Halloween is closing in on us.

I know this not because of the calendar, but because our neighbor’s house is covered with cobwebs and sporting a black and red spider with at least a 6-foot leg span.

Soon, ghosts, goblins and superheroes will swarm our street looking for treats. And adults will be trying to recapture the scary thrill of their childhood by dressing up as they have not done since last Halloween. Or their wedding.

They’ll throw dress-up parties and offer food that looks like something no self-respecting human being would want to touch.

Far be it from me to interfere with a bit of fun, but ever since I was a child and got fooled by oatmeal and raisins masquerading as a chocolate chip cookie, I have not cared for food that looks like something it isn’t.

Especially when the thing it is being made to look like is, frankly, disgusting.

Put it in a miniature cauldron, hollowed-out pumpkin, or dish shaped like a Jack-o’-lantern or skull. Surround it with plastic spiders and fake cobwebs. Serve it on a “tombstone,” moth-eaten “shroud,” or red-edged hatchet blade.

But if you want your company to enjoy it, don’t try to make it look like swamp swill, dry bones, smashed brains, or dead witches’ fingers. And certainly don’t call it any of that.

One of the easiest, never-fail ways to happily feed a party crowd is a savory dip. Whether hot or cold, they usually take only minutes to put together, are rarely very expensive, and are drop-dead easy to serve. Just put them in a bowl and let your company do all the work.

Here are a handful of my own favorites that are easy on the budget and assembled with a minimum of fuss well ahead of the party. Only the hot dips require last-minute attention, but they’re well worth it.

Dip tips

• Choose the right vehicle for dipping: You want sturdy chips, crackers or vegetables that aren’t going to break off in the dip. Nothing is less appetizing than a dip studded with broken bits of chip. But also consider flavor: If you choose seasoned chips or crackers, make sure they aren’t going to overpower the dip or fight with its flavor.

• If you’ve made a hot dip ahead, store it sensibly. Let it cool, uncovered, then transfer it to a storage container, cover tightly, and refrigerate it until needed. Reheat it in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat, or, if it’s baked, follow the directions in the recipe.

• Unless a cold dip needs to soften before it’s served, keep it well-covered and chilled until just before your company arrives.

• To keep hot dips other than baked ones hot, serve them in a chafing dish, flameproof fondue pot, or small (1 to 1½ quart) slow-cooker. When they only have to stay hot for a short time, you can heat them in a heavy enameled iron pot and serve them directly from the pot. The residual heat will be enough to keep them warm for at least half an hour.

• To keep cold dips cold, chill the serving dishes in advance. There are serving pieces that have a bottom dish for holding ice, but especially for short periods, chilled stoneware and enameled iron are both great for keeping these dips cold.

• Regardless of how the dip is served, make sure the table under it is protected, either with a hot pad or a rimmed dish to catch condensation if the dip is being served cold.

 

Hot Taco Dip

Perfect not only for Halloween, but also for all your autumn/winter holiday entertaining, this beefy hot dip is also a great warm-up for cozy family nights by the fire. Serves 6-8.

 

Ingredients:

• 1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil

• 1 pound ground beef chuck

• 1 large yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped

• 1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, peeled and minced

• 2 tablespoons chili powder, or to taste

• ½ teaspoon ground cumin or to taste

• 1 teaspoon paprika or to taste

• 1 14-ounce can crushed tomatoes

• 1 teaspoon finely crumbled dried oregano

• ¼ cup chili sauce

• 2 cups beef broth

• About 1 teaspoon raw (turbinado) sugar

• 1 cup shredded sharp cheddar

• Scoop-type corn or tortilla chips, for serving

• 1-2 ripe tomatoes, cored, seeded, and chopped, optional

• 2-3 jalapeño peppers stemmed, cored, seeded and diced, optional

 

Directions:

1. Warm oil in 10-inch skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Crumble in beef, raise heat to medium-high, and sauté, stirring occasionally, until it loses raw, red color and begins to brown. Remove from pan and add onion. Sauté until golden and softened, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 15-20 seconds.

2. Return beef to pan. Season well with chili powder, cumin and paprika. Add tomatoes, oregano, chili sauce, broth and raw sugar. Bring to simmer, adjust heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thick and beef is tender, about 1 hour. Can be made 2-3 days ahead. Cool, cover and refrigerate until needed. Reheat over medium-low heat, stirring often.

3. When ready to serve, stir in most of cheese and transfer to warm serving dish, chafing dish, or slow cooker set on low. Garnish with remaining cheese and, if liked, tomato and jalapeño peppers. Serve with corn or tortilla chips. You may also offer dip plain without tomato and peppers or with cheese, tomato, and pepper offered on side for each guest to add to taste.

 

 

Old-Fashioned Clam Dip

Bring a little ’60s retro to the party. Makes about 2 cups.

Ingredients:

• 1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened

• ½ cup sour cream

• 2 teaspoons seafood seasoning, or to taste

• 1 6½-ounce can minced clams, drained but juice reserved

• Worcestershire sauce

• Hot sauce such as Tabasco or Louisiana Hot Sauce

• 1 lemon cut in half

• 1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley, plus more for garnish

• 1 medium or 2 small scallions, trimmed and minced fine

• Sturdy scoop-style corn chips or ruffled potato chips

 

Directions:

1. Whip together cheese and sour cream with mixer at medium speed until smooth. Blend in 2 teaspoons seafood seasoning, and add the minced clams along with the 3 tablespoons of reserved clam juice. Blend in several dashes of Worcestershire and hot sauce and a teaspoon of lemon juice, and fold in clams, parsley and scallion. Let it sit for 10 minutes or so to allow the flavors to blend.

2. Taste and adjust seafood seasoning, Worcestershire, hot sauce, lemon juice, and clam juice. For best flavor, chill 4-6 hours to allow flavors to blend. Let it sit at room temperature at least 15 minutes before serving. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve with chips.

 

 

Porcini Mushroom and Onion Dip

Dried porcini mushrooms are the secret to the rich mushroom flavor of this lovely cold dip. To make it sturdier and spreadable, omit the mayonnaise, cut the sour cream to ½ cup, and add a softened 8-ounce package of cream cheese. Makes about 3 cups.

 

Ingredients:

• ½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms

• 1 cup boiling water

• 1 pound small crimini (brown or baby bella) mushrooms

• 2 large yellow onions, peeled and diced

• 4 teaspoons unsalted butter

• 1 teaspoons olive oil

• 2 medium or 1 large clove garlic, peeled and minced

• 2 cups sour cream

• ½ cup mayonnaise

• 2 tablespoons minced flat leaf parsley, plus more for garnish

• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

• Ground cayenne pepper

• Crackers, melba toast rounds, pita chips, or scoop type corn chips, for serving

 

Directions:

1. Put dried mushrooms in heatproof bowl. Pour boiling water over and let steep 15-30 minutes, or until softened. Lift reconstituted mushrooms from liquid, squeezing dry over bowl, and set aside. Strain soaking liquid through paper towel or coffee filter and set aside. Clean fresh mushrooms with dry cloth or paper towels, trim, and thickly slice or quarter.

2. Put onion, half of butter, and half of oil in large, heavy-bottomed pan over medium low heat. Cover tightly and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions have sweated out liquid and are softened, about 10-15 minutes. Remove lid, raise heat, and cook, stirring often, until liquid is completely evaporated. Now stirring almost constantly, cook until onions are golden brown. Remove onions from pan and let them cool.

3. Add remaining butter and oil to pan, let get hot, and add fresh mushrooms and sauté until beginning to color. Add garlic and toss until fragrant, about 15-20 seconds. Add reconstituted mushrooms and soaking liquid, bring to a boil, and cook until liquid is evaporated. Let cool completely, then transfer to food processor fitted with steel blade. Pulse until fine chopped but not pureed.

4. Blend together sour cream and mayonnaise until smooth. Fold in mushrooms, onions, and parsley. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and cayenne.

5. Cover and chill for at least 2-3 hours. Taste and adjust seasonings and transfer to serving bowl. Sprinkle with parsley and serve with crackers, melba toast rounds, or pita chips.

 

Hot Three-Cheese Dip

Gooey and loaded with calories (but so worth every single one of them), hot cheese dip is always a crowd-pleaser. Up the ante with half a cup of crumbled cooked bacon, either mixed into the dip before baking it or sprinkled over the top about five minutes of baking time. Serves 8-12.

 

Ingredients:

• 1 large clove garlic

• Salt

• 6 ounces (1½ cups) extra sharp cheddar, grated

• 2 ounces (generous ½ cup) Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated

• 1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened

• ½ cup finely chopped scallion (about 3-4 small scallions)

• Dry mustard powder

• Whole nutmeg in a grater

• Ground cayenne

• Paprika

• Crackers, plain melba toast rounds or pita chips, or scoop-type corn chips

 

Directions:

1. Lightly crush, peel, and mince garlic. Sprinkle with salt and, using flat side of knife blade, rub garlic and salt to smooth paste. Whip cream cheese with mixer at medium speed to soften. Set aside 1/3 cup cheddar and fold remainder into cream cheese. Fold in Parmigiano, garlic paste and scallion. Add pinch mustard powder and season with nutmeg, cayenne, paprika and salt (if needed) and mix well.

2. Transfer dip mixture to 8-inch gratin or small baking dish, smooth top, and sprinkle with reserved cheddar and more paprika. Cover and refrigerate until 30 minutes before baking.

3. When ready to serve, take dip from refrigerator and place on rimmed baking sheet. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375 F. Bake until bubbly and lightly browned on top, about 20-25 minutes. Serve with crackers, melba toast rounds, pita chips, or sturdy scoop-type corn chips.

Variation: Three Cheese Ball. To make this into a cold cheese ball spread, mix it together as directed in step 1, putting all the cheese into the mix. Cover the mixture and chill for 2-4 hours or until fairly firm. Scoop the mixture onto a sheet of plastic wrap and shape into a ball. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Just before serving, unwrap and roll the ball in chopped toasted pecans, chopped crisp bacon, or minced flat-leaf parsley. Put on a serving plate and serve with crackers, melba toast rounds, or plain pita chips.