Monday, November 21, 2011

Not Just Another Cheese Ball

Contributor Jim Dixon just got back from a month-long sojourn in Italy visiting friends and the suppliers of the fantastic products he carries at Real Good Food. With all the memories from that fabulous trip, what's the first thing he writes about on his return? Pimento cheese.

I’m not sure exactly where or when I’d first heard about pimento cheese (aka PC), but I’ve been thinking about making some for a long time. I started the recipe research early this year, and after a few batches, came up with a version I like.

While universally described as an iconic southern food, pimento cheese actually sprang from the psuedo-scientific Yankee home economics movement in the early 1900s. One of its tenets was that strong flavors like garlic encouraged overly emotional, “undesirable” behavior thought to be typical of spicy food-loving immigrants. The original pimento cheese was a blend of a new product, cream cheese, and very mild canned pimentos. For more on this fascinating history, read food historian Robert Moss.

History notwithstanding, folks from the south claim PC as their own, and you’ll find commercial versions in Winn-Dixie supermarkets across the region. But its most ardent fans make it at home, and like most iconic foods, opinions as to the “best” vary; check out the winners of the Southern Foodways Pimento Cheese Invitational to see some interesting versions.

In the end, PC is American as apple pie and just plain delicious. Traditionally eaten on soda crackers or celery sticks, PC also goes well on good crusty bread or in an omelet. Here’s how I make it:

Pimento Cheese

1.25-1.5 lbs. cheddar, a roughly even mix of yellow medium and white sharp
4 roasted, peeled, seeded red bell peppers (about 2 cups worth after the peeling, etc, or the equivalent amount of roasted red peppers from a jar, either red, pimento, or piquillo)
2-3 Tbsp. mayo (homemade or Best Foods, aka Hellman’s east of the Mississippi; Duke’s in the south)
1 Tbsp. sweet pickle relish
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. good bourbon
Crystal hot sauce to taste

Grate the cheese with a box grater or with a food processor (I prefer hand grating since you need the processor bowl with the steel blade for the next step and I don’t want to have to clean it). Combine the peppers and other ingredients (not cheese) in the processor and pulse a few times. Add the cheese and pulse until well mixed, but not so much that you can’t detect little bits of red pepper. You want everything chopped and mixed but not puréed.

You can find Jim and his edible friends most Mondays from 5-7 pm at Activspace, 833 SE Main on the corner of SE 9th and Main, space number 122.

Photo from Wikipedia.

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