Some people have a way in the kitchen. They don’t need recipes, they don’t need culinary school, they just have a gift. My aunt, Joan Wolford, is one of those people. If you’ve ever had a spoonful of her soup or a drop of her salad dressing, you know what I mean. Her food is indulgent but balanced, familiar but special. She’s the founder, owner, and Executive Chef of Savoir Fare in Round Hill, Virginia, a restaurant and catering firm that has significantly raised the bar for quality cuisine in Loudoun County. Joannie, as we call her in the family, has built a successful, resilient career. She has a legion of devoted regulars, she’s made countless brides ecstatic, and her creativity is boundless. She also happens to be my favorite chef.
I didn’t always appreciate her culinary talent; I was a picky kid and fancy food wasn’t my thing. My palate didn’t start to grow up until I was practically in college. That was also around the time I waitressed for Joannie’s catering business. I’d work for her on long school breaks or I’d come up from college on big wedding weekends. I passed a lot of hors d’oeuvres in those days. Smiling in my tuxedo shirt and bow-tie, I’d offer and offer and offer until the guests had had enough…and I could have a leftover or two. After the last round, I’d return to the kitchen with my picked-over tray and pop a whole bruschetta in my mouth. Or a phyllo shell full of sesame crab. Or, God willing, the last brie baked with brown sugar and almonds. It was in those moments, with my eyes closed and my mouth too full, that I started to get it. Joannie can really cook.
More than a decade has passed since those revelational crostini and the intervening years only increased my awe for Joannie’s talent. My varied dining experiences have given me an appreciation for her skills as a restaurateur: her generous hospitality, her thoughtfully curated menus, and her refined taste. As I’ve been learning to cook, I’ve been especially impressed and inspired by her effortless, polished techniques. But it’s still her food that makes me close my eyes and melt. That berry salad. That asparagus-brie soup. That roast beef tenderloin. This baked spinach gruyère dip. Joannie’s is without question the best spinach dip I’ve ever had. It’s like so many of her dishes: simple, loaded with flavor, and made with small touches that set it apart. The foundation of cream cheese, mayonnaise, gruyère, and parmesan makes it rich, bubbling, and satisfying, but the minced garlic and ample spinach give it a brightness that most spinach dips lack. When I eat this, I am reduced to murmuring “SO good,” if I can speak at all. As is often the case with Joannie’s food, it leaves me speechless. Words can’t touch what she does; she just has a way.
Oh, and one more thing: today’s her birthday. Happy Birthday, Joannie!
aunt joannie’s baked spinach gruyère dip
serves 8 – 10
This would make a phenomenal addition to any Super Bowl party. Serve with pita chips, warm pita slices, or your favorite crackers. You can make it a day ahead and keep it in the refrigerator, unbaked, until you’re ready to heat it. The recipe doubles easily.
You can make this with fresh cooked spinach or thawed frozen chopped spinach. Be sure to drain it very well before mixing.
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 cup cooked spinach, drained and packed in the cup [this is roughly the equivalent of 10 cups raw baby spinach] or frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained and packed in the cup
1 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 cup grated Gruyère cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper, to taste
Pre-heat oven to 350ºF.
Place all ingredients in a large bowl and stir until thoroughly combined. Spread mixture in an oven-proof casserole dish (I use an 8″ pie pan).
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until heated through and bubbly.