Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Pimento cheese

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 Pimento cheese The traditional Southern treat: Simple, comforting, no cooking required.
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Pimento cheese

You can't always tell a Southerner by the accent, which can range from the mountain twang of Appalachia to the R-dropping drawl of the Deep South to the nearly Midwestern tones of the Ohio Valley. Nor is it easy to recognize a native of Dixie by his politics in this day and age ... the once "Solid South" now accommodates Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. Heck, after 140 years, some of us have even pretty much gotten over the Civil War.

But one cultural and culinary icon stands as a certain litmus test of Southernness: No matter where below the Mason-Dixon line your roots are planted, you're likely to be moved to tears of nostalgic joy and pangs of hunger by the mere mention of pimento cheese.

And if you trace your heritage to any other part of the world, it's entirely possible that you never heard of the stuff.

Pimento cheese - never "pimiento" for this Americanized dish - is a surprisingly simple food, usually served as a snack, buffet treat or appetizer, spread on crackers or toast, finger sandwiches or celery sticks. There's really nothing distinctly Southern about any of its ingredients, and neither its inventor nor its history seems to be known. But it nevertheless stands as one of the most enduring of regional food traditions.

I love the stuff, and even just seeing something that reminds me of its distinctive yellow-orange color makes me hungry for some. (I guess I would have a hard time sticking to a diet if there were a lot of Yellow Cabs around.)

Like most old-time comfort foods, there are hundreds of recipes for pimento cheese, and they're subject to endless discussion. Cream cheese or mayo? Sharp cheese or mild ... or Velveeta? Texture is an issue - smooth or chunky? And additives, from mustard to Worcestershire to Louisiana Hot Sauce, generate further debate.

Here, built from happy memory, is pimento cheese the way I remember it from my grandmother's house. It's a simple, not-too-fancy version that shuns most of the extras. Just for fun, though, I'll also mention a few tasty options that you can use to kick it up a, well, you know ...

INGREDIENTS: (serves 2)

1/2 lb. (240g) sharp Cheddar cheese
4-ounce jar pimientos
1/4 teaspoon (1g) black pepper
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon Cayenne pepper
1/3 cup (80g) mayonnaise

Choose freely from any of the following:
1 fresh jalapeño pepper or 1/4 cup sliced from the jar
1/8 teaspoon Colman's mustard powder
1/8 tsp wasabi powder
1 ounce prepared mustard
1 tablespoon Worcestershire Sauce
1 tablespoon Heinz Chili Sauce
Louisiana Hot Sauce or other hot sauce
Etc., ad infinitum


1. Grate the cheese, using the side of a box grater with the large holes. (NOTE: I like to use a combination of sharp white and yellow Cheddar. You may also use your choice of mild, sharp, extra sharp or a combination.)

2. Drain the pimientos and chop them coarsely. (You can substitute roasted red peppers if pimientos aren't available, but for tradition's sake, look for the real thing.)

3. Put the grated cheese and chopped pimientos in a bowl. Add the black pepper, cayenne and salt to taste. (Since cheese is salty, you might go light on the salt at this point. You can always adjust seasoning at the end.) Blend it all together with a fork, adding the mayonnaise a little at a time and continuing to blend until everything is well mixed but still has a distinct texture. Don't try to save time with a food processor or blender. You don't want it smooth.

4. You can start eating it immediately, but old Southern cooks will tell you that the flavors "develop" if you spoon it into a tub or jar and let it sit for a couple of hours before serving. Refrigerate the leftovers, but bring it out before serving: Like a fine red wine, pimento cheese tastes best at room temperature. As noted above, it's customarily served as a sandwich spread or as a snack on crackers or in celery sticks.

5. VARIATIONS: Using all or part of the basic batch, add the optional flavor ingredients listed, or others like them, to your taste. I made a good, hot'n'spicy batch with one jalapeño, seeds and ribs removed and minced very fine, plus dashes of Colman's Mustard, wasabi and Worcestershire and a heaping tablespoon of Heinz Chili Sauce. I didn't want to overdo it ...

The most traditional beverage would be sweet iced tea, but just as wine and cheese are natural companions, I'd expect just about any fruity, reasonably acidic red wine - perhaps a Mediterranean-style red from Italy, Spain or the South of France or the New World equivalent - should make a fine match if you're having wine.

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of these recipes, suitable for printing, online at

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this recipe or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Pimento cheese,"

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Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: Ossobuco bianco (March 24)

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Thursday, March 31, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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