10/29/2014 11:17 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2014

Cooking Off the Cuff: The Best Dipping Sauce of 2014

Edward Schneider

Sometimes, I can plan and shop for a meal well in advance and get away with it - usually when we have dinner guests and when the centerpiece is something that needs to be bought a few days ahead of time. But a little while ago, with a friend coming over, plans went by the board. I'd had a grand idea for a fish dish that I had to shelve early in the day because Jackie and I had been out to a restaurant the night before, overate and were suffering from what can best be described as a food hangover. So we served a non-challenging meal: a bowl of the pasta with tomatoes that I wrote about the other week.

One of the elements of that abandoned fish dish was going to be a silky, slightly smoky puree of charred eggplant/aubergine and red bell pepper, made hot-spicy (and more overtly smoky) with the addition of a dried chipotle chili. This, I'd made in advance: In the usual way, I charred a ripe red pepper over the gas range's open flame (if, heaven forbid, I'd had an electric range I'd have done this under the broiler/grill) and, after letting it cool a bit, pulled the blackened skin off with my fingers and removed the core and ribs. Likewise, I charred the skin of four little eggplants until it had blistered and crisped; that, of course, left the flesh uncooked, and I put them into a 350-degree F (175 C) oven, drizzled with olive oil, until they offered no palpable resistance when poked with a thin-bladed knife, around 40 minutes (the long, narrow ones took less time and I removed them sooner). When they were cool enough to handle, I peeled them and put the meltingly tender flesh into the jar of a blender along with the red pepper, a little olive oil and a small dried chipotle chili that I'd soaked in hot water until slightly softened and from which I'd removed the seeds and stem.

This made a clear-flavored, well balanced (but eggplant-prominent) puree that needed only salt to be remarkably appetizing. With thyme, diced tomato and maybe a few drops of lemon juice, it would have made a great bed/sauce for the fish we didn't have.

But with a different set of additions, it also made the most wonderful, clingy dipping sauce for a batch of fritters made with what I'm guessing was the last of the 2014 corn (I used Martha Stewart's good recipe for these, but with a little more flour and a little less sugar).

And those additions could hardly have been simpler or easier to come by. To make a little bowl of dip, I combined about half a cup (120 ml) of the puree, the same amount of sour cream and a tablespoon (15 ml) of good soy sauce, plus a little salt (taste before you add the salt). The sour cream softened but did not suppress the chili's heat and added a little tartness, and the soy rounded out the flavor with its savoriness.

There was leftover puree, so we had the same dip with a fresh batch of fritters the next day. As for the rest, well, there's lots of good fish in the sea, and Plan A could soon be reinstated.

The Best Dipping Sauce of 2014