to their everyday diet. All of these background notes help me arrive at my own approach to the dish. The central and eastern Europeans who created this dish were likely Jewish peasants, and so they would have used simple, inexpensive ingredients. Over time, the dish caught on with other classes, and sweet, fruit-filled versions evolved, but I’ve decided to keep them savory for my first run-through.

Next, I consult trusted recipe resources, whether that is cookbooks I already own or internet sites such as AllRecipes.com that provide multiple recipes for a particular food. I do not select a single recipe and give it a go. Rather, I look for commonality among the recipes, and then I trust my own cooking instinct as I dive in to create it.

I’ve trusted this book, The Gefilte Manifesto, for the dough portion of the pierogi recipe, primarily because their ingredients and technique are very similar to Italian pasta dough, which is in my wheelhouse so I have a bit of confidence going into this. I’ll save the cream cheese-based dough for another time. For the filling, I followed early tradition and made a potato-cheese-onion mixture. And I’ve added sauteed fresh spinach because my half-Polish, all-Jewish husband (whose family, unfortunately, never made him pierogi) can’t get enough of it, so I always have spinach on hand.

Here we go!


Dough Ingredients

(adapted from The Gefilte Manifesto)

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup spelt flour

1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

2 eggs

3 Tbsp. warm water

The original recipe made a very large batch of pierogi, and in hindsight, I wish I had gone that way because they turned out so delicious. But I halved the ingredients, as I often do when I make something for the first time. The original used only AP flour (which I never follow on anything), so I’ve adjusted for some whole spelt flour so that we can have some amount of whole grain. The original recipe said 3 eggs, but chickens don’t lay eggs in halves, so I used 2 and cut back on the suggested amount of water. I suppose I could’ve whisked three eggs together and divvied out half by weight, but that seemed overkill, and the eggs add richness and protein. I followed my instinct and made the dough the same way I make pasta dough but with less kneading, and set it aside to rest while I made the filling.

Unlike pasta dough, this pierogi dough was only kneaded enough to be fully mixed.

Filling Ingredients

4 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and boiled until fork-tender

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 leek, white and light green parts, split lengthwise and sliced thin

2 handfuls fresh baby spinach

1/3 cup small curd cottage cheese

1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

2 oz. finely shredded white cheddar cheese

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

For frying (optional): 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, 2 sprigs fresh thyme leaves.

Some of the suggested filling recipes I considered mentioned addition of an egg, but I didn’t feel this was important, given that the Yukon gold potatoes already had a creamy quality. I decided the cheddar and cottage cheeses provided enough binder. I put the mixture in the fridge to chill while I rolled and cut the dough into circles.


Putting it all together

Rolling out the dough proved more time consuming than I expected, given that I hadn’t kneaded it much. It was surprisingly strong, which means gluten strands had formed during the rest time. Again, I followed my instinct from experience with pasta, and covered the dough a few minutes to relax those strands, then continued rolling, until the dough was about 1/8” thickness. I did this in two batches.

All the recipes I found suggested cutting about 3 1/2” circles, and the only thing I had that size was a little ice cream bowl. Note to self: buy a biscuit cutter already!

On to the fun part—shaping the pierogi! I spooned about 1 1/2 teaspoons of filling mixture onto the center of each dough round, then I dipped a finger into a small dish of water and wet the outer edge of the rounds to help seal the dough. This is important, because a good seal prevents the filling seeping out during boiling. Anything oily along the edge of the dough will cause the edges to separate, so I was also careful to keep the filling right in the center of the rounds as I closed them. I cupped the dough round in one palm, and used my other hand to seal the edges tight, stretching the dough as needed to fully envelop the filling. Once the rounds were sealed up into half moon shapes, I crimped the edges with a floured fork and let them rest while the water came to boil.


Boiling and Pan-frying

As with pasta water, I used a generous amount of salt. Don’t skimp on this out of fear of sodium—remember that most of the salt will stay in the water, and the pierogi (like pasta) will take up just enough to season it well. Various recipes I’d seen suggested that the dumplings would initially sink but eventually float, and I followed the recommendation to cook them about 4 minutes from the float stage. They cooked at a gentle boil, just above a simmer. I scooped them out onto parchment paper, and though they could have been served exactly like that, I pressed on with the pan frying to give them some extra texture—and, of course, the browned butter. 😊

This half-batch of pierogi fed us for dinner twice, and I ended up with enough leftover to freeze for later. I laid the (un-boiled) individual dumplings out on a parchment-lined sheet, covered loosely with another sheet of parchment and frozen overnight, then I transferred them to a zip top bag for cooking later.

Ready for a quick weeknight meal later this fall! Boil them straight from the freezer.

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These turned out so comforting and delicious, I wish I had made them sooner, but I’m glad to get them off my bucket list! 🙂 Here is a sampling of my remaining “someday” recipes, and I hope that sharing this glimpse with you will give me the accountability I need to get cooking:

Porchetta (an Italian specialty made with pork belly wrapped around pork tenderloin)
Why I haven’t made it: It looks fussy and complicated, and that scares me a little.

Black-and-white cookies (one of Les’s favorite NYC classic treats)
Why I haven’t made them: He loves them so much, I’m worried I’ll mess them up (crazy, I know).

Barbacoa (slow cooked spicy beef, which I love, thanks to Chipotle chain)
Why I haven’t made it: I’m committed to only using grass-fed beef in my recipes, and our city doesn’t have the best options for grass-fed, so I need to venture out to a market in a nearby city.

Hold me to it, dear friends! Those dishes deserve a shot in my kitchen. What foods are on your bucket list, either to cook or just to try?


Kentucky Bourbon Pecan & Cheese Biscuits

It’s been a long summer of waiting, but today in Louisville, Kentucky, 20 thoroughbred horses will finally be turned loose in the 146th “Run for the Roses,” the Kentucky Derby.

For the race originally scheduled for the first Saturday in May, I had cooked up a storm for a Kentucky Derby Preview Party. If you missed those recipes, by all means check them out. You’ll get a chance to imagine two twists on the traditional Kentucky Hot Brown, and three fun cocktails that captured the essence and excitement of spring.

Today, I’m keeping it low key, with two special cocktails that celebrate the spirit of Kentucky Derby, with a late summer, headed-into-fall flavor palette. And because no party is complete without snacks, here’s my twist on southern classic cheese straws. These bite-sized biscuits are buttery and crisp, flavored with sharp cheddar (the standard for these down-south favorites) and gruyere, in a nod to the mornay sauce on a Kentucky Hot Brown sandwich. The biscuit is speckled with flecks of fresh rosemary, and crowned with a bourbon-bathed toasted pecan. Despite the flavor complexities and my over-the-top description, these were easy to make from simple ingredients and just a few special touches. They taste southern and look downright fancy, and they’re just the right bite to accompany my Run For the Roses 2.0 cocktails. Let’s make ’em!

Ingredients

About 1 cup pecan halves (approximately 30)

2 oz. bourbon

1 stick butter, softened*

1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce

8 oz. finely grated cheddar cheese* (see notes)

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves

1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper*

pinch kosher salt

freshly ground black pepper

2 Tbsp. brown sugar

2 tsp. bourbon

*Notes

Use either salted or unsalted butter for these cookies. The butter should be softened enough to mix, but not room temperature or melted.

Substitute other cheeses as you wish, but stick with a cheese that has similar texture to cheddar. I found a terrific cheddar-gruyere blend at Trader Joe’s, and it immediately took me back to May when I made the Kentucky Hot Brown Benedict. It’s fun to be able to keep a theme when making food for a special occasion.

The cayenne is optional, but it does add a subtle hint of “kick” that is a nice balance to the cheese flavor.


Instructions

  1. Sort the pecan halves to select the best looking pieces. Place pecans in a shallow glass dish, and pour the 2 oz. bourbon to evenly cover. Gently turn and toss the pecans to ensure they are uniformly soaked. Set aside for about one hour.
  2. Drain the bourbon off the pecans, and arrange the nut halves on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake at 300° F for about 12 minutes, until nuts are dry and just lightly toasted. Allow them to cool completely and store in a covered container until you’re ready to make the biscuit cookies.

For the cookies:

  1. Using a box grater or food processor, grate the entire amount of cheddar cheese. Use the smallest grating holes you have for a very finely textured cheese. Set aside.
  2. In a small bowl, combine flour, cayenne, rosemary, salt and pepper. Set aside.
  3. In a stand mixer or with an electric hand mixer, beat together the softened butter and worcestershire sauce until butter is light and somewhat fluffy.
  4. Add the cheese to the butter mixture and beat to combine. I found that the cheese virtually disappeared into the butter to become a very soft and spreadable consistency.
  5. Add the flour mixture to the cheese mixture all at once, and beat on low speed only until all the flour is incorporated. Do not overmix.
  6. Transfer to the mixture to a covered bowl and refrigerate at least three hours or overnight.
  7. Preheat oven to 350° F.
  8. If cookie dough has chilled overnight, it will be very firm. Remove from the fridge 15 minutes ahead of time before shaping.
  9. Combine brown sugar and 2 tsp. bourbon in a shallow dish. Place the cooled pecans, top side down, into the mixture. Gently shake the dish to ensure mixture gets worked into the nooks of the pecans, but only on one side. Allow them to rest in the bourbon sugar several minutes, about the same amount of time for shaping the cookies.
  10. Shape cheese mixture into 1″ balls and arrange on a parchment lined baking sheet, approximately 1″ apart. Use a fork to slightly flatten the balls into disc shapes, similar to making peanut butter cookies.
  11. Carefully press bourbon halves, top side up, onto the cookies. If cookies have become warm at all, place the tray in the freezer for 15 minutes to firm them.
  12. Bake cookies for 18-20 minutes, until set and lightly crispy at the edges.
  13. Transfer baked cookies to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.
Crispy and savory, with an extra kiss of bourbon in the pecans.

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Waffled Mac and Cheese—yes, please!

There are “leftovers,” and then there are “planned-overs.” The latter is a concept frequently referenced by my aunt, who is all in favor of planning to have extra portions of a recipe, specifically to be used in something else later on.

This is a planned-over that I’ve tried (and missed) before, but this time, it was a big-time winner. Friends, it’s comfort times two—mac and cheese, waffled!

Go ahead, drool a little. I know you want to make these.

These are easy to make, but obviously, you need to have a waffle maker to make this happen. My first (failed) effort was on a Belgian-style waffle maker—not a great idea, and I’m certain the thick, deeply indented shape contributed to the not-so-fab outcome. For the best texture and even, perfectly crispy edges, go with a standard square-style waffle maker. Mine has a non-stick coating, so pulling the finished waffles off the iron was cheesy-breezy.

To plan ahead for these planned-overs, skip back to my basic mac and cheese recipe, and follow the instructions, but stop after the stove-top stage—no casserole into the oven, or else your mac and cheese waffles will be dry and tough. Reserve about 1/2 cup of the cheese sauce, for decadent drizzling on the finished waffles. Go ahead and bake some of the mac and cheese if you’d like, but hold back enough to make waffles in whatever quantity you wish.

Here, I spread the unbaked portion of mac and cheese evenly into a 9 x 13 glass casserole dish, about 1 inch deep. Cover and chill until you’re ready to dive into this decadence.


Ready to get cooking?

Here’s a quick recap for making my bechamel-based cheese sauce. Use the link to the original recipe for ingredient amounts and detailed descriptions.


Ingredients

Prepared basic mac and cheese, reserve 1/2 cup of the cheese sauce for serving.

1 large egg, beaten with a tablespoon of water

3/4 cup unseasoned panko bread crumbs

1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan or parm-romano blend*

Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Reserved cheese sauce

1/3 cup heavy cream or half and half


*Notes

At our house, we always have a 50/50 blend of deli-quality parmesan and romano cheeses. We purchase the cheese in blocks and shred it with the food processor. It beats the daylights out of store-bought parmesan cheese, and we save a good bit of money in the long run.


Instructions

The visual description will probably cover it for you, but written instructions are included below, just in case.

Cut chilled mac and cheese into squares or rectangles, to match the size of your waffle maker sections.

Place the beaten egg into a shallow glass dish. Dip each piece of mac and cheese into the egg wash, using a spoon as necessary to fully drench the mac and cheese with the egg mixture.

Combine panko crumbs, parmesan, salt and pepper in a second shallow glass dish. Dredge the egg washed mac and cheese in the crumb mixture, pressing crumbs into the nooks and crannies to ensure even coating. Transfer coated mac and cheese to a parchment-lined cookie sheet and allow them to rest about 15 minutes.

Preheat the waffle iron to 400° F.

Press additional crumb mixture onto any bare spots on the mac and cheese. Arrange the pieces into the waffle iron, and press to close. Allow them to bake about 10 minutes, or until they are golden brown and lightly crispy on the outside. They should also release easily from the iron.

While the mac and cheese waffles are baking, warm the leftover cheese sauce, whisking in up to 1/3 cup heavy cream or half and half until the sauce is thinner and pourable.

Serve the decadent crispy waffles with a generous drizzle of the cheese sauce.

Too much cheese. Said NO ONE, ever.

We served these as a hearty side to some juicy, quick-brined pork chops and leftover collard greens. But wouldn’t they also look great alongside some southern fried chicken or meatloaf or burgers or—OK, with just about anything? 😊

The only thing better than mac and cheese is WAFFLED mac and cheese!

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Easy-Cheesy Grilled Scalloped Potatoes

I’m breaking all the cooking rules on some all-time classic comfort foods, as I’m determined to find new ways to prepare foods that have too long depended on the oven. It’s hot enough this time of year, so I’m turning off the oven and moving dinner prep outside.

We won this battle at our house recently with a twice-grilled meatloaf, which we served up with these cheesy-good, grilled scalloped potatoes. This Comfort du Jour twist was simple to whip up because it doesn’t involve a cream sauce (that would be a disaster on the grill), but it was every bit as delicious, with tender potatoes, thin slices of onion and two kinds of cheese—pepper jack for a little kick, and crumbled bleu cheese for an interesting touch of funk. The potatoes were great just like this, but I’m certain they’d also be good with cheddar, smoked gouda or any other favorite cheese.

I used non-stick aluminum foil as the cooking vessel, so cleanup was—well, nothing! Seriously, is there anything to not love about this?

This was perfection. Classic comfort foods, with a Comfort du Jour twist that will become a summer go-to for us.

Ingredients

5 medium Yukon gold potatoes, scrubbed clean and sliced 1/4″ thick* (see picture tip, below)

1 small sweet onion, thinly sliced

Extra virgin olive oil

3 oz. sliced or shredded pepper jack cheese

1/4 cup bleu cheese crumbles

Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper


*Tip

Whole potatoes can slip really easily when you’re trying to slice them thin. Either use a mandoline (be careful there, too), or try this easy trick. Slice a very thin section off one side of the potato, so it will lay flat on your cutting board, making it easier to safely cut it into slices.

Instructions

  1. In a large bowl, drizzle olive oil over the potato slices and give them a good tossing to coat them.
  2. Arrange a single layer of potatoes on a large rectangle of heavy aluminum foil (I recommend the non-stick type).
  3. Add a layer of onion slices, season with salt and pepper and distribute half amounts of each cheese.
  4. Repeat with another layer of each ingredient.
  5. Place a second sheet of foil over the “casserole” and crimp the foil all the way around to seal the edges.
  6. Grill over indirect heat (we placed them on the upper rack of our gas grill) for about 30 minutes.

Open the packet very carefully, as escaping steam will be very hot. Serve directly from the foil pack for easy-and-done cleanup!


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“Leftovers” Mac & Cheese with Collards

I’m on a crusade to empty out all the random dishes of this-and-that in the refrigerator, and that usually leads to a short list of outcomes. We might end up having a “potpourri” night, where nothing really goes together but at least it’s sustenance. Or we might decide we’ve enjoyed the original dishes on their own for long enough, and we quietly turn the dishes out into the trash can, which is wasteful and leaves me feeling unresourceful. And every once in a blue moon, the random leftovers have a common thread and speak to me in a way that leads to a crazy good meal that hardly feels like leftovers at all.

Option No. 3 is on our plate this time, with leftover southern collard greens, a single leftover smoked sausage (infused with Texas Pete flavor), some crumbs of ghost pepper potato chips and too many half-used chunks of cheese in the deli drawer.

Kicked-up mac and cheese, baby. The sausage is cooked in smoke, so it has a nice firm texture, easy to cube and fry in a skillet until crispy. I’m inspired to add the collard greens because of a trip Les and I made to NYC in late 2018, and we took the subway up to Harlem for dinner at The Red Rooster, owned by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson. He has a popular dish on his menu called “mac and greens,” featuring (you guessed it) cooked collards.

We were lucky to get a table at Red Rooster during the holiday season. All of New York was bustling, and the restaurant was lively and loud and fabulous. I ordered Poppa Eddie’s Shrimp & Grits, which was like a rich and flavorful gumbo served over creamy cheese grits. Les enjoyed the Hot Honey Yardbird. Yes, it was half a chicken, and yes, he finished the whole thing. But the restaurant staff told us, by far, the most popular menu item was the mac and greens, so we ordered it as a starter to our incredible meal. It was so crazy good, and I can’t explain why it has taken me until now to create my own version of it at home.

This is another perfect example of Comfort du Jour—a classic comfort food elevated with unexpected ingredients, and, as a bonus in homage to my frugal grandmother (and role model in all things kitchen-y), this one happens to empty out a bunch of leftovers to boot. Oh, this is gonna be fun!

I haven’t made mac and cheese since my first blog post back in April, so it’s definitely time. If you missed that post, you can check it out now, but I’ll offer a quick refresher course on making the star of the dish, which is the bechamel-based cheese sauce.

For starters, get some American cheese for the melting quality that cannot be matched with only block cheeses. The rest of the cheese is best freshly grated rather than pre-shredded in a bag. We are looking for extreme creaminess, and if you have an immersion blender, pull it out of the cabinet because that is my secret weapon for the silkiest, creamiest cheese sauce in minutes. Ready?


Ingredients

6 oz. orrechiette* (I had half of a 12 oz. box)

3 Tbsp. each butter and flour

1 3/4 cups whole milk (2% would be OK, but less rich)

5 oz. American cheese (the kind you get by the pound in the deli)

6 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded* (most of a regular block)

A few twists of freshly ground black pepper

1 cup leftover cooked collard greens, drained if resting in liquid)

1 leftover “Texas Pete” smoked sausage*

Leftover crumbs from the bottom of a bag of Ghost Pepper potato chips from Trader Joe’s (c’mon, you have this, don’t you?)

*Notes

Orrechiette is a small pasta shape, and I happened to have a half-box of it. Its name translates to “little ears” in Italian, and it can easily be swapped out for another small shape of pasta, such as elbows or rotini—essentially, you want a shape that will grab hold of your delicious cheese sauce. I’ve noticed that the popular pasta shapes have been in scarce supply, which makes this a fun time to try new ones!

I had cheddar in abundance in my deli drawer, but of course any cheese that melts well would work. Most of the time, I gather up all the scraps and bits and throw them in—it’s why my mac and cheese is hardly ever the same twice.

The smoked sausage was a lone straggler from a meal Les had grilled up a few nights before. Smoked sausage has a really firm texture (think kielbasa), and this one in particular was seasoned before smoking with Texas Pete sauce.


Here’s a visual run-through for you. Because it was leftovers, it made enough to feed the two of us for dinner, with a bonus portion of mac and greens without the sausage.


Instructions

  1. Melt butter, cook flour until bubbly, add milk and whisk until smooth. Melt American cheese into the sauce and whisk until smooth. Add grated cheddar, whisk until smooth.
  2. Use immersion blender to emulsify cheese into an ultra-smooth mixture. Season with smoked black pepper.
  3. Cut smoked sausage into bite sized pieces, cook in small hot skillet to crisp up the edges of the sausage.
  4. Cook pasta to “early al dente” stage. It will soften further in the oven with the cheese sauce. Add finished pasta to cheese sauce, add cooked collard greens and stir until evenly combined.
  5. Layer mac & cheese in ramekins with the crispy sausage bits, top with crushed potato chip crumbs. Bake at 350° F for 30 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly and top is lightly browned with crisp edges.

I made ours in individual serving ramekins, and put the rest in a small casserole we can use for lunch sides later in the week.

Does this really even need words?

From the oven, the mac and cheese is hearty and satisfying, with an ultra-creamy sauce and occasional bites of crispy smoked sausage. And the savory collards add another level of flavor, not to mention the nutritional value they bring to the table.

It’s creamy, but still has so much interesting texture, thanks to the sausage, collards and spicy potato chip crumbs. If I hadn’t made it myself, nobody would convince me it was made from leftovers.

Now, if I could only plan ahead to come up with these exact leftovers, because I sure would like to make this dish again. Of course, who knows what will be taking up space in the fridge next week.

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Creamy Crab and Artichoke Dip

Of all the recipes I stashed away in my mind during the time I spent working in a catering kitchen, the hot artichoke dip takes the gold as my most durable. During my two years as a kitchen assistant, I probably made this dip more than 100 times. It was a favorite among clients, and for good reason. It’s easy to make ahead, easy to serve in large quantity and an undeniable crowd pleaser. It also happens to be extremely adaptable to other ingredients, as we learned with the Kentucky Hot Brown Dip a few weeks ago. By keeping the base recipe the same, I’m able to adjust the other ingredients to create whatever impression I wish, and I encourage you to do the same with ingredients that sound good to you.

What I haven’t confessed is that the cream cheese part of the recipe I share today is technically my own adjustment to the original, which (I’m sorry to say) was completely off the charts in fat content. If you spend even a little bit of time in a commercial kitchen, you will quickly come to realize the overwhelming dependence on mayonnaise. I’m not kidding—pro chefs use that stuff for everything—from dips and dressings (which makes sense) to spreading on fish before rolling in bread crumbs (why not eggs or Dijon?) and replacing butter for grilling sandwiches (I’m sorry—what’s wrong with butter?). As crazy as it seems, the solution presented in the catering kitchen to the oiliness that would appear when the artichoke dip was drowning in melted mayonnaise was, “add more bread crumbs.” Yowza. When I decided to make it at home, this recipe got an easy makeover.

For any creamy hot dip, light cream cheese fits the bill as a substitute for so much mayonnaise. It maintains the silky creamy texture, gives better structure and (in my humble opinion) improves the overall experience of the dip because it doesn’t separate or become greasy. I don’t need to create an infographic to describe to you the nutritional comparison. (Spoiler—the cream cheese wins.)

And although the original recipe is for artichoke dip, the base is a neutral canvas for whatever you want in the dip. This time, I kept the marinated artichoke hearts, added cooked crab, swapped out cheddar in favor of cheeses that paired better with the delicate crab, and topped the whole thing with garlic-buttered (not mayonnaise-laden) panko crumbs. We wanted something on the “heavy hors d’oeuvres” side for a backyard happy hour, and this was perfectly transportable and an absolute winner. As you can see, the ingredient list is short and sweet, just like our time spent laughing and relaxing with our friends on a beautiful spring evening. Charlotte was convinced this must be difficult to make—just wait until she sees the simplicity of this recipe! 🙂

Whether you’re gathering safely with friends as we did or hoarding the whole batch for yourself (I’m not judging), I hope you’ll feel free to swap ingredients to suit your palate for your next “happy hour.”

This dip is really, really easy to make with only a handful of ingredients. The crab is already cooked, so it comes together quickly. If you’re pressed for time, it’s OK to use pre-shredded cheese.

Ingredients

8 oz. brick light cream cheese (Neufchatel), softened

1/3 cup canola oil mayonnaise

2 tsp. dried chopped onion (or 1/4 cup sauteed onion)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

A few shakes of Old Bay seasoning (optional, but so good with crab)

1 cup shredded Swiss cheese (to save time, I used a pre-shredded blend from Trader Joe’s)*

4 oz. prepared crab meat*

3/4 cup marinated artichoke hearts, chopped into bite-sized pieces

2 Tbsp. salted butter

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 cup panko bread crumbs

1/4 cup parmesan cheese

*Notes

I’m eating my words from other posts regarding the use of pre-shredded cheese. Normally, I cringe at their use because of the no-clump coating that generally prevents even mixing or melting. The truth is, I was pressed for time on the day I made this scrumptious dip, because my stylist was able to squeeze me in for my first hair appointment in more than 90 days! As always, my tips are only suggestions. If it comes down to taking a shortcut or missing the opportunity, please always take the shortcut!

Use any cooked crab meat you prefer. In some dishes, fresh is crucial—but in this hot dip, I’ve found that the prepared blue crab available in my supermarket’s seafood section is perfectly suitable.

Instructions

Using either a stand mixer or handheld mixer, beat the cream cheese and mayonnaise together until smooth and creamy. Add the dried onion, plus salt and pepper to taste, and mix to combine. This is the base recipe, and you can use it as a backdrop for any other ingredients you wish, provided you follow the general ratio of added ingredients, and none of them are excessively wet.

To continue with the crab artichoke dip recipe, add the Old Bay seasoning and shredded cheese and stir or mix on low until it’s evenly incorporated. Use a rubber spatula or spoon to gently fold in the crab meat and artichoke hearts. You want these ingredients to keep their shape, so easy does it here.

For serving at home, transfer the mixture to a 9-inch pie plate. Because we were planning to share the dip at a safely-distanced backyard happy hour, I divided it among three smaller oven-safe ramekins—one for us, one for our friends, and a third to leave behind for them to enjoy later in the weekend.

Melt butter in a small skillet and sauté the garlic over medium-low heat. Stir in the panko crumbs and toss them around until all are coated evenly. (Want to save a bit of time here? While the butter is melting, put the panko crumbs in a small Rubbermaid-style bowl. After sautéing the garlic, pour the butter mixture over the crumbs then seal the bowl and shake the heck out of it. It’s one more dish to wash, but you will make quick work of blending the butter with the crumbs more evenly.)

Sprinkle the buttered crumbs evenly over the crab-artichoke mixture, then sprinkle with parmesan and cover with foil and tuck it into the fridge until you’re ready to bake.

Bake at 350° F for 35-40 minutes, or until dip is bubbly and parmesan-crumb mixture is lightly browned. Serve warm with crackers, pita or toasted baguettes. Wouldn’t you know?—we were in a rush to get over to our backyard happy hour, and I was so excited about seeing our friends in person, I forgot to snap a picture of the bubbly dip while it was hot from the oven. I guess I’ll have to make it again, and then I’ll update the post. 🙂

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Les’s Homemade Pimiento Cheese

Every Super Bowl party, every Thanksgiving appetizer hour and several other times throughout the year—you’ll find this quick and simple spread on our table. Though he doesn’t know the exact origin of his pimiento cheese recipe, my husband, Les, recalls that it was shared with him by a colleague at one of his former jobs. And that’s the nature of recipes, isn’t it? We enjoy a food that someone else prepared and we ask for the recipe. Maybe it’s their original recipe or maybe they got it from a cousin or a neighbor or their church potluck cookbook or the back of a soup can. When the recipe tickles your fancy, it doesn’t matter where it came from—just enjoy the fact that someone is willing to share it.

Les has graciously shared this one with me, to be shared with you. I was busy watching and jotting down the amounts of each ingredient he used, so I missed getting pictures along the way. But would you really need them for a recipe this simple? Let’s just go straight to the money shot.

Pimiento cheese is a southern food staple, delicious on a burger or little luncheon sandwiches, or even just spread on a cracker.

Unlike so many southern-style pimiento cheese recipes, this one is easy on the mayonnaise and lets the cheese take center stage. Nothing turns me off, food-wise, more than too much mayonnaise. The addition of diced tomatoes provides a nice touch of acidity to balance the richness of the cheese, and the tiniest splash of an unexpected ingredient adds a savory undertone. This spread is sturdy enough that a delicate cracker will break when you dip it. You need a hefty cracker or crostini, or do as we do and use a serving knife to spread it on your preferred snack canvas.

We enjoyed some of this recently when we had a small, physically distanced gathering with another couple. It was a fabulous backyard happy hour, long-overdue, and complete with snacks and David’s awesome martinis.

Go on, open a box of crackers, and make it a big one—in case you decide to devour the whole batch in one sitting. Nobody would blame you.

Ingredients

2/3 cup mayonnaise (we use an all-canola oil brand)

1/2 can Rotel tomatoes, very well drained*

2 oz. jar of diced pimientos, drained of excess moisture

1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce (surprise!)

2 blocks (8 oz. each) cheddar cheese, freshly shredded*

Freshly cracked black pepper

*Notes

Les uses the “hot” version of Rotel, which has habanero pepper but honestly isn’t really that hot. If spicy isn’t your thing, use the original.

Try using a couple different types of cheese, to keep it interesting. This time around, Les used sharp yellow cheddar and extra sharp white cheddar. But if you want to get creative and use smoked cheddar, or mix it up with gouda or another favorite firm cheese—we would both say, “go for it!”

For sure, do not use the pre-shredded cheese in a bag. They coat that stuff with a substance that keeps it from sticking together in the bag, and it adds a weird texture to finished recipes. In our opinion, all cheese is best when you buy it whole and grate it yourself.

Instructions

Stir together the mayonnaise, tomatoes, pimientos and Worcestershire sauce in a large mixing bowl, and season to your liking with black pepper. You won’t need to add salt because the cheese has enough. Add the shredded cheddar cheese and mix until evenly combined. I will note that Les and I differ on how to put together certain types of dishes, this being one of them. He grates the cheese first and then blends in each ingredient after that; my thought is that mixing the wet ingredients first and then blending in the dry makes life far easier. (Coincidentally, our methods differ in the same way for cookies. But that’s another post.) You can serve the spread immediately, but the flavor is best after a few hours in the refrigerator.

Simple ingredients, simple to make, and delicious!

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Pimiento cheese is practically its own food group in the South. If you have never heard of it (or maybe even pimientos themselves), here’s some background info to bring you up to speed:

What are pimientos?

Also sometimes spelled “pimento,” these are smallish round sweet peppers, about the size of a golf ball, and they are commonly referred to as “cherry peppers” because they have a similar shape. When jarred, the peppers are usually diced quite small. Most likely, you’ve seen pimientos before, stuffed into the inside of pitted green olives. Of course, now I’m craving a martini.

Are pimientos spicy?

Most people would agree that pimientos are not spicy, but sweet in flavor. For reference, they land somewhere about 200 on the Scoville scale, which measures the capsaicin, or heat value, of peppers. To compare, jalapenos are somewhere around 3,000. Having said that, if you decide to grow some pimientos, give them some distance from spicier peppers in your garden, as they have a tendency to take on more heat once they have cross-pollinated.

What else can you do with pimientos?

You can use pimientos the same way you’d use any other sweet pepper—in salads, soups, spreads or omelets. They are nearly bite-sized, so you might also remove the stem and clean out the seeds, then stuff them with herbed cream cheese or tuna salad. If you just have way too much time your hands, I suppose you could buy a bushel, dehydrate them and grind them into a powder. Voilà—homemade paprika.

How can I dress up pimiento cheese?

Adjust the flavor profile by blending in different kinds of cheese—smoked gouda, asiago or bleu cheese would each lend an interesting twist to pimiento cheese. Or add small amounts of other ingredients, such as pickled jalapenos, pickles or even cooked crumbled bacon for variety.

How can I use leftover pimiento cheese?

I’m sorry—I don’t think I understand this question, because we never have leftovers! 🙂 But sometimes, Les makes a double batch so we have enough to use for other things, such as topping a burger, melting over a toasted bagel, slathering inside omelets or elevating our happy in a macaroni and cheese. Go on, make some!