Smoked fish dip is a little black dress of dinner parties – of such impeccable taste that it often shows up in several variations, however informal the setting.
The typical stylings are mayonnaise or cream cheese, spritzed with fresh lemon and other seasonings. Arriving by the tub, it’s devoured on crackers, crudites or chips.
At a cookout during a family trip to South Florida, two couples brought a local version, Smoked Marlin Dip from Old Dixie Seafood in Boca Raton. As advised, I dolloped it on white cheddar rice crackers and topped it with pickled jalapeno slices.
When I searched for a recipe, it became apparent that smoked fish dip’s family tree extends far, wide and deep, from the smoked whitefish dip at Zabar’s in New York to the legendary Catfish Pate of the Crown Restaurant in Indianola, Miss., not to mention ubiquitous lox spreads.
To pinpoint the origins of smoked fish dips is a slippery business – Eastern Europe? Scandinavia? Deep South? Atlantic coast?
Old Dixie co-owner Larry Siemsen, a native of Long Island, N.Y., concocted his smoked marlin recipe 15 years ago after trying several fish dips “that were like eating smoked mayonnaise.”
Siemsen wouldn’t share his recipe, beyond divulging that it includes mayonnaise (“a good brand like Hellmann’s, so it’s not runny”), cold-smoked fish, onion powder, garlic powder, a pinch of seasoned salt and a drizzle of lemon juice.
Hunter Lewis, executive editor at Southern Living magazine, remembers his grandmother in Asheville serving smoked salmon or trout dips when he was growing up. Now in Birmingham, Ala., Lewis enjoys a smoked mackerel or mullet version from “The Cracker Kitchen” by Janis Owens (Scribner, 2009).
“For me, any fish that has a little natural oil and a little fat to it – mackerel, bluefish, mullet – works really well in these fish dips,” Lewis said. “You can whip that with mayo and lemon juice, chives, salt and pepper and horseradish, and I think the best thing in the world to have with that is a Saltine, with a dab of Tabasco, like oysters.”
Even in landlocked states, smoked fish dips are popular, says Sara Foster, author of “Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen” and owner of Foster’s Market in Durham.
“We have so many great smoked fish options right now,” Foster said, citing canned smoked trout available at some Trader Joe’s stores, which not only has a longer shelf life but also spares the tedium of peeling off skin and picking bones.
Foster recently used it in a new-school fish-dip experiment, replacing the typical cream cheese or mayo with Greek yogurt and a bit of buttermilk. She liked the lighter, thinner consistency.
“You get more of the true fish flavor that way,” she said.
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