Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Benedictine

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 Benedictine Simple and cooling, this summery sandwich spread of cucumbers, onions and cheese is a landmark tradition in my home town.
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Hot tomato
One hot tomato.
It's still hot. Stifling hot, record-setting hot. So hot that just about everybody around here is tired of talking about how hot it is. But before we stop, I've just got to tell you this story.

Yesterday afternoon, just as the temperature was rising to 103F to set a new record for the day, we went out to the garden to check for ripe tomatoes. Zeroing in on a fair-size, crimson Boxcar Willie heirloom, I noticed to my amazement that the skin on its sunward side was rippling and pushing away from the flesh, almost as if it had been blanched to facilitate peeling. I hefted the fruit and, to my amazement, found it perceptibly hot to the touch.

The darn thing was cooking on the vine, simmering in the heat of the summer sun!

Sure enough, an instant-read thermometer shoved in to its center (pictured) popped up to a reading close to 115F, hot enough to literally cook it, hot enough to alter its texture and flavor. And that, my friends, is too darn hot.

All of which is by way of saying that we're going back to the garden again for this week's recipe, another light dish for summer that requires no application of heat other than, perhaps, nature's own.

The item in question is literally cool as a cucumber, because it's made from cucumbers, mostly. A simple, quick sandwich spread, it's known locally as "Benedictine," a Louisville tradition allegedly invented around the turn of the previous century by Jenny Carter Benedict, whose eponymous catering shop and restaurant operated from 1900 through the 1930s.

It's hard to believe that such a simple concoction - it's basically nothing more than grated cucumber and onion and their natural juices whipped into cream cheese - hasn't been replicated elsewhere. But canny marketing and lots of nostalgia has made Benedictine a trademark dish in my home town, as much a part of Louisville tradition as the Hot Brown sandwich or the trademarked Derby-Pie.

Stereotypically sandwiched in several layers on tasteful triangles or fingers of white bread with the crusts removed, it's a staple of ladies' lunch buffets. But it's even better slathered on thick slices of rye toast; add strips of crisp bacon and you've got that hearty staple of old Louisville saloons, the Benedictine and bacon sandwich.

Variations abound: Some recipes add mayo, or spice the spread with Worcestershire or Louisiana hot sauce. Some cooks, including most of the commercial producers who vend the stuff in small tubs, add a dash of green food coloring, an addition that's not really necessary but may add to the eye appeal of finger sandwiches.

Personally, though, I like to stick to the basics, which yield a lightly textured spread that's fresh, cool, just off-white and delicately au naturel.

Like this version, which my bride inherited from her mother, who might possibly have tasted the original at Benedict's back in the day.


(Makes about one pint, or one-half kilo)

8-ounce package cream cheese
1 large cucumber, enough to make about 1 cup grated
1/2 medium Vidalia or other sweet white onion, about 3 tablespoons grated
Green food coloring (optional)
Salt and pepper (optional, see note)


1. Take the cream cheese out of the refrigerator to soften at room temperature. Do not use soft cream cheese in a tub, or your Benedictine will be runny.

2. Peel the cucumber. If you want a very refined Benedictine, you can spoon out and discard the seeds, but the spread is just as good, with a more interesting texture, if you leave them in. Grate the cucumber on the side of the grater with the large holes. Grate into a large metal strainer so the cucumber will drain, catching the juice in a bowl and reserving it.

3. Peel and grate the onion. Proportions aren't critical, but go by taste, using a little more onion if it's mild and sweet, a little less if it's hot. Again, grate into a strainer, drain the onions and reserve the juice.

4. Blend the grated cucumber and onion into the cream cheese, adding the reserved cucumber juice and a little onion juice as needed to achieve a spreadable but not soupy texture. The juices add good flavor, so you may want to use it all, adding a little more cream cheese from another package until you've got the texture right. Add salt and pepper to taste if you like, but we find that the cream cheese is just salty enough to flavor the delicate dish without adding more.

5. If you're planning to make finger sandwiches or if you just like the idea, add a drop or two of green food coloring, but unless it's St. Patrick's Day, be discreet: Pale green is fine. Day-glo green will make it look like cheap grocery-store Benedictine.

You can serve your Benedictine immediately as a sandwich spread or dip, but it's even better made a day in advance and refrigerated overnight to let the flavors blend.

MATCHING WINE: Traditionally, iced tea would likely be the match, and in a modern context, you'll want to match your wine to a main course rather than this side dish. As an exercise in food-and-wine matching, though, for a direct pairing with Benedictine I'd choose a grassy-style Sauvignon Blanc or maybe a Grüner Veltliner.

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