Can you keep a secret? Promise? Okay, here it is. I LOVE the stuff in this jar. Well, at least I used to love it. It was my secret vice.
For a few years, way back when, I would take off by myself each spring to Whidbey Island for an intense week of study with some of the country’s top quiltmakers (Nancy Crow and David Walker to name two of the most inspiring). Rather than reserve a bed in the bunk house at the Camp Casey Conference Center, with all the other quiltmakers, I would book a no frills room a short distance away in funky downtown Coupeville. I wanted to be deliciously ALONE, in the evenings at least.
Then, when I got there on that first night, I would load the room’s tiny frig with a couple jars of Kraft Pimento Spread (heck, it doesn”t even promise cheese on the label) and set a basket filled with every variety of cracker I could find on top. After a LONG day of art making, I couldn’t wait to get back to my room and my secret stash. I would turn on the TV, sit on the bed, and dig in. MauiJim would not approve.
I have since been to way fancier hotels and eaten way better food, but the memory of those evenings alone in a little motel room, overlooking Puget Sound, still strikes me as one of the most luxurious and renewing experiences of my life. After a week of that routine (art making by day, pimento cheese spread by night) I came back home a new woman. Was it the cheese or was it the art making? The two are forever entwined in my memory.
So, considering this love affair with Pimento Cheese, why did it take me so long to make it from scratch? Actually, because I have lived in the Northwest my entire life, I don’t think I realized until recently that you could make Pimento Cheese, and I certainly didn’t realize that it’s a point of pride for southern cooks. As it turns out, Pimento Cheese is a truly American food with a long history and thousands of regional variations. You may want to check out the book, Pimento Cheese Invitational 2003, by the Southern Foodways Alliance. It contains over 200 pages of recipes.
In my research for this post, I surveyed dozens of recipes for Pimento Cheese. Truthfully, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. I mean, basically, pimento cheese is grated cheese, mayonnaise, roasted red bell peppers, and whatever else the cook decides to throw in.
But the devil is in the details, as the saying goes. All elements must be in perfect balance. There must be just the right amount of acidity, spice, and heat to keep the cheese tasting deliriously delicious (rather than overly rich and cloying) bite after bite after bite. I think I’ve achieved that balance here, as I can’t stop eating this cheese. And there’s no way I will ever again be tempted by a jar of pimento spread on the grocery store shelf. Some memories are better left alone.
Note For a slightly different take on this southern specialty, check out the Creamy Fire-Roasted Red Pepper Spread that I posted for New Years last year. It combines this Pimento Cheese (the recipe below) with cream cheese, additional peppers, and a layer of toasted pecans. I don’t know which variation I like most. They are both out-of-this-world.
Fire-Roasted Red Pepper Cheese (Pimento Cheese)
This concoction is seriously good and seriously addictive. When I have it on hand, I eat it every day until it’s gone. I slather it on crackers and crostini, use it to make a sandwich, wrap, or quesadilla, and dip vegetables (especially celery) into it. It also makes a rather elegant appetizer spooned onto the ends of endive leaves or on top of tiny crisp polenta rounds.
Ingredient Note This simple dish is all about the cheese, so it goes without saying that the spread can be no better than the cheese you put into it. Use premium-quality cheeses, such as Beecher’s or Tillamook.
½ cup (3 ounces) fire-roasted red bell pepper
½ cup minced green onion, white and pale green portions only (1½ ounces)
2 cloves garlic, peeled
8 ounces aged, sharp cheddar cheese, grated
4 ounces medium cheddar cheese, grated
4 ounces Monterey jack cheese, grated
½ cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Tabasco
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
- In a processor fitted with the steel blade, process the bell pepper, green onion, and garlic to a fine mince.
- Add the cheeses, mayonnaise, Dijon, Tabasco, lemon juice, and salt to the workbowl. Pulse to combine and then continue pulsing until you achieve the texture you want, either coarse (my preference) or all the way to smooth.
- Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
- Remove the mixture to a 3-cup serving container and seal with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
- Serve with an assortment of crackers, crostini, or veggies.
Makes about 3 cups.
- Amateur Gourmet: Pimento Cheese
- NPR: Pimento Cheese: It’s a Southern Thing
- Southern Foodways Alliance
- Southern Foodways Alliance: Pimento Cheese Invitational
- Zingerman’s Roadhouse: Pimento Cheese
Copyright 2010 Susan S. Bradley. All rights reserved.