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Exhausting as it is, I love this time of the year. On Saturday, we schlepped the children to three different holiday parties, the first starting at 4 p.m., the last ending, I imagine, many hours after we arrived home at a raging 8:30 pm, when we all promptly sacked out. In between, we saw dear friends and sampled many a favorite party trick, including hot cheese olives, herbed goat cheese and root vegetable galette, and a retro cream cheese-bound egg salad dip topped with caviar.
I love these dishes, the ones that emerge once or twice a year, that everyone relishes and then forgets until this time next year. I have my favorites, too: The Barefoot Contessa’s baked fontina, Martha Stewart’s hot crab dip, ABC Kitchen's squash toasts with homemade ricotta, and my grandmother’s tiropitas.
Cheese—often hot cheese—is the common denominator. Warm, bubbly concoctions never fail to draw the masses. But there's one appetizer I love just as much, which shares none of the aforementioned dishes' qualities. I learned it several years ago from a food stylist who found himself entertaining many gluten-free and vegan friends. Rather than make a host of different appetizers to accommodate his guests, he made one that appealed to everyone: quartered heads of Little Gem lettuces with green goddess dressing. It may sound boring in relation to other seasonal offerings, but it’s become a favorite of mine as well, and one that is always well received.
I use Alice Waters’s recipe for green goddess dressing from Chez Panisse Vegetables, which begins—as many of her dressings do—by macerating shallots and garlic with vinegar and citrus, a step that both tempers the bite of the shallot and draws out its sweetness. After 10 minutes, anchovies, avocado, herbs, olive oil and a splash of cream are whisked in till the mixture resembles a thin guacamole, creamy but textured with a nice, sharp bite. Though the anchovies add a subtle depth of flavor, they could easily be omitted to keep it vegan, and though the cream adds a richness without making the dressing heavy, it, too, can be left out and replaced with more olive oil to keep it dairy-free.
This green goddess dip is bright and refreshing, and though I love it on a hot summer day, I’m never more appreciative of it than right now, when I've nearly had my fill of all the oozy, cheesy goodness I can find.
A Few Tips
Little Gems can be hard to find, but they are worth seeking out for their nice size and texture—call ahead before running around from shop to shop. Some markets will order them for you. Romaine, however, makes a great substitute; the inner leaves, in particular, are perfectly sized for dipping. Endive and Treviso are great alternatives as well both for their shape and crispness.
Pickle some of the vegetables. Including a few pickled vegetables adds an unexpected and welcomed dimension of flavor. Here, I’ve pickled the cauliflower and carrots using a method I learned from David Lebovitz. He uses for radishes, which would also be really nice here.
Make it ahead: The green goddess dressing can be made up to 2 days in advance. Bring it up (or nearly up) to room temperature before serving—it firms up in the fridge, which makes it difficult to dip into. The vegetables can be pickled weeks in advance. Other vegetables, such as endive and Treviso, are best when cut just before serving to keep browning to a minimum.
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 8 to 10 carrots, stems intact but trimmed, see notes above
- 1 small head cauliflower, cut into florets — think about the size you would want for dipping/eating
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
- 1 lemon, halved
- 2 anchovies, minced
- 1 avocado
- 3/4 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1 cup finely chopped fresh herbs such as parsley, tarragon, cilantro, chives, basil
- for serving: radishes, endive, Treviso, Romaine, Little Gems