Dip it, dip it, get yourself a chip and dip it

one tray of samples in the dip contest

one tray of samples in the dip contest

With “Let’s Get Physical” stuck in my head and buffalo chicken dip clinging on my breath, I pondered the truth that favors have unintended consequences.

When a Facebook friend, Mandy Steinhardt, asked me to help judge a dip contest at her Raleigh workplace, Capstrat, I imagined a few little bowls of various things and people taking a little break from the day. There was nothing small about it. Giant video screens across the office played continuous loops of music videos featuring big hair and shoulder pads because it was declared ’80s day. Dips and the ’80s – I don’t think I need to comment on that confluence.

Steinhardt said her workplace does these company parties for fun a few times a year, and most are fund raisers. People paid a small amount to enter their dips in the competition or to sample them, and the money went to the InterFaith Food Shuttle, which also provided the two other judges.

So, I thought, how many dips could there be? Twenty one.

Yes, 21 bowls of  salsas, onion dips, cheese dips, artichoke dips, spinach dips and black bean dips. A chocolate-chip batter dip with apple instead of chips. The sole guacamole entry, which was not green. And something called a Dunkaroo Dip that offered Teddy Graham cookies to scoop something that tasted like cake batter. My two fellow judges adored it because it reminded them of their childhoods eating something actually called Dunkaroos, a packaged snack that consists of cookies and a small tub of frosting. (Think dessert Lunchables.) They ate my sample after finishing theirs.

Interestingly, each of the 21 dips was a little different. Few had duplicate flavors, and those didn’t take the same approaches. I’d like to offer some hints for better dips: If you’re using cooked spinach, squeeze all the water possible out of it or you’ll get a soggy, flavorless dip; fresh makes a difference, so chop fresh tomatoes for salsa instead of opening a can; and make sure the chip selected enhances the dip and won’t crumble.

amy's creamy jalapeno dip

amy’s creamy jalapeno dip

We selected winners in hot dips and cold dips, and a most creative. From those three, we picked one best-in-show winner to receive a highly shiny trophy. Our picks were Claire Hovis’ buffalo chicken dip for hot dips, Amy Cozart’s creamy jalapeno dip for cold dips, and that Dunkaroo Dip by Alexandra Abramoski for most creative. The shiny trophy went to Cozart, who also received a signed copy of my book, “Buttermilk: A Savor the South Cookbook.”

She offered to share her recipe for the dip, which isn’t as hot as you’d think from the name – it has a pleasant little burn. It’s a great dip, but I’d also consider taking it away from the chips and drizzling it on grilled chicken or fish.

Amy’s Creamy Jalapeno Dip

2 fresh jalapenos, seeded and chopped

1/3 cup chopped cilantro

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2 tablespoons milk

Juice of 1 lime

1 (16-ounce) container sour cream

1 (1-ounce) package ranch-style salad dressing mix

Put the jalapenos, cilantro, garlic, milk and lime juice in a blender. Blend until the mixture has a pesto-like consistency. Add the sour cream and dressing mix. Blend until all the ingredients are incorporated. Chill before serving as a dip with tortilla chips, or taco topping.

A trip through Japan in 12 courses

monkfish liver with sea urchin and pickles

I was glad I’d purchased a fast, new smartphone before I got to Blind Pig’s Rising Sun dinner in Raleigh. In a lot of cases, it was the only way to know what The Hub and I were eating.

Kenchin-jiru? The Google told me that was Buddhist vegetarian soup. Furikake? A Japanese seasoning that often contains seaweed. But it failed me on “yukke hato,” which turned out to be ground chicken heart. No matter. The remarkable experience of dining on 12 courses of Japanese-themed food made by six top North Carolina chefs needed no translation.

Blind Pig Supper Club is based in Asheville, and calls itself an underground supper club. It organizes culinary events that bring top chefs together to step outside their usual styles of cooking. I think this is the third dinner the group has organized in Raleigh. Find out more here.

The chef for this meal were Jason Smith of Raleigh’s 18 Seaboard; Scott Crawford, formerly of Heron’s at the Umstead Hotel in Cary, now opening Standard Foods in Raleigh; Drew Maykuth of Stanbury in Raleigh; Matt Kelly of Mateo Tapas and Vin Rouge in Durham; Kyle McKnight of Highland Avenue in Hickory; and Brian Canipelli of Cucina 24 in Asheville.

kohii zerii (coffee jelly), condensed milk, caramelized peas

kohii zerii (coffee jelly), condensed milk, caramelized peas

Each chef prepared two courses, and did it without an actual kitchen – the meal was served at Clearscapes downtown. Smith prepared the yukke hato with radish and pear, and the final course, a dessert using coffee jelly – which my phone told me was popular in Japanese coffee shops – condensed milk and topped with crunchy caramelized peas. (“Peas? That’s a very Japanese thing to do,” said my friend, Linda, who lived in Japan for several years, when I told her about it. Linda is hotly anticipating the new ramen shop opening in Durham, so they need to step on it. )

Crawford made the gentle first course – scallop sashimi with ginger juice – and a version of chawanmushi with cucumber and a touch of roe. Chawanmushi is a kind of custard that, in Japan, is savory, not sweet.

Maykuth created a course that made one of my least favorite fish, mackerel, appealing. It was pickled with seaweed and some other things I had to use my phone for. He also made a combination of tofu and bacon dashi.

McKnight offered a course of three kinds of mushrooms with garlic (one was had a little too much moisture in it) and another with a delightful bit of pork belly and peach vinegar next to a tempura-fried whole okra pod.

A fried round of monkfish liver topped Canipelli’s 11th course, accompanied by sea urchin. He also made the delightful kenchin-jiru soup, studded with different crunchy root vegetables.

Kelly combined cherry tomatoes and grilled shishito peppers with burrata (an Italian cheese) for a twist on caprese salad. His other course was wittily labeled “JFC”: Japanese fried chicken, with cabbage.

A standout for The Hub and me was the soup, which was refreshing halfway through the meal. I can’t say I’ll wake up one morning craving monkfish liver, but it was quite good and the little plate’s flavors were nicely balanced. Hub liked the chawanmushi, but I’ve never cared for the texture on that dish. Pork belly…what’s not to like about that? Each dish had it’s own qualities, and played a role in the unique theater that was this meal. Quite an experience.