Of course, most dips also are notoriously heavy with fat and calories. Indeed, that's why we love them. Still, I figured there must be ways to lighten them up while retaining their luxurious texture.
I started by bulking up on the vegetables — in this case, artichokes and spinach. Artichokes happen to contain many nutrients and a ton of fiber. I chose canned artichokes rather than frozen because the canned are packed in citric acid, which gives them a lemony kick. But if you prefer frozen, you'll need 2 cups thawed.
But why frozen spinach instead of fresh? Because you'd need to cook down a bathtub full of fresh spinach — or pretty darn near it — to end up with the equivalent of a cupful of frozen spinach. No one wants to do all that work before even starting to mix the dip. Also, a cup of frozen spinach boasts more than four times the nutrients of a cup of fresh spinach. It's kind of hard to beat. And all I had to do was defrost it and squeeze it out. Easy.
Now, how to conjure up that rich, cheesy texture without employing a boatload of cheese? I started with Neufchatel, a French cream cheese that has one-third less fat than the full-fat version, but more flavour than the no-fat version. Then I added some low-fat sour cream for tang and a tiny bit of low-fat mayonnaise for the oil. You're welcome to substitute extra-virgin olive oil, if you'd like.
Finally, there's some Parmigiano-Reggiano, which bristles with so much flavour and salt that just a little bit of it — an ounce in this case — will do the trick. The full-fat version of this dip usually includes mozzarella, but I didn't miss it, so I didn't use it.
All these veggies and cheese cried out for some heat. I ended up using red pepper flakes and Peppadews. Peppadews are pickled red peppers from South Africa, hot and sweet and about the size of cherry tomatoes. If you don't find them in the market, you can swap in pickled cherry peppers or even roasted red peppers. As an added bonus, any of these red peppers will brighten up the dip's complexion.
The finishing touches? Caramelized onions and garlic. Please take the time to cook the onions slowly, which brings out their natural sugar. It adds a nice depth of flavour to the mix.
Serve this dip with a healthy cracker (just read the label) or make your own pita crisps. To do so, just separate some two-layered pita bread pockets into single layers, spray them lightly with oil, cut them into triangles, and bake them at 400 F for 10 to 12 minutes, or until crisp. Then go ahead and indulge yourself.
HOT AND SPICY ARTICHOKE SPINACH DIP
Start to finish: 55 minutes (35 active)
Makes about 4 cups
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 cups finely chopped yellow onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
13.75-ounce can artichoke hearts, drained
10-ounce box frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
4 ounces Neufchatel (low-fat cream cheese)
1/2 cup low-fat sour cream
2 tablespoons low-fat mayonnaise
1 ounce freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (about 3/4 cup grated using a wand-style grater)
1/2 cup medium chopped mild Peppadew peppers (about 2 ounces), or medium chopped roasted red peppers
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
Crackers or low-fat pita crisps, to serve
Heat the oven to 375 F. Coat an 8-inch square baking pan with cooking spray.
In a medium skillet over medium-low, heat the oil. Add the onion and saute, covered, stirring occasionally, for 8 minutes. Uncover the pan and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the onions are golden brown, about another 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.
In a food processor, pulse the artichokes until they are medium chopped, then transfer them to the skillet.
In the food processor combine the spinach, cream cheese, sour cream, mayonnaise and half of the Parmigiano-Reggiano, then process until mixed. Add the mixture to the skillet, along with the peppers and pepper flakes. Stir well, then season with salt.
Transfer the mixture to the prepared pan, sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top and bake on the oven's middle shelf for 15 to 20 minutes, or until it is bubbling at the edges. Serve immediately with crackers or low fat pita crisps.
Nutrition information per 1/2 cup: 150 calories; 80 calories from fat (53 per cent of total calories); 9 g fat (4 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 20 mg cholesterol; 13 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 7 g protein; 540 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."