Pimento cheese goes from Southern staple to nationwide trend
BY NICOLE MARSHALL MIDDLETON World Scene Writer
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
12/14/11 at 12:19 PM
Word about pimento cheese is spreading.
Maybe it rode the coattails of the upscale comfort food trend. Or maybe the bar-food phenomenon helped give it legs, but foodies beyond the Southern states have discovered that pimento cheese is so much more than the gelatinous, store-bought versions with which so many of us associate it.
Bon Appetit and Nations Restaurant News named pimento cheese a hot food trend of 2011.
To be fair, Andrew Knowlton of Bon Appetit has been trying to tell us for a while that homemade pimento cheese, the "Southern pate" of his youth, is a delicious crowd-pleaser. He published the recipe for Grandma Knowlton's Pimiento Cheese in the December 2009 issue.
It's worth noting that his recipe retains the spelling "pimiento," which refers to the diced pepper. However, traditionally, the recipe loses the extra "i" when referring to pimento cheese.
Pimento cheese is a Southern food staple with its roots firmly planted in the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee.
Moody Dunbar, the country's largest processor of bell peppers, roasted peppers and pimientos is located in Johnson City, Tenn. Thomas "Moody" Dunbar founded the company in 1933, and his son Stanley Dunbar has served as chief executive since 1981. Their products are found on the shelves of leading grocers in all 50 states packaged under a wide variety of labels.
"Pimento cheese is an especially Southern dish. It is more often called pimento dip when you get outside the South. It has been a staple for a very long time," Stanley Dunbar said.
He said traditional pimento cheese eventually became popular in the Sun Belt in states such as Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. But in recent years, he has noticed it becoming a larger trend across the country.
"You see it going more upscale, more gourmet," Dunbar said. "We are seeing more of an interest at the retail and food service level. You are seeing it being served more often at restaurants and bars."
The primary ingredients are cheddar cheese and diced and peeled red peppers bound together with a little bit of mayonnaise.
As basic as the dish may be, pimento cheese still provokes debate. Some people prefer more mayonnaise than others. And Southerners insist that the brand must be Duke's, which Dunbar said is a high-quality mayonnaise.
There are those who quibble over whether the cheese is finely or coarsely grated and whether the spread is hand-mixed or whipped together in a food processor or electric mixer.
Pimento cheese can be spread on celery or crackers or made into sandwiches on bread. Many chefs use it on hamburgers, like at Bobby Flay's Bar Americain in New York. It's also popping up in restaurants and recipes as a warm appetizer.
In Tulsa, the Atlas Grill, 415 S. Boston Ave., serves The Cincinnati sandwich using homemade pimento cheese on toasted wheat bread. Fans often add tasty apple-smoked bacon to the sandwich.
And Duke's Southern Kitchen, at 105th Street and Memorial Drive, serves the popular appetizer Southern Chips and Dips with red pepper jam, sweet corn pimento cheese and black-eyed pea hummus.
Catherine deCamp, of Sage Culinary Studio, said she has loved pimento cheese all of her life.
"Such an easy recipe and a nice comfort food. Just a bowl of hot tomato basil soup and you have dinner," deCamp said.
She said it sounds like something she would love to add to the menu at Sage Rage Melt Bar, 105th Street and Memorial Drive. She plans to try it on sourdough, Italian or rosemary focaccia and decide which one tastes best before she decides.
If you want to try giving the traditional cheese ball a rest this year, whip up some pimento cheese for a holiday gathering.
Here are three recipes for pimento cheese, including deCamp's. Each has slight variations in flavor.
Catherine deCamp's Pimento Cheese
16 ounces cheddar cheese, sharp
1 small jar pimientos, drained
3 to 4 tablespoons mayonnaise
Dash cayenne pepper, if desired
1. Shred the cheddar cheese with a large grater. Drain the pimentos and stir into cheese. Add 3 tablespoons of the mayonnaise and stir to blend. Add the additional tablespoon of mayonnaise if desired. Spice it up with a dash of cayenne pepper.
Cook's note: For a milder flavor, Monterey Jack cheese may be added in a 3-to-1 ratio (three parts cheddar, one part Monterey Jack cheese).
Grandma Knowlton's Pimiento Cheese
makes about 3 cups
1 1/2 cups (packed) finely grated extra-sharp yellow cheddar cheese (about 6 ounces)
1 1/2 cups (packed) finely grated extra-sharp white cheddar cheese (about 6 ounces)
1 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup diced drained pimiento peppers from jar, roasted red peppers or piquillo peppers (about 2 1/2 ounces)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
sliced white bread (optional)
1. Mix first five ingredients in a medium bowl. Mash with fork to blend well. Season with salt and pepper. Cover, chill until cold, at least 2 hours and up to three days. Serve pimiento cheese with celery sticks and Ritz crackers, or, if desired, spread between two slices of white bread and cut diagonally to make four sandwich triangles.
Warm Pimento Cheese And Chips
8 ounces cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon stone-ground mustard
1 teaspoon mustard powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1/2 cup finely diced roasted red bell pepper
1. Combine all the ingredients except the tortilla chips in a large bowl to mix. Transfer to a microwaveable dish and microwave about 20 seconds, or until hot. Or put in a baking dish in a preheated 350-degree oven about 15 minutes, or until heated through. Serve with the tortilla chips.
- from "Tupelo Honey Cafe," by Elizabeth Sims
Original Print Headline: Say cheese
Nicole Marshall Middleton 918-581-8459
Pimento cheese, a staple of Southern kitchens, has been named a hot food trend of 2011. CHRISTOPHER SMITH/Tulsa World
Pimento cheese works well with crackers or spread on vegetables. CHRISTOPHER SMITH/Tulsa World