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Leek Dip

Whoever invented the rule that you shouldn't try new things when entertaining probably wasn't an ambitious cook.

On the surface, it sounds reasonable--don't stress yourself out, and don't subject your guests to something that may or may not turn out. And I would agree that certain dishes should not be made for the first time in a soirée scenario--anything overly fussy or with a lot of moving parts should probably be avoided, if only to save the cook's sanity.

But let's get real for a moment. Often, the only time I get to try really interesting or special dishes is when guests come over. There's really no point in making paella when it's just the two of us. I mean, sure, you can make a gussied-down version, but why?

So, flying in the face of popular entertaining advice, I almost always try new things when guests come over. It keeps the whole business interesting, and who better to make something special for than your honored guests?

Most of my dishes start their lives as windfalls--perhaps the strawberries at market were particularly nice or I found a really great bunch of kale at a good price. This time, my windfall was a bunch of 4 leeks, handsome with tops still on, for $1.50. As a leek-lover, I can't not buy leeks at this price provided they're in good shape.

You can use leeks like onions, sautéing them briefly before adding the main ingredients. But I prefer leeks to be the star of the show. They have such a delicate, sweet flavor, but still with that oniony kick, that they beg to be the diva of the dish.

Then, for some unknown reason (who knows why the brain thinks the things it does sometimes), I thought of dip. Dips, so often the mayonnaise-y and overseasoned start of the party, deserve to be done right. The idea is perfect--a little something that can be spread on crackers or bread to pique the appetite. It's the execution that so often falls short.

This leek dip does right by both leeks and by dip. Its light texture is speckled with sautéed leeks, and the crisp topping is elevated by chopped hazelnuts. Baked and browned in a hot oven, this is something that your guests will not hesitate to dig into. Be sure to provide lots of little toasts.

Other articles you might enjoy: Summer Rolls With Peanut Dipping Sauce, Thai Fish Cakes, Tapenade

Leek Dip
Serves 8 to 10 as a first course

Note: Save your leek tops for stock-making. If you don't think you'll be making stock soon enough to use them before they go bad, just bag them and freeze them for later.

Preheat the oven to 400˚F. Melt in a large saucepan over medium heat:

           2 tablespoons butter
Add and sauté until translucent and fragrant, about 8 minutes:
           3 medium leeks trimmed of their tops and root ends, halved lengthwise, and washed thoroughly
Add:
           1/4 cup dry white wine
Stir and let the wine boil off until there is no liquid lingering in the pan. Remove from the heat.
Combine in a medium bowl:
           16 ounces whole milk ricotta
            1 egg
            1 tablespoon fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
            1 1/2 teaspoons salt
            1/2 teaspoon black pepper
            Zest of 1 lemon
Fold the leeks into the filling, and spread the filling into a greased 9 1/2 by 6 1/2-inch baking dish (you can also use an 8 or 9-inch square baking dish--the exact size of the dish is not terribly crucial).
Combine in a small bowl:
           3/4 cup panko
            1/4 cup toasted hazelnuts, chopped
            2 tablespoons grated Romano
            Pinch each of salt and pepper
Sprinkle the topping evenly over the surface of the dip. Bake until the topping is golden brown, about 25 to 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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