When award-winning chef Matthew McClure came to Tulsa earlier this year to oversee a special dinner for a fundraising gala, he brought along a dish that is one of the menu staples at The Hive, his acclaimed Bentonville, Arkansas, restaurant.
That dish? Homemade pimento cheese, topped off with a spoonful of bacon jam.
McClure is not alone in wanting to elevate what for years has been a humble Southern snack into something that would not be out of place on a high-end menu. A number of fine restaurants in the area serving their own versions of what some have called “the caviar of the South.”
The just-opened Chamber restaurant in the Tulsa Club Hotel, for example, has among its appetizers fried pimento cheese balls, served with a jalapeño jelly. The Prospect Local Bar & Kitchen in the Indigo Hotel slathers its homemade pimento cheese on the fried bologna sandwich it serves during lunch.
The Cherry Street Kitchen uses its variation to spice up its bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches, and the Boston Deli had added its unique take on pimento cheese, which uses house-smoked cheddar, to sandwiches.
In fact, pimento cheese seems to be a mini-trend in the food world. But chef Andrew Donovan doesn’t look at pimento cheese as a trend, but as being true to a cuisine.
Donovan, who earlier this year took over the kitchen at The Reserve, the garden-to-table restaurant within Grogg’s Green Barn, served his pimento cheese in several ways as part of the lunch menu — as a dip with crudities and crackers, in a sandwich grilled in cast-iron skillets and as part of what is perhaps the most popular lunch time offering, the Farmer’s Plate, Donovan’s personal interpretation of the “ploughman’s lunch.”
“I grew up in western North Carolina, and pimento cheese is a staple of the culture,” Donovan said. “At the fancy restaurants in the region, you could find something like 15 different versions of pimento cheese on the menu.
“Then people started to see Southern cooking in new ways,” he said. “They saw it as a true regional cuisine, something more than just, say, fried chicken.”
Donovan said some of his earliest food memories are helping his grandmother as she went about canning, preserving and pickling the harvests of summer.
“That’s the heritage I want to continue with the food I do here,” he said. “And pimento cheese is something of an extension of that heritage.”
Because the menus at The Reserve center around what is growing in the gardens on the property, the ingredients in Donovan’s recipe depend on the season.
“We have been using a sweet Italian pepper called Jimmy Nardello,” Donovan said. “It’s not terribly spicy, but it does cut through the fat of the cheese.”
The base of the recipe is white cheddar cheese that Donovan gets from Wagon Creek Creamery in Helena.
“I don’t use mayonnaise as a binder,” he said. “It makes the dish too heavy. I’m talking about commercial mayo — if you want to make your own mayonnaise, that would be fine.”
Instead, Donovan uses softened cream cheese as the binder. He’ll add some Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce and a bit of hot sauce, as well as a dash of brine from his homemade bread-and-butter-style pickles as a special “flavor additive.”
However, it may be some time before diners can sample Donovan’s food. The Reserve does not do service during August — a time that Donovan said he will devote to canning and preserving fruits and vegetables.
“It’s a way of remembering what summer tastes like in the middle of winter,” he said.
Making pimento cheese is relatively easy, and it’s also a concoction that is ripe for experimentation and invention.
When Petty’s Fine Foods was operating in Utica Square, one of the most popular items from its prepared foods section was the pimento cheese. In “The World’s Finest,” the 1983 cookbook compiled by longtime Tulsa World restaurant critic Suzanne Holloway, the store shared its recipe, which is a good starting point for pimento cheese.
PETTY’S PIMENTO CHEESE
1 pound yellow cheddar cheese, grated
4 ounces white cheddar cheese, grated
4 ounces cream cheese, softened, at room temperature
6 ounces pimentos, chopped and undrained
1 pint mayonnaise or salad dressing (such as Miracle Whip)
1. Mix the first five ingredients until well blended. Add mayonnaise until desired consistency is obtained. Cover and refrigerate.
NOTE: According to Shalera Davis, who was the deli manager at Petty’s when the store closed in 2016, the pimento cheese recipe underwent a number of changes over the years. The final recipe made use of equal parts Colby Jack, smoked Gouda, baby Swiss, smoked cheddar and American cheeses, undrained pimentos and enough Miracle Whip to get the desired consistency.
Ken Schafer, chef and owner of the Boston Deli, said that he “grew up on Petty’s pimento cheese.” His version makes use of house-smoked cheddar, smoked on one of the Hasty-Bake grills he uses at the restaurant
BOSTON DELI PIMENTO CHEESE
8 ounces cream cheese
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
8 ounces smoked sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
½ cup pimentos, chopped
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1. Place all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until incorporated.
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