Monday, September 6, 2010

Pimiento Cheese: One of Life's Simple Pleasures

Barbecue, catfish, and grits are true Southern culinary icons, to be sure.  Yet despite their humble beginnings, these Dixie-born gems have gone on to become quite popular across the country.  As a result, it’s not particularly difficult to find foods such as Memphis-style barbecue or garlic-cheese grits in New York or LA (and I don’t mean Lower Alabama).

Enter pimiento cheese.

Now if y'all regularly follow this blog, then you know that pimiento cheese is one of my favorite foods.  I'll happily eat it morning, noon, or night (and all times in between); on top of burgers, stuffed in tomatoes, slathered on saltine cracks—it doesn't matter.

First off, in my neck of the woods, the word “pimiento” is pronounced PUH-minnuh (just like the old guys in the bait shop pronounce “minnow”, only without the “PUH.”)

A cookbook codifying one true recipe, let alone the many regional variations such as adding smoked paprika or jalapeño peppers, is almost impossible to find; favorite recipes seem to survive by way of oral tradition.  Therefore, the popularity of this unique spread remains largely confined to states below the Mason-Dixon, where it rightfully assumes its place as an authentic Southern delicacy.

So what exactly is pimiento cheese?  To the uninitiated, it’s little more than a one-dimensional combination of grated cheese, some chopped pimiento peppers, and a dollop or two of mayonnaise.  However, to those passionate fans who rank pimiento cheese right up there beside cold fried chicken and deviled eggs as essential provisions at any proper picnic, it’s more, much more. (Speaking of deviled eggs, try substituting pimiento cheese for mayonnaise in your favorite recipe.)

Novelist and North Carolina-native Reynolds Price says, “It was the peanut butter of my childhood.”  As an adult, he now swears by its restorative powers.  “I’ve been caught eating a pound in two days, especially if life is hard.  On rough brown bread, it’s a sovereign nerve salve,” he admits.  To other devotees, a tub of pimiento cheese in the kitchen becomes a multi-functional must-have -- elevating an ordinary grilled cheese to something heavenly (particularly when combined with sliced Roma tomatoes and crispy bacon) and dramatically raising the bar on the everyday cheeseburger and omelet.
Admirers regularly agree that sharp Cheddar cheese is the backbone of the mixture -- the sharper, the better.  High-quality mayonnaise, such as Hellmann’s or Duke’s, is also a given.  But here’s where the opinions begin to fork off in more directions than tributaries leading into the Mississippi.  On the issue of texture, should the cheese be grated or mashed?  If grated, does coarse or fine yield the best results?  If mashed, is the fork or the modern food processor the best tool?  Then there are the legions who make pimiento cheese by running all ingredients through a meat grinder (aka “the old-fashioned way”).

In my search for the definitive blend, I asked Mary Allen Perry, a member of the Southern Living Food team (and long recognized for her exemplary pimiento cheese-making skills) to share her secret recipe.  She happily (and thankfully) agreed.  However, Mary Allen, giving credit where credit is due, admits, “My recipe was originally that of my great grandmother Kersh, who lived a vibrant life until she was 98—slim, trim, and fearless of fat content.”

The recipe eventually made its way to Mary Allen’s Aunt Carolyn, who added a touch of Worcestershire sauce and finely grated onion.  “They worked by taste and feel, dismissing the exactness of measurement,” says Mary Allen, explaining how she drew upon childhood memories to record this fabulous formula.  So, whether you use pimiento cheese to fill celery sticks or cherry tomatoes, spread it on crackers or a slice of your favorite bread, you should feel confident with this terrific version.

Pimiento Cheese (printer friendly version)
Makes 4 cups
Prep: 15 min.
11/2 cups mayonnaise
1 (4-oz.) jar diced pimiento, drained
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. finely grated onion
1/4 tsp. ground red pepper
1 (8-oz.) block extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, finely shredded
1 (8-o.z) block sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
Stir together first 5 ingredients in a large bowl; stir in cheeses. Store in refrigerator up to 1 week.
Jalapeño Pimiento Cheese: Add 2 seeded and minced jalapeño peppers.
Cream Cheese-Olive Pimiento Cheese: Reduce mayonnaise to 3/4 cup.  Stir together first 5 ingredients, 1 (8-oz.) package softened cream cheese, and 1 (53/4-oz.) jar sliced salad olives, drained.  Proceed with recipe as directed.
Pecan Pimiento Cheese: Stir in 3/4 cup chopped pecans, toasted.

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  1. Apparently Mary Allen loves mayonnaise even more than I do! I'll add a little more on my next batch. Hope you'll check my recipe out (though I wouldn't be so gauche as to leave a link in my comment!) and let me know what you think. Enjoyed the TweetChat this morning.

  2. The Twitter Party was fun, huh? Cool to connect with so many Southern Living fans and Southern foodies in general!