My experiences in the American South are limited but every time I visit, I am surprised and refreshed by the simple, tasty food that Southerners make. It’s unfussy, straightforward cooking that has grown out of the melding of many cuisines and traditions. One of the iconic foods of the region is pimento cheese, a thick spread of cheese, jarred sweet red pepper, and mayonnaise. That may sound blah to you but it’s darn good – like an elevated version of “pub cheese” sold in tubs.
During our recent trip back East, we had pimento cheese twice within the span of 3 days. The first was at Bayou Bakery in Arlington, Virginia, where chef/owner David Guas served it with Triscuit crackers. “That’s the proper way to eat it,” his wife told us. She was right. The crunchy, saltiness of the nutty crackers went perfectly well with the alluring pale orange cheese spread.
Our second sampling of pimento cheese was at The Roosevelt in Richmond, Virginia. Chef and owner Lee Gregory served his spread with some of the best housemade potato chips I’ve ever had.
I used the “Blue Ribbon Pimento Cheese” recipe in the wonderful Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook for reference and added my own twists. It called for jarred pimento, which I tried but found that it was expensive, kind of tasteless, and gave me indigestion. (Sorry if this is too much information, but frankly, Asian people openly discuss digestion issues.)
With all the chiles at our farmers’ market, why not roast some to inject bright flavor into pimento cheese? I opted for Hatch chiles, a lovely Anaheim-like pepper that’s typically sold green but a farmer had striking red ones last Saturday. To boost the earthy pungent sweetness of the pepper, I grated raw onion instead of using onion powder. The recipe called for Worcestershire sauce, which I lacked so I substituted a bit of fish sauce and Chinese black vinegar (the stuff that’s served at dim sum with shrimp-filled tofu skin rolls).
To amplify the chile’s sweet funk and to add a touch of heat, I employed Sriracha in lieu of cayenne. Pimento cheese isn’t spicy hot, so I added just enough Sriracha to support the roasted red pepper. (A friend on Facebook suggested adding horseradish to the pate of the South.)
The recipe didn’t specify what kind of Cheddar to use. For a super vibrant color, choose an orange-colored cheddar cheese. I selected a dry, sharp, white cheddar instead because I like the flavor. Nothing fancy is needed. For example, I bought Kerrygold brand at Trader Joe’s.
The result was a cheery spread that I’ve now made twice since we came home last week from vacation. I guess we kind of like it. Try it pimento cheese with Triscuits or pretzels.
If you’re gluten-free, potato chips and little round rice crackers work. Cutting down on calories or carbs? Try celery sticks, radishes, and sliced sourdough with your pimento cheese. I just saw a Costco Connections recipe for a hamburger garnished with pimento cheese. You can’t lose.
Sriracha Pimento Cheese
Yield: 1 3/4 cups (420 ml)
- 1 large sweet red pepper (such as Hatch/Anaheim), or 1 1/2 ounces (45 g) coarsely chopped roasted red bell pepper
- 10 ounces (300 g) sharp Cheddar cheese, grated on largest hole of a box grater
- 1/2 teaspoon finely grated yellow onion
- 1 tablespoon Sriracha or other Southeast Asian chile sauce
- 2 to 4 drops fish sauce plus 1/8 teaspoon Chinese black vinegar, or 1/8 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- Pinch of sugar
- About 1/4 cup mayonnaise or 2 tablespoons mayonnaise and 2 tablespoon lowfat Greek yogurt
- If needed, roast the red pepper for 5 to 7 minutes over a flame or under a broiler. Let the flames lick the pepper and char it. Put into a thin plastic produce bag, twist to close and set aside to steam and loosen the skin from the flesh, about 10 minutes. Standing over the sink, remove the skin. Rinse, pull off the seeds. Cut off the stem, then coarsely chop.
- Put the pepper and cheese in the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse to finely chop and combine. Pause to add the remaining ingredients, then restart the machine to render the mixture into a relatively smooth texture. When done, you’ll have a cantaloupe-colored thick paste. Taste and adjust the flavor with extra chile sauce for heat, mayonnaise for creaminess. Pimento cheese is a thick spread. It’s not a dip.
- Let sit for 1 hour at room temperature or refrigerate. Keeps well for several days. Stir up the pimento cheese before using. Enjoy at room temperature and use a spreader or just scoop up with crackers, potato chips, or celery sticks.
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