If you’re not from the South, your acquaintance with pimento cheese may be limited to the kind that comes in a jar. Mine was.
As it turns out, though, the jarred stuff is only distantly related to the real thing. It took me most of a lifetime to find that out, and I pass this on so that you won’t suffer the same kind of deprivation.
My mission is boosted by a new book: Pimento Cheese: The Cookbook, by Perre Coleman Magness. Although she’s a Southerner, Magness says she did not grow up in “a pimento cheese family,” and that her experience was limited to the kind that came in plastic tubs.
When I started traveling in the South and encountered pimento cheese on menus, I would sneer. Not a sexy Elvis hunka-hunka-burning-love kind of sneer but one that said do not bring that stuff within 50 feet of me. I didn’t find it on many menus though, because the good kind of pimento cheese is made and eaten at home, served to company or taken to parties.
A few years ago, I went to a food festival in Charleston, South Carolina, and found myself surrounded by pimento cheese. It seemed that half the food vendors were offering it in some creative form.
I threw up my hands and surrendered. I ate ravioli filled with pimento cheese. Pimento cheese formed into sticks, dipped in cornmeal batter and fried. And more pimento cheese prepared in ways I don’t remember — except that it was good. Against my will, I was won over.
Magness had a similar revelation in her 20s, when her calendar was jammed with baby showers and bridal showers, at which pimento cheese — spread on white-bread finger sandwiches, stuffed in celery or pressed in molds and served with crackers — was a staple. Surprised to find she liked the stuff, she set out on a quest to become an expert. Her cookbook is the product of that quest.
Magness’ pimento cheese starts with three ingredients: cheddar cheese, mayonnaise and pimentos — sweet peppers that add flavor but no heat.
The variations are many: Pimento cheese can be made spicy with chiles or horseradish, smoky with smoked cheese and bacon, mellow with beer and cream cheese. The texture can be crumbly or processed into a smooth paste.
The heart of Magness’ book is its 15 varieties of pimento cheese. Another 35 recipes are for dishes that include or were inspired by pimento cheese, but many of them simply include pimento and cheese as ingredients — pimento cheese biscuits, eggs Benedict with pimento hollandaise and a sprinkling of grated cheddar, a cheesy chicken pasta — and don’t showcase the separate being that is pimento cheese.
I tried out several recipes from the book on my colleagues, serving the spreads with crackers. Although the testers included both those with Southern roots and those who had the cheese-product-in-a-jar history, pimento cheese was a hit. The difference between the dids and the did-nots was the degree of surprise that it was so good.
The favorite by a wide margin was Green Chile Pimento Cheese, basic pimento cheese enhanced by mild green chiles, fresh cilantro and a little cumin. Next time I make it, I’ll add a couple of chipotles — smoked jalapeños — to boost the heat, and maybe use smoked paprika instead of plain paprika.
By the Book is an occasional feature that checks out recipes from new cookbooks.
Marjie Lambert is travel editor of the Miami Herald and author of eight cookbooks. She recently tested ice cream recipes for By the Book.
“Pimento Cheese: The Cookbook” by Perre Coleman Magness; St. Martin’s Griffin; $21.99.
Green Chile Pimento Cheese
Make this a day ahead to allow the flavors to ripen and blend. Serve it with crackers or pita chips — or on top of a hot dog. Makes 3 1/2 cups.
3/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
dash of cayenne pepper
8 ounces sharp orange Cheddar cheese, grated
8 ounces sharp white Cheddar cheese, grated
4-ounce jar diced pimentos, rinsed and drained
4-ounce can diced green chiles, rinsed and drained
Mix together the mayonnaise, cilantro, cumin, paprika, garlic powder and cayenne in a large bowl until thoroughly combined. Add the cheese, pimentos and green chiles and stir until everything is evenly distributed. Season to taste with salt.
Source: “Pimento Cheese: The Cookbook” by Perre Coleman Magness.