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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Pimento Cheese, Please

It's happened again. Another traditionally Southern concoction has made it to the big time as a trendy in-vogue food.

In recent years, foodies throughout the country discovered and exclaimed over Southern specialities like chicken and waffles, and shrimp with grits. Now those in the know are singing the praises of pimento cheese.

Bon Appetit magazine listed pimento cheese as one of 2011's food trends. Food Network star and Southern cook Paula Deen is circulating a recipe for Hot & Spicy Pimento Cheese Dip. Its ingredients include Vidalia onion, Philadelphia Cream Cheese and hot pepper sauce. Country Living magazine this summer printed a recipe for pimento cheese deviled eggs.

Pimento cheese has been discussed on NPR radio and various food blogs. And in our American culture that loves all things fried, it's even been fried and served on a sandwich! A recent cookbook release included a recipe for Pimiento Cheese Soup. And the subject of a recent master's thesis was, yes, pimento cheese. Pimento cheese also receives a bit of national exposure each year during The Master's Golf Tournament in Augusta, Georgia. Pimento cheese sandwiches are a popular choice during the week of the tournament.

Who knew this simple staple from my southern childhood would one day become such a taste sensation?

Pimientos are heart-shaped red peppers that measure about four inches long. They're sweeter than red bell peppers and were once an expensive imported delicacy.

Pimento cheese began appearing in the U.S. about 100 years ago, filling tiny sandwiches enjoyed at ladies' tea parties. Southern farmers began growing the peppers, which made them more affordable, and then J.L. Kraft introduced processed cheese to consumers. Soon pimento cheese sandwiches were a staple lunch item of textile workers in the Carolinas. The popularity of pimento cheese as an affordable sandwich filling soon spread throughout the South.

In 1933, Moody Dunbar, Inc., a family business operating out of Johnson City, Tennessee, began canning and distributing pimientos in the United States. Today the company is the large produced of pimientos and proudly uses only American-grown peppers. Several generations of my family have used Moody Dunbar, Inc., pimientos packed in small glass jars.

Growing up, the two choices for sandwiches with the elementary-school lunchbox crowd were peanut butter and jelly or pimento cheese. Both were sered on white bread, with or without the crusts (depending on whether Mom took the time to cut them off that day). These sandwich ingredients were nutritious and filling -- and a lot more economical than lunch meats or tuna salad. At least that's what our moms said, and they made our lunches.

The pimento cheese on my sandwiches came from a small container labeled, "Mrs. Grissom's Salads." Mrs. Grissom and her husband owned a company in my hometown (Nashville, Tennessee) that made sandwich spreads -- convenience foods, if you will. Now in her 90s, Mrs. Grissom still heads the company.

Our refrigerator always held a container of Mrs. G's pimento cheese. And if unexpected guests dropped by for dinner, Mom filled celery sticks with pimento cheese for a quick and tasty appetizer.

One day I was visiting my grandma when lunchtime rolled around. She offered me a sandwich -- peasut butter and sugar sprinkles or pimento cheese. I picked pimento cheese, but wasn't prepared for what hit my taste buds.

Mrs. Grissom's pimento cheese has "substance." The consistency is not too thick, but not thin and runny either. I bit into Grandma's crustless sandwich -- and stopped. This wasn't Mrs. G's pimento cheese! It was smooth and creamy and the pimentos weren't tiny precision-cut pieces. These pimentos looked like pieces of, well, peppers. I didn't like peppers of any color,a nd at that time I didn't realize pimentos are a type of pepper.

I didn't want to hurt Grandma's feelings, but this stuff wasn't what I thought I was getting. Its rich creaminess made me feel full in a hurry. I said nothing and choked down the sandwich with a glass of milk.

A few years passed. Grandma came to live with us, and with her came enough recipes to fill a cookbook -- all in her head. One day I came home from school to find Grandma in the kitchen with a mixing bowl, a cheese grater, and an old wooden spoon. She mixed these red things into some grated cheese, and then added whole milk and some seasoning.

"Taste this for me," she said.

I got a spoon and dipped out a bite. Hmmm, delicious! The consistency was rich and creamy with a twangy flavor my childish taste buds couldn't identify. Funny, but this was much better than I remembered. I developed a taste for both store-bought and homemade pimento cheese that day!

Many traditional pimento cheese recipes call for just a few ingredients -- grated sharp cheese, mayonnaise or whole milk, chopped pimentos, and seasonings. Other recipes suggest variations and add-in ingredients including green chilies, pickled jalapenos, Monterey Jack cheese, smoked cheddar, crumbled bacon, garlic, and dill pickles. Pimento cheese also can be found these days as a topper for hot dogs and hamburgers.

Whipping up a batch of pimento cheese can be as easy as turning on a food processor, but I prefer to make mine the old fashioned way like Grandma did -- grating the cheese on a metal grater and stirring together the ingredients with a spatula. The consistency is thick and chunky, but oh-so delicious! My daughter enjoys it as a dip with Fritos Scoops, and it's also good on Ritz crackers. Here's our favorite recipe:

Pimento Cheese
1 cup real mayonnaise
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Juice from 1/4 lemon
8 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
8 ounces Colby-Jack Cheese, grated
1 (4-ounce) jar chopped pimientos, drained
Dash seasoning salt
Dash pepper

In a medium mixing bowl and using a spatula, combine the first five ingredients until well mixed. Add the cheeses and pimientos, gently combining until thoroughly mixed. Add seasoning salt and pepper to taste. Keep refrigerated. Enjoy!

1 comment:

  1. We always had pimento cheese in celery! I loved the cheese! I always got in trouble for licking out the cheese and leaving the soggy clerey stick. Thanks for the fun memories!