Getting to the Heart of the Matter: Spinach-Artichoke Dip
September 29, 2002

Succotash. Isn't that just the ugliest-sounding word? Growing up, I was a very picky eater. I turned my nose up at meat I'd never heard of, Malt-o-Meal and any other kind of "hot cereal," scalloped potatoes, eggs -- the list goes on and on -- but mainly I hated vegetables. My mom had this never-ending bag of succotash in the freezer. Star Trek cubes of pale green, orange and yellow (masquerading as peas, carrots and corn), with mealy lima beans thrown in just as a final touch to set off the extreme blandness of the mess. It was forced on us at least once a week. And each time, my sister and I tried to find new and interesting ways of getting rid of it without actually ingesting it. Ah, yes, that lovely succotash was only one of a long line of vegetables I spent so much time wrapping up in napkins, feeding to the cats, stuffing behind the bookcases, and dumping into the centerpieces. Spinach was another one. Now, with my mature taste buds, I have learned to appreciate some of the greener things in life. Especially when they are smothered in garlic, cream and cheese and served up with crackers.

I've tried many spinach-artichoke dips in many houses and many restaurants, but I have never come across a better dip than the one John Harvard's Brew House in Harvard Square serves. First, there's the presentation. It's served up in a mini au gratin dish surrounded by cracker bread -- very much like matzoh but much thicker and smoother -- and tiny cracker toasts and garnished with purple grapes. Then, there's the taste. It's such a perfect blend of spinach, cream, garlic, artichoke hearts and, if I'm not mistaken, parmesan cheese, that no one ingredient overpowers the other. That's quite a feat when you are dealing with such strong flavors that the spinach, garlic and parmesan cheese carry. I had a dip at a friend's apartment where all you could taste was the spinach, and, being someone who gags at the taste or even smell of cooked spinach, that repulsed me. We don't see them anymore. I've had other versions of the dip where all you could taste was the garlic. Now, I love garlic more than anyone, but if I wanted to make a dish to frighten the pee out of Dracula, I'd throw a whole head in the oven and eat the cloves roasted and alone. John Harvard's, however, has managed to achieve perfect balance.

Consistency is another important thing to consider in all dips. You don't want the dip to have a sludge-like thickness that sticks in your throat on the way down, but you also don't want it to be so runny that you can't even hold it on your cracker. The spinach-artichoke dip at John Harvard's manages a creamy thickness of spinach and cream that's neither sludge nor completely liquid. Baking close to the heat source of the oven contributes a slight amber crust you have to break through before you get to the delicacies below, and, more importantly, the artichoke hearts are not puréed. Instead, there are wonderful buttery chunks of artichoke hearts, like little treasures, throughout the dip that can be easily smeared onto the cracker bread or toast. And finally, the garnish of juicy purple grapes are a perfect companion to the dish -- they add a chilly touch of refreshing sweetness to the rich and garlicky spread.

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