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Cooking Off the Cuff: The Best Dipping Sauce of 2014

This made a clear-flavored, well balanced (but eggplant-prominent) puree that needed only salt to be remarkably appetizing.
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Sometimes, I can plan and shop for a meal well in advance and get away with it - usually when we have dinner guests and when the centerpiece is something that needs to be bought a few days ahead of time. But a little while ago, with a friend coming over, plans went by the board. I'd had a grand idea for a fish dish that I had to shelve early in the day because Jackie and I had been out to a restaurant the night before, overate and were suffering from what can best be described as a food hangover. So we served a non-challenging meal: a bowl of the pasta with tomatoes that I wrote about the other week.

One of the elements of that abandoned fish dish was going to be a silky, slightly smoky puree of charred eggplant/aubergine and red bell pepper, made hot-spicy (and more overtly smoky) with the addition of a dried chipotle chili. This, I'd made in advance: In the usual way, I charred a ripe red pepper over the gas range's open flame (if, heaven forbid, I'd had an electric range I'd have done this under the broiler/grill) and, after letting it cool a bit, pulled the blackened skin off with my fingers and removed the core and ribs. Likewise, I charred the skin of four little eggplants until it had blistered and crisped; that, of course, left the flesh uncooked, and I put them into a 350-degree F (175 C) oven, drizzled with olive oil, until they offered no palpable resistance when poked with a thin-bladed knife, around 40 minutes (the long, narrow ones took less time and I removed them sooner). When they were cool enough to handle, I peeled them and put the meltingly tender flesh into the jar of a blender along with the red pepper, a little olive oil and a small dried chipotle chili that I'd soaked in hot water until slightly softened and from which I'd removed the seeds and stem.

This made a clear-flavored, well balanced (but eggplant-prominent) puree that needed only salt to be remarkably appetizing. With thyme, diced tomato and maybe a few drops of lemon juice, it would have made a great bed/sauce for the fish we didn't have.

But with a different set of additions, it also made the most wonderful, clingy dipping sauce for a batch of fritters made with what I'm guessing was the last of the 2014 corn (I used Martha Stewart's good recipe for these, but with a little more flour and a little less sugar).

And those additions could hardly have been simpler or easier to come by. To make a little bowl of dip, I combined about half a cup (120 ml) of the puree, the same amount of sour cream and a tablespoon (15 ml) of good soy sauce, plus a little salt (taste before you add the salt). The sour cream softened but did not suppress the chili's heat and added a little tartness, and the soy rounded out the flavor with its savoriness.

There was leftover puree, so we had the same dip with a fresh batch of fritters the next day. As for the rest, well, there's lots of good fish in the sea, and Plan A could soon be reinstated.

Little eggplants charred, then roasted, and a fire-roasted red bell pepper (plus a wee chipotle)
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
Those ingredients, pureed in the blender
Photograph by Edward Schneider.
With sour cream and good soy sauce, it turned into the best dipping sauce of the year
Photograph by Edward Schneider.