Make bagna cauda as a luscious dip for vegetables or a luxe sauce for meats and pasta

The Italian dressing is so versatile that it can be a sauce for pasta or grilled fish or any number of dishes.
The Italian dressing is so versatile that it can be a sauce for pasta or grilled fish or any number of dishes.PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - You either love it, or you don't. But honestly, it's pretty easy to love bagna cauda.

Traditionally served warm and used as a dip for raw vegetables, bagna cauda is a classic Italian sauce that features, unabashedly, a fair amount of anchovy and garlic.

Making bagna cauda couldn't be simpler. Mash some anchovy fillets (the better the anchovy, the better the sauce) with a few cloves of garlic, and simmer the result in olive oil for a few minutes. This tames the garlic somewhat and dissolves the anchovy. You can stop right there, but it tastes better with a little lemon juice or vinegar. Some cooks add butter; some add cream. There are versions with walnut oil. If you happen to be in northern Italy in the winter, you may come across bagna cauda laced with truffles. My version calls for creme fraiche.

Bagna cauda is often compared to fondue, but it is really more like a warm vinaigrette for vegetables, a step up from a sauce of plain olive oil, salt and lemon (also a worthwhile treatment).

In fact, bagna cauda is so versatile it can be a sauce for pasta or grilled fish or any number of dishes. It's good with eggs - fried, or hard cooked.

Here, it is used to dress an impromptu spring salad. Arranged on a large platter, colorful spring vegetables make a glorious display. So while you could toss the salad, simply drizzling with bagna cauda is a better choice.

I used radish, celery, fennel, asparagus and shaved golden beet, plumped up with diminutive endive, arugula and spinach leaves. Slightly bitter vegetables like radicchio and artichokes pair well with anchovy and garlic, but so do boiled potatoes.

Use the quantities given and vegetables suggested in my recipe as a guide, choosing whatever fresh, crisp offerings are available at the market. When the season changes, you can simply change the assortment, and make this salad year-round. Ripe tomatoes, now months away, are a happy pairing to anticipate.

This recipe makes about one cup of dressing, which may seem like a lot for a salad meant for four diners. Dress it lightly with just a few tablespoons, but bring the rest of the sauce to the table. You'll want more for mopping or dunking, so be sure to serve the salad with a crusty baguette or hearth-baked loaf.

Spring Salad With Bagna Cauda Dressing

Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 30 minutes

For the dressing:

8 anchovy fillets

4 garlic cloves

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

½ cup creme fraiche

Zest of 1 lemon

3 Tbs lemon juice, more to taste

For the salad:

2 cups baby arugula

2 cups baby spinach

2 Belgian endives, leaves separated

4 radishes, thinly sliced

1 small fennel bulb, thinly sliced

1 medium yellow beet, thinly sliced

2 pale inner celery stalks, with leaves, thinly sliced

12 small asparagus spears, blanched 1 minute and cooled, or raw if preferred

4 large eggs, boiled 8 minutes and cooled, halved or quartered

Salt and pepper

METHOD

1. Make the dressing: Chop the anchovies and garlic to a rough paste, or pound together in a mortar. Place in a small saucepan, add olive oil and simmer over medium heat, without browning, for 2 minutes, until anchovies have dissolved. Transfer to a small bowl and whisk in creme fraiche, lemon zest and lemon juice. Set aside to cool.

2. Arrange all the vegetables artfully on a large platter and garnish with eggs. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.

3. Drizzle 4 tablespoons of the dressing over the salad and serve. Pass the remaining dressing at the table.