“Hey, girls! Peanut butter or pimento cheese?”
Mama called out that choice every day of summer vacation, when my sister and I were too busy – knee-deep in Barbie dolls, books and baby dolls – to bother with sitting at the table to eat our lunch like civilized humans. With one of those sandwiches, we could eat with one hand and keep the other hand free for more important things, like playing “Life” and pillow-fighting and doling out the occasional Slap of Justice when someone cheated.
My summertime choice was always pimento cheese. Nothing against peanut butter, but when you step outside into the summer heat and feel like you’re suffocating in the armpit of Satan, the coldness of that pimento cheese is a cure-all.
Of course, I’m assuming you know what pimento cheese is, but if you’re not a Southerner (by birth, marriage or choice), I have some explaining to do.
Pimento cheese, called the “paté of the South” by Chef Louis Osteen, is a cheese spread that’s usually made with extra-sharp cheddar, mayonnaise and chopped pimentos or roasted red peppers. It’s punchy but creamy, with varying levels of bite. You’ll find pimento cheese sandwiches served across the South, from bridal showers and church picnics to The Masters golf tournament. On the eve of President Obama’s inauguration, several of the country’s best chefs cooked “inaugural suppers” in private homes to celebrate and raise money to fight hunger. One of Chef Scott Peacock’s starters was pimento cheese and celery.
Unfortunately, many people know pimento cheese as the safety-cone orange stuff sold at the grocery, but homemade real-deal pimento cheese comes in a spectacular range of colors, textures and flavors. Everyone swears by their own (or their mamas), but there is no One True Recipe.
Some people use one type of cheese, and others mix it up. White cheddar for flavor and orange cheddar for color. Or extra-sharp cheddar and Colby or Monterey Jack for variety. Maybe a little cream cheese to cut the sharpness.
Some insist on hand-grating the cheese. Some toss it all into the food processor.
There are the purists, who make their own mayonnaise. There are the tinkerers, who add a little of this and that –grated onion, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, cayenne, paprika, dill pickles – until it’s just right.
And then there’s the pimentos vs. roasted red peppers debate. Pimentos are the traditional favorite, but roasted red peppers have been gaining ground. It’s about personal taste and availability. Sometimes a jar of pimentos is hard to find.
A good pimento cheese recipe is typically the result of years of tinkering, but once you’ve got it down, nothing’s easier. A few minutes of mixing will bring you days and days of being able to reach into the refrigerator, pull out your stash and quickly but lovingly spread it onto crackers or toast, stuff it down into the crevices of some freshly cut celery sticks or sandwich it between two slices of the cheapest white bread you can find for the kind of lunch you can eat with one hand. The kind of lunch you can eat while you work, read or dole out the Slap of Justice, if need be.
From Rebecca Crump (EzraPoundCake.com)
- 3 ounces Neufchatel cheese (low-fat cream cheese), room temperature
- 1 cup grated white extra-sharp cheddar cheese
- 1 cup grated orange extra-sharp cheddar cheese
- Up to 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- Dash garlic powder
- Dash cayenne
- 2 tablespoons chopped roasted red bell pepper (from the jar)
- 1 to 2 tablespoons liquid from the jar of roasted red bell peppers
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Using a stand or hand mixer, beat the Neufchatel until smooth. Add cheeses, mayonnaise, garlic powder and cayenne.
- Stir in the roasted bell peppers and liquid from the jar. Season with freshly ground black pepper.
- For best flavor, let the mixture rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour. Serve as a sandwich spread, spread onto crackers or use it to “stuff” celery.