"Theta" Swiss Cheese Dip - So Simple, So 1970's, So Effing Good.

To some of you, you may be wondering, what IS that goop in that bowl?

To others, you might no EXACTLY what this cheesy, oniony, creamy dip/spread is.

If you guessed Party Marty's (my Mom's) Swiss Cheese Spread, you guessed correct.

In which direction I would have to send you to find the origins of this recipe I haven't a clue. I grew up only knowing this spread was brought to a dinner by one of my Mom's sorority sisters in the 1970's, and from then on it was referred to in my house as the "Theta Cheese Dip" (Party was a Kappa Alpha Theta at USCB, and I only add this because she was very proud of her time spent there).

Thanksgivings, Christmases, birthdays, impromptu cocktail get togethers and other cocktail parties, luncheons, even just to have around: I cannot tell you how many times my Mom has made this spread/dip over the years, only to be followed by rave reviews and equally fanatic following fans of the Theta Cheese Dip.

And, I have watched Party make it many of these times, knowing just how easy it is, and knowing just what ingredients go into it. But, as many can say about watching our mothers or grandmothers cook from memory rather than a recipe, it can be a daunting task to try to make it on your own and have it taste "as good as Mom makes it".

Recently, Party was going to yet another holiday party and yet another friend dearly requested she bring the infamous cheese spread. As I saw her pulling out the ingredients from the fridge, I immediately asked if I COULD MAKE the dip with her looking over my shoulder so I would know exactly how much of this and that to add. She happily obliged.

Now, I must say that this dip isn't labor intensive nor a laundry list of ingredients, or, to add, "crazy ingredients". You might have all of the necessary components in your fridge and pantry right now!

Shredded Swiss cheese, chopped green onions, mayonnaise, sour cream, Lawry's Seasoning Salt, and Lawry's Garlic Salt.

Yep, that's it.

But, it is so cravingly delicious!

So, how much cheese, Party?

Now remember, there are VERY few and far between moments that she does measure anything, let alone follow a recipe. So, this is all from "eyeballing".

2 "blocks" of swiss cheese, shredded

...about 1 bunch of green onions, thinly sliced

I like to slice the white part of the green onion down the middle to get smaller cuts of the onion.

then, add the sour cream (left of photo) and mayo (right of photo) - it was about 3/4C to 1C of sour cream and 1 1/2 C mayo for this mix, but once again everything was eyeballed. You are looking for the consistency not to be too wet. Mix together and taste - yes taste! I know you haven't added the two salts yet, but taste because the mayo, cheese, and sour cream all have trace amounts of salt in them, so you want to understand where the flavors are going before OVER seasoning it.

Now, I actually did the seasoning, but I wanted to get a pic of Party looking as if she was making it all herself...

I would start with 4-5 "shakes" of each the seasoning and garlic salt, mix, and then taste. Keep adding salt as you think needed. This dip will need to sit for about an hour (or longer) to let the flavors marry and melt together - just keep that in mind!

And, "voila" - um, yes, it is not the most attractive mixture, but it is OOOH so good. The sweet nuttiness of the swiss cheese, the creamy tang of both sour cream and mayonnaise, the oniony crunch (let alone color) from the green onions, and the balance of seasoning and garlic salt make this an irresistible spread/dip for any occasion. The emphasis on showcasing the texture of the cheese rather than making it uber-creamy is the key.

And, a few hours later, my Mom sampled my try at her recipe, called, and reported "just as good as mine". Seal of Approval from Party Marty = two thumbs up.

As a chef that has many times tried to think outside the box for holiday appetizers, this one takes the cake for simple, satisfying, and so so sooooo good. Enjoy!

Use the WHOLE Bird, and Then Some

(I didn't know when I took these pictures in my studio apartment, let alone this visit to the San Francisco Farmer's Market, would be my last as a resident of one of my favorite cities on earth, so this post is important to me. In a city that always has so many things going on, I would find myself on many weekend days wanting to do nothing but escape the craziness of the "City by the Bay" and just hole up in my apartment, cooking all day. Making this chicken soup was one of my favorite things to do. I hope you enjoy!)

I love chicken and vegetable soup. It is so simple, healthy, and satisfying. Just the smells of chicken, carrots, onions, and celery (possible aromas of potatoes or pasta as well...) evoke memories of being a young girl, sick at home from school, my mom in the kitchen whipping up some chicken soup to warm my bones and settle my stomach. I grandly remember her saying "this WILL make you feel better. It is really good for you!"

And that it did. For some reason I was "magically" better after a few bowls.

In college, living on my own for the first time, there were many days and nights, feeling very under the weather, that I would crave being at home: wrapped up in a blanket, my Mom back in the kitchen heating up some chicken soup for me to heal my aches and cough. I would trudgingly drag myself to the supermarket and pick up a few cans of chicken soup, heat them up, and try to get each drip of broth and chunk of veg or chicken down in order to get better. The cans never tasted the same as my Mom's soup - but it was a decent substitute to bring me back to health, even if it was all mental that the soup was making me feel "better".

It wasn't until culinary school that I really started to understand the building blocks to making a fantastic chicken soup, and, of course, it all starts with one thing: the chicken stock. Well, technically it starts with the chicken, but the broth/stock is the biggest flavor agent, so it takes some time and TLC to bring all of the flavors of the chicken bones, vegetables, and aromatics together.

So beyond relating chicken soup to just something I eat when I am sick, it is also something I immediately think to make on a lazy Saturday or Sunday. Over the course of the day, I love roasting the chicken, shredding the meat, simmering the bones with onion or leek, celery, carrots and thyme, straining my stock, and then putting it all back together for an incredibly simple, delicious, and healthy chicken vegetable soup.

As you all know, I am a huge supporter of all things sustainable, organic, home-grown or straight from the farmer's market. So, we set off for the San Francisco Ferry Building one Saturday and began to pick our fresh ingredients, right down to the chicken. I immediately hit up Marin Sun Farms for our bird. We picked up our carrots, shallots, and celery from a couple other purveyors as well as a bunch of fresh thyme. Just on a whim, I decided to pick up some fresh chicken stock from Golden Gate Meats to do a side-by-side taste test, but I will get to that in a bit.

We got back to our apartment and I began my happy culinary Saturday in the kitchen.

In the case of roasting chicken for this soup, I simply rub the skin with olive oil and season with sea salt and cracked black pepper (sometimes lemon pepper). You could use other aromatics, such as citrus, herbs, vegetables, etc., but I don't think they are needed in this process - rather, I try to maximize the flavor of the chicken.

When roasting this chicken, I preheat the oven to about 450F, pop the chicken in breast side up, and roast it for about 30 minutes; I then reduce the heat to 350F and allow the bird to cook until a thermometer inserted into the thigh area reads about 165F (time depends on size of chicken). Once the bird is cooked, I cover it with foil and allow it to sit for about 30 minutes before I begin carving the meat to shred for the soup.

I prefer to carve the chicken, starting with the breast and finishing with the legs and thighs and THEN slice the meat as much as possible. Whatever method you choose, just prepared to be "one" with your chicken as you want to get as much of that succulent meat saved for your soup.

Bones, meat, skin and all...the whole process really gives you more respect for what you are eating!

Meanwhile, I chopped up some carrots, shallots, and celery to use to make my stock. You could use leeks or white onions instead of shallots and any other vegetable you would like to flavor your stock. Remember, any of these flavors added at this stage will be present in the broth for your soup.

When making my stock, I like to keep it really simple. In addition to the chicken bones and veggies, I add fresh thyme sprigs, a bay leaf, and cracked pepper. Add all to a stock pot and cover with cold water just to cover.

Bring stock to a boil, skim off any foam that forms, and reduce the heat so that the stock gently simmers. Timing on the stock varies, as I greatly appreciate getting it on the stove, doing things around my apartment, and coming back to check on it periodically. If I had to put a time on it? About 2 hours (but remember, my chicken was SMALL), roughly, but I favor the idea of tasting the stock as you go. Too watery? Let it go a bit longer. The stock created will not be enough for a whole pot of soup, but it really adds body to the soup, plus it is therapeutic to make!

So, back to my point of the stock I bought from Golden Gate Meats. First, this is in no way meant to be a jab at GGM, but I was truly fascinated to taste my basic stock side by side with theirs. Mine was clean on the palate with little to no residual fat, bright with onion, celery, and shallot with a hint of thyme. GGM's was greasy on the palate and tasted flat of chicken. It gave me further happiness that the time put into my stock, though it only yielded about 2 full cups, was well worth the effort. I always prefer to use fresh stock, but when adding additional stock/broth to the soup, I also like Pacific Natural Foods and whatever-brand-they-sell-at-Trader Joes Organic Chicken Broth.

Next, I add my veggies to the pot...

And I add the chicken, chicken stock, extra chicken broth, and fresh thyme to the pot. I let that simmer for a while to let the flavors "marry".

...and plated.

...and slurped.

...and devoured.

Simple ingredients, happy stomach, happy heart. Um, does it get any more satisfying?

Oh, wait, the next day, it WAS more satisfying. But, then again, soup the following day is always better.

If this isn't the ULTIMATE Christmas gift, then I don't know what to ask Santa for.