Chef's spread: pimiento cheese!
Chef Greg Atkinson reaches back into his Southern childhood to come up with the perfect pimiento spread.
LIKE MOST Southern boys, I have eaten my share of pimiento cheese, and like most of my brethren, I believe quite sincerely that the only authentic version of the spread is the one my mother made. Sadly, the version my mother made morphed over time from something wonderful to something decidedly not wonderful.
Mom's pimiento cheese was based on her mother's formula, which was refined over the years, tested by hand, argued about, then retested by her seven siblings and their children until it ultimately was accepted as the platonic ideal.
The original formula started with a chunk of sharp cheddar, which was forced through a hand-cranked grater into angel-hair threads. Even when she was in her prime, Mom's hands were often stiff with rheumatoid arthritis, and that cheese grater really tested her mettle. Next, the grated cheese was mashed with the back of a fork into a block of cream cheese along with a tiny jar of drained pimiento peppers, which stained the whole mixture bright orange. The spread was sweetened with a pinch of sugar, spiked with a dash of hot pepper sauce, and softened with a generous spoonful of homemade mayonnaise.
The results were soft, tangy, salty, vaguely peppery and ultimately soothing. I begged her to make it as often as she would.
Because I was as much a child of the early 1960s as I was my mother's child, I often succumbed to the pervasive cultural notion of the era that processed foods were somehow more authentic than their homemade counterparts. When perfectly smooth pimiento cheese spread became available in jars at our local grocery, I persuaded Mom to buy a jar so we could try what I imagined was "The Real Stuff." The commercially made spread was stiffer than Mom's, and it tore the soft, white bread onto which I tried to spread it; our homemade stuff must be too soft, I thought. As for the flavor of the cheese in a jar, it was bland and flat; so it stood to reason that our homemade stuff tasted too strong.
In her efforts to make homemade pimiento cheese more like the store-bought stuff, Mom reluctantly tried processed cheese. It was rubbery and strange but, because it was easier to grate than the hard, sharp cheddar she had used, she decided it was worth the compromise. Instead of the old-fashioned homemade mayo, Mom started using bottled "Miracle Whip."
Once, when I came home from college, I wanted the pimiento cheese I had enjoyed when I was a kid, and she made a big batch of something based on Velveeta that was almost unrecognizable. I put on a brave face and accepted a second serving, but it broke my heart. For years, I gave up on pimiento cheese altogether.
Then, when I was perusing Frank Stitt's "Southern Table," a modern classic of high-end Southern cooking, I noticed a recipe for "Miss Verba's Pimiento Cheese," and just reading the recipe reminded me how good this spread could be.
Stitt's version starts with three large roasted peppers, a vast improvement over the tiny jar of pimiento peppers that the stuff of my childhood contained. Miss Verba's pimiento cheese makes a big batch. With saltine crackers and celery sticks, the cheese dip is a favorite for staff meals at Highland's Bar and Grill, Stitt's Birmingham, Ala., restaurant that features Southern dishes served with French flair.
In recent years, I've noticed that there is a quiet cult of dislocated Southerners devoted to making their own regionally appropriate versions of this quintessential Southern sandwich spread:
Expats from Dixie who land in the desert Southwest and Southern California replace the cheddar cheese with Monterey Jack, and sometimes replace some or all of the pimientos with hotter peppers like chipotle; they also add cilantro. Denizens of the Philippine Islands have their own version of Pimiento Cheese that starts with Queso de bola or Edam cheese and ends with a splash of condensed milk.
My own "Northwest" version involves Tillamook vintage white cheddar and home-roasted red peppers. This is comfort food, elevated.
Greg Atkinson is a Seattle-area chef, author and consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Makes about 2 cups
This mixture is a great hors d'oeuvre when it's made with our own regional cheese and served with whole-grain crackers.
2 large red bell peppers
1/4 pound cream cheese
1/2 cup homemade mayonnaise or quality store-bought
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce, such as Tabasco
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 pound extra sharp, white cheddar cheese such as "Tillamook Vintage White"
1. Preheat a broiler and place the peppers on a baking sheet about 6 inches below the heated elements; roast the peppers, turning them several times until they are blackened all over, about 8 minutes. Put the peppers in a bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the peppers "steam" in their own heat until they are cool enough to handle, about 10 minutes.
2. While the peppers are cooling, stir the cream cheese in a medium mixing bowl with the mayonnaise sugar, pepper, hot sauce and cayenne until the mixture is smooth.
3. Peel the roasted peppers by hand and don't rinse them; (a little bit of blackened skin will add appeal to the dish, and rinsing them would diminish the flavor). Scrape off the seeds and chop the peppers fine. Stir the chopped, roasted peppers into the mayonnaise mixture.
4. Working directly over the bowl, grate the cheese, preferably through a handheld rotary cheese grater. Stir until smooth.
© Greg Atkinson, 2012