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Dips a key summer sustenance

Add toasted onion dip, above, or some smoked eggplant dip to a relaxed summer menu. (Amy Thielen / For the Enterprise)

Now that summer has officially arrived I am moving, in theory, into my summer kitchen. That means that sometimes we eat cold sandwiches for dinner (gasp!) and when it gets real hot, we may just eat watermelon (with a squirt of lime, please) for breakfast. It also means long preludes to late dinners from the grill, and time for lounging and talking that involves sitting around a central low table of dips, chips and freshly pulled garden vegetables.

I'm thinking of the lunches, or the landscape of dips, that my aunt and my mom would assemble on the picnic table when we were at the lake as children: a large bowl of chili-cheese dip, still warm from the microwave, a pot of cool French onion dip, ruffled potato chips, corn chips, celery and carrot sticks, a bowl of grapes, some fat slices of summer sausage.

They clanged the dinner bell that hung from the big white oak and we all came ashore with wet bodies and sandy feet, steadily dripping from the tails of wet hair pointing down our backs. We sniffed and shivered and dug into the pots repeatedly, our minds set on filling, our mouths busy eating and rehashing the conflicts we'd had out on the raft for the mother audience. As soon as it began it was over, and we were tearing off down the rocky path with cookies in our hands, bolting for the raft, shouting out dibs and second-dibs.

I love the communal aspect of dipping. Really, it's one of the most casual, but intimate, of eating situations. Sitting around the dip, not only are you taking turns but you are connected, via chip, to the person who slaked through the dip before you and after you. It's kind of like snowshoeing on a new trail. The first dipper breaks trail, cracks the surface, and the others widen the initial crack, following in their footsteps, sometimes veering off into new territory, but always taking just the teensiest advantage of the initial dipper's decision to dig in.

Homemade Toasted Onion Dip

Although it's hard to top storebought onion dip, I give it a try here. The browned shallots contribute a deep, oniony flavor.

2 shallots (4 ounces), peeled

2 cloves garlic, minced

4 tablespoons butter

One-half teaspoon salt

One-eighth teaspoon freshly ground pepper (15 turns, more or less)

2 tablespoons vermouth (optional, but good!)

2 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

Two-thirds cup sour cream

2 tablespoons thinly sliced chives, plus more for garnish

One-half teaspoon garlic powder garnish of exra-virgin olive oil (optional)

Cut the shallots in half and lay on the cutting board. Dice them as you do onions, but as finely as possible. Heat the butter in a small skillet until it begins to brown. Turn down the heat and add the shallots, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until the shallots begin to caramelize and turn golden brown. Add the garlic and cook one more minute, add the vermouth, remove from the heat and let cool.

Combine the cream cheese in a mixing bowl and beat to combine. Add the shallot mixture, chives and garlic powder and mix thoroughly. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper if needed. Transfer to a small bowl and smooth the top. Garnish with a swirl of olive oil if you like. Serve with potato chips.

Smoked Eggplant Dip

When buying eggplant, look for firm, heavy ones, with shiny purple/black skins.

This recipe makes more mayonnaise than needed; it keeps for about four days if refrigerated tightly. You can substitute one-half cup of store-bought mayonnaise, but the homemade one really makes it special.

2 and one-half pounds eggplant, about 6 Italian or Asian

4 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half

1 cinnamon stick, cracked in half lengthwise

One-half fresh Turkish bay leaf, cut in half (1 dried bay leaf)

1 egg yolk

4 teaspoon lemon juice + more to taste

1 cup canola oil

6 tablespoons olive oil + more to garnish

Three-fourth teaspoon salt

One-half teaspoon cumin seed

10 turns freshly ground black pepper, divided

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Pierce the eggplant at random intervals with a paring knife; bury the garlic, bay leaf and cinnamon pieces in the gashes. Smoke the eggplant by charring the outside briefly over an open flame. Lay it directly onto a gas burner grate, or a grill, until the outer skin is lightly charred, turning often. Think of the smoking process as akin to toasting a marshmallow over a wood fire: you want an even, lightly charred surface, with a minimum of flare-ups.

For small eggplants, don't let them smoke any longer than five minutes, and no longer than ten for the large globe eggplants.

Place the eggplant in a baking dish and bake until collapsed and soft when poked, 10 to 30 minutes, depending on their size. When cool, peel off the blackened skin and largest seed pods and discard them. Discard the bay leaf and cinnamon stick. Pick out the eggplant flesh and cooked garlic, along with a good amount of eggplant juice, and reserve.

Toast the cumin seed in a dry pan over medium-high heat for a few minutes, or until fragrant, and transfer to a cutting board. Cover with a drop of canola oil and chop finely with a knife.

Begin the mayonnaise by dropping the egg yolk in a bowl and whisking in a few drops of canola oil. Slowly drizzle in the rest of the canola oil, and then the olive oil, adding the lemon juice and 1 teaspoon water along the way to loosen the emulsion when it gets tight and allow it to absorb more oil.

Season with one-half teaspoon salt and half of the pepper. Measure out ½ cup of the mayonnaise for the puree. Reserve the rest for another use.

Place the eggplant and garlic pulp in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until smooth. Add the cumin, one-half cup of the mayonnaise, the rest of the salt and pepper, and pulse until smooth. Drizzle in the 1 and one-half teaspoon lemon juice, or to taste. Garnish with a drizzle of olive oil.

Note: The technique used for the toasted cumin seed can be used at other times when you want a small amount quantity of freshly toasted and ground spice. When you don't want to get out the spice grinder just to buzz up such a small amount, just lay the spice on your cutting board, cover it with a drop of oil, and chop finely with a knife. The oil prevents the spice from flying around the kitchen as you chop. When I'm at home, I'll do just about anything to avoid cleaning up another piece of equipment.