Smoked fish dip is the little black dress of dinner parties in South Florida -- 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 as automatically as hummus on crackers, crudite or chips.
At a barbecue during a family trip, two couples brought local favorites, which sent me on a quest to replicate a recipe for my favorite dip: Smoked Marlin Dip from Old Dixie Seafood in Boca Raton, which I dolloped that night on white cheddar rice crackers and topped with pickled jalapeno slices, as advised.
Some guests preferred Smilin' Bob's smoked fish dip, made with amberjack and kingfish from the Florida Keys, which can be found in most Bradenton ABC Fine Wine and Spirits stores.
That was enjoyable too, but the smoked marlin one, for me, was the best catch.
With dismay, I found out Old Dixie is down to its last 700 or so pounds of Smoked Marlin Dip but is replacing the overfished marlin with wahoo in subsequent batches, promising equal goodness.
To my increasing relief, it became apparent during my search that smoked fish dip's family tree extends far, wide and deep, from the smoked whitefish dip at Zabar's deli in New York City to the smoked shellfish Megadip from The Fish Guy in Chicago back down to the legendary Catfish Pate of the Crown Restaurant in Indianola, Miss., not to mention the ubiquitous lox spreads that are the first and only toe that some dip into these waters.
To pinpoint the origins of smoked fish dips is a slippery business -- Eastern Europe? Scandinavia? Deep South? Atlantic coast? -- but what matters is that Old Dixie's dip and its cousins swim in a well-stocked pond.
Old Dixie co-owner Larry Siemsen, a native of Long Island, N.Y., who clammed his way through the Great South Bay to pay for college in the '70s, moved to Florida 37 years ago, opening Old Dixie with brother Kerry. He concocted his smoked marlin recipe 15 years ago after trying several fish dips "that were like eating smoked mayonnaise."
He wouldn't take the bait of fame or eternal gratitude when asked for his recipe. "It's probably a quarter of our business -- we sell a ton of fish dip to restaurants and retail customers, and we ship it. A guy in Illinois orders 25 pounds of it for a party every year."
Siemsen divulged 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.
Wahoo or marlin, the key requirement is that the fish is a generous helping of a pelagic variety -- with a diverse diet in open ocean rather than feeding along the sea floor or in farms. He also prefers that it be cold-smoked over hardwoods for a dense texture.
"I could go really cheap with something like tripletail, but there's no taste whatsoever," Siemsen said. "A lot of guys go three-quarters mayo and one-quarter fish, but I go half and half."
Hunter Lewis, executive editor at Southern Living magazine, remembers his grandmother in Asheville, N.C., serving smoked salmon or trout dips when he was growing up. Now in Birmingham, Ala., Lewis enjoys a smoked mackerel version or a smoked mullet iteration from "The Cracker Kitchen" (Scribner, 2009), by Janis Owens.
"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."
In Mississippi, the Crown Restaurant does brisk mail-order traffic in its smoked catfish pate, with a cream cheese base. Evelyn Roughton, who co-founded the Crown 37 years ago, developed the recipe in 1987 for the wedding of a catfish farmer's daughter. She gracefully declined to give specifics but said it includes a bit of tomato and a splash of red wine, a twist on a Scottish friend's salmon pate that incorporates whiskey.
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, N.C.
"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 a home cook 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.
Foster is partial to hot-smoked fish, such as trout, bluefish or shellfish, for a smoother texture and a smokier flavor. But at a restaurant, she recently had a denser smoked bluefish dip, served with pickled vegetables, caramelized onion relish and spiced, pickled peaches, accompanied by crostini.
"It had that salty-sweet-tart thing going on," she said. "Sometimes the condiments and what you serve with it makes it."
Fish dip by order
Next-day delivery is often required for fish dips. Because the shipping is pricey, it often makes sense to order a few at once and freeze some for later. Crown Restaurant owner Evelyn Roughton says her Catfish Pate tolerates refreezing and thawing beautifully. (She sent me some, but it never made it to the freezer. Despite my bias against catfish, I tried it. Again and again. Irresistible.)
Crown Restaurant's Smoked Catfish Pate: $19.95 for 16 ounces, plus shipping, at tasteofgourmet.com
Old Dixie Seafood Smoked Wahoo Dip: $13.99 per 16 ounces, plus shipping, olddixieseafood.com. (The site is being revamped; in the meantime, call 561-988-0866.)
Smilin' Bob's Original Smoked Fish Dip: $29 per 18 ounces, includes shipping, smilinbobs.com
Zabar's Smoked Whitefish Dip: $7.98 for 8 ounces, plus shipping, zabars.com
Prep: 20 minutes
Makes: 1-1/4 cups
Old Dixie Seafood co-owner Larry Siemsen wouldn't divulge the company marlin dip recipe, but he did allow that it calls for equal parts smoked fish and mayonnaise. He also listed for us the remaining ingredients. From that, and taste memory, we created this version in the Tribune test kitchen, using smoked whitefish, which is more readily available than wahoo.
Debone 4 ounces smoked whitefish; break it up into small pieces with your fingers or a fork. In a bowl, stir it together with 1/2 cup mayonnaise, 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, 2 dashes hot sauce, 1/4 teaspoon each garlic powder and onion powder, and 1/8 teaspoon Lawry's Seasoned Salt. Taste for seasoning, adding more of any of the flavorings as you like.
SMOKED TROUT DIP
Prep: 15 minutes
Makes: 2 cups, about 10 servings
Note: Adapted from a recipe developed by cookbook author Sara Foster.
In a bowl, stir together 6 ounces Greek yogurt, drained, 8 ounces smoked trout, the zest and juice of half a lemon, 2 tablespoons each prepared horseradish and well-shaken buttermilk, and 1 tablespoon each grated onion and Dijon mustard. Season to taste with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and a pinch of cayenne. Cover; refrigerate until ready to serve. Just before serving, swirl a little extra-virgin olive oil over the top; serve with thin crackers or crudite.