Divine Southern Pimento Cheese In 5 Easy Steps

pimento cheese, copyright Susan Lutz
Pimento cheese is Southern junk food at its best — sweet and salty, with a kick. Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Pimento cheese is the ultimate Southern junk food. But unlike most junk food, which is highly processed and untouched by human hands, pimento cheese at its best is a homemade affair.

On a recent road trip through the Shenandoah Valley and West Virginia, I found myself on a quest for good, old-fashioned pimento cheese. It’s a Southern delicacy with deep roots — a magical mixture of cheese, fat and spice that my grandmother would make as her private stash of comfort food, but one that she would share with me when I was a child. When I saw it on the menu of a roadside diner in rural Virginia, I was delighted and told my husband he was in for a treat. But this version of pimento cheese was cold, hard and — worst of all — bland. For the rest of the trip I insisted on trying pimento cheese at every diner and restaurant where I could find it. We ate several truly terrible versions and each time I would say, “I swear this isn’t how it’s supposed to taste!”At our last stop, we found ourselves at a tiny restaurant called The Shack in Staunton, Va. And here, at last, was pimento cheese that tasted the way it should: sweet, salty, creamy, with a bit of a kick.

It was clear that somebody at The Shack also knew the power of good pimento cheese. The Shack’s tiny size is balanced by its enormous reputation. Southern Living Magazine ranked it as one of the South’s top 10 best new restaurants in 2014. I talked to Ian Boden, chef/owner of The Shack and asked him, given the short menu and the large reputation, why this lowly homespun cheese spread was special enough to make it into regular rotation. Boden’s answer was simple: “A big part of what I try to do is connect with people. And I think pimento cheese, especially in the South, connects with everybody.”

The power of pimento cheese, whether made by a renowned Southern chef or my own Granny Willie, was connection. Now I had to connect.

Fresh sweet Italian peppers, fresh pimento peppers and jarred whole sweet peppers can all be used to make pimento cheese. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
Fresh sweet Italian peppers, fresh pimento peppers and jarred whole sweet peppers can all be used to make pimento cheese. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Choose the right peppers

I had tasted the real deal.  Now I wanted to make my own.  My grandmother never wrote down her recipe, so I had to start from scratch.  Thus began my quest to create the perfect pimento cheese. What started in a series of roadside restaurants ended in my own garden. In spring I hunted down pimento pepper plants (not a small feat, as it turned out) and planted them in the small raised bed in my backyard. I figured you can’t make decent pimento cheese without fresh pimento peppers.

But then I realized that fresh pimentos were actually a break from tradition. My grandmother used pre-chopped pimento peppers preserved in vinegar. Most women of her generation did the same thing.  Even chef Boden admits the cultural importance of this lowly jarred product.  The recipe served at The Shack also comes from a grandma — the grandmother of cook Brian Cromer.  Boden admits that if Cromer had his way, they would always make pimento cheese with chopped jarred pimento peppers, just as his grandma did.

But these days, Boden and his staff use fresh pimento peppers in season and tinned piquillo peppers the rest of the time.  I figured my backyard pimentos would work.

Fresh Nardello peppers from my local farmers market make a good substitute for pimentos in “pimento” cheese. Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
Fresh Nardello peppers from my local farmers market make a good substitute for pimentos in “pimento” cheese. Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Experiment with new ingredients

The problem now was that I only had a limited supply of homegrown peppers. If I wanted to experiment, I’d have to look beyond the walls of my raised garden bed. As it turns out, the biggest barrier to making good pimento cheese was the limited availability (and seasonality) of fresh pimento peppers.

I started looking around for substitute peppers. And if I was going to experiment, then I might as well try different fresh peppers, as well as jarred pickled peppers. One of the most interesting peppers I tried were Nardello peppers, which were recommended to me by a helpful vendor at my farmers market. Slightly sweet, but with a satisfying crunch, Nardello peppers have a little more depth of flavor than a traditional pimento. I brought home a bunch to begin my experiment.

Broiling peppers in a toaster oven keeps the kitchen cool on a hot summer day. Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
Broiling peppers in a toaster oven keeps the kitchen cool on a hot summer day. Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

 

Roast your own peppers

Once I had gathered my peppers — homegrown pimentos, sweet Italian, and Nardello — the next step was to roast them. Roasting the peppers is the most time-consuming part of the process. I like to roast peppers in a toaster oven, but it can be done in a full-sized oven or even over a gas burner. I broiled 5 or 6 at a time for 15 minutes on each side, until they began to shrivel and the skins began to turn black in spots. (This would take less time in a traditional oven.)

Classic pimento cheese calls for a few simple ingredients—sharp cheddar cheese, green onion, Duke’s mayonnaise, cayenne, salt and pepper. I add sriracha hot chili sauce to the mix as well. Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
Classic pimento cheese calls for a few simple ingredients—sharp cheddar cheese, green onion, Duke’s mayonnaise, cayenne, salt and pepper. I add sriracha hot chili sauce to the mix as well. Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Junk ingredients make great junk food

While letting my roasted peppers cool, I began working on the cheese base. I used my grandmother’s version –never written down, but clear in my taste memory — as inspiration. It begins with a great mayonnaise blended with shredded sharp cheddar and cream cheese. But I was concerned about exactly what kind of cheese I needed to get the traditional flavor. When I asked Boden, his answer surprised me: “Pimento cheese is junk food, so why not use junk food ingredients?” Boden mixes Cabot sharp cheddar cheese (a pretty good industrially produced cheese) and a style he calls “government cheese” to get the right flavor profile. “If you use a really good quality cheddar, it’s way too sharp and the texture gets chalky, and it’s just not right,” he said. “If you go to the grocery store and see the cellophane packages that say “best value” — that’s the cheese we’re talking about.”

Boden is also a big fan of Duke’s Mayo for his base — Duke’s being a tangy (and less-sweet) favorite Southern brand for nearly a hundred years.

The final step in making pimento cheese is adding the chopped peppers to the cheese base. Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
The final step in making pimento cheese is adding the chopped peppers to the cheese base. Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Bring balance to the base

After I created the base, I scraped the skin off my cooled roasted peppers, de-seeded and diced them and tossed them into the mix. For experimental purposes I made small batches, each with a different kind of pepper.

One of the reasons I liked The Shack’s pimento cheese is that it conformed to my own ideas about how good pimento cheese should taste. Boden has similar thoughts on flavor balance in pimento cheese. “I think a lot of pimento cheeses tend to be out of whack as far as flavor goes,” Boden said. “I think ours has a good balance of sweet, and I know acidity in cheese is supposed to be a negative thing, but I think it has just enough acidity. I like a little heat in mine, so that brings it back into balance.” The Shack brings even more acidity to its spread by adding the brine from house-made spicy bread and butter pickles. It’s delicious, but too far from my grandmother’s ideal for my purposes. To add my own kick, I gave each batch a healthy dose of Sriracha sauce.

The result: perfection. At least for me. With Boden’s help, I had created a taste of my childhood and of rural Shenandoah Valley. My version is an ode to my grandmother, but it isn’t a recipe she’d recognize. I suspect she’d say it was too spicy, too oniony, and not nearly sweet enough. Time marches on and so do taste trends.

I gorged myself on the homegrown pimento pepper version and — to my surprise — my California-bred husband and my two daughters dug into the Nardello version, spreading it on crackers, French bread, celery and then fingers. It was Southern junk food at its best. And I think Granny Willie would be proud.

In the South, pimento cheese is traditionally served with Ritz crackers or celery — sometimes both. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz
In the South, pimento cheese is traditionally served with Ritz crackers or celery — sometimes both. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Pimento Cheese

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes, unless using commercially jarred peppers, which require no cooking time

Total time: 50 minutes if you’re roasting your own peppers

Yield: 2 to 2 1/2 cups

Ingredients

3 or 4 large pimento or other fresh sweet peppers of similar size. You may substitute 1/3 cup jarred or canned pimento, sweet Italian or piquillo peppers, finely diced.

4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

1/3 cup Duke’s mayonnaise (or your preferred brand)

8 ounces (about 2 1/2 cups) sharp orange cheddar cheese, shredded on a box grater

3 green onions, finely chopped including greens

1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon Sriracha hot chili sauce

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper

Directions

1. Roast peppers under a hot broiler, turning at least once so they blister on both sides. I like to do this in a toaster oven, but it will take longer than in a traditional oven –up to 15 minutes on each side. When done, place peppers in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap to cool. If using jarred peppers instead of fresh, drain and dice 1/3 cup of peppers and set aside.

2.  Mix cream cheese and mayonnaise in a medium bowl until smooth.

3.  Add cheddar cheese, green onions, cayenne pepper, Sriracha chili sauce, kosher salt and white pepper to mixture until thoroughly combined.

4.  Scrape the blackened skin off roasted peppers, remove seeds and stem, then dice.

5.  Add diced peppers to cheese mixture and gently stir to combine.

6.  Serve at room temperature, accompanied by celery stalks or crackers, preferably Ritz. Pimento cheese may be refrigerated for several days but should be brought back to room temperature before serving.

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My “Dad’s” Garden

Each Wednesday we share a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults. This piece originally posted on June 17, 2010.

Zucchini, corn, and tomatoes in my parents’ garden. Credit: Winston Lutz

This morning my dad sent me a series of photographs of his garden and although I’ve seen his garden many times over the years, I was still pretty impressed.

Truth be told, this is not just my dad’s garden.  It is my parents’ garden.  They started it when my grandparents moved in with them and my grandmother needed something to do once she left the farm she had lived on for over 50 years.  My parents’ backyard was too small to plant a garden large enough to occupy my grandmother for any length of time, so they bought an empty house lot down the street and planted a large garden.

The garden is divided into two parts– one for vegetables and one for flowers.  The vegetable garden is my father’s domain.  Of course, my mom does a huge amount of work watering, picking, cleaning, and canning the vegetables that come out of it, but it is still under my father’s ultimate control.

The cutting garden at the front of “the lot” belongs to my mom and she uses it to grow flowers for flower arrangements. The flower garden up at the house is for show, but this is where she grows the bulk of her cut flowers.  It’s a wild little garden and it’s not meant to be pretty, although I like the strange mixture of plants that flourish there at different times of the year.  It’s the place my mom can grow plants that aren’t necessarily attractive in and of themselves, but produce beautiful flowers.

A second view of my parents’ garden. Credit: Winston Lutz

My parents occasionally have turf wars, and it always cracks me up.  I hear stories like, “Your father dug up the green beans yesterday because he was tired of picking them, but I wasn’t done with my canning!” or “Your mother wants me to extend the fence around her garden, but she doesn’t use all the flowers she already grows, so I’m not in any hurry to do it”.  I don’t know why I find these stories so hilarious.  Maybe it’s because “the lot” is such a good metaphor for my parents’ marriage (although I’m sure they’d both be horrified by this idea or any discussion of their “relationship”.)  Their garden is well-tended, fruitful, and a little crazy– but in an amusing and creative way.

For years my parents have raised a lot more produce than they can eat themselves and they always share their garden’s bounty with neighbors, friends, relatives, and the occasional “varmint”, as my father calls the creatures who eat his vegetables.  The gift of produce smoothes the way with difficult neighbors and encourages visits from friends and family… especially during tomato season.  It’s amazing to see how much comes out of their garden and how much they get out of the process.  I only have space for a tiny vegetable garden in my yard, but every year I find myself digging out a new little patch to grow just one more row of tomatoes or a few cucumber plants.  These experiments don’t always work out, but they do give us all something to talk about and get my family out into the yard, working together and hoping for the best.

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The Last Halloween Pumpkin

Each Wednesday we share a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults. This piece originally posted on June 14, 2010.

Bye, bye, pumpkin! Credit: Susan Lutz

Well, it finally happened.  We had to say goodbye to the last of our Halloween pumpkins.  This one outlasted the others by a good six months, but nine months after we blew out the candle in our Jack-o-lantern, we bid a fond farewell to our last uncut pumpkin sitting on the window ledge.

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Choose Two of These Three Things

Each Wednesday we share a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults. This essay originally posted on May 3, 2010.

When making Sunday dinner, you can successfully accomplish two of these three things.

  1. Prepare a delicious meal.
  2. Have a nice, relaxing time.
  3. Photograph your dinner.

I’ve learned the hard way that you can not do all three.  Or at least I can’t.  Yet.  I hope one day I’ll be able to produce a quick photographic record of our Sunday dinner meals without destroying the festive spirit of the day.  But I’m not there yet.  The time we set aside for Sunday dinner started out great.  We picked our first radish from the small self-watering planter we usually ignore because we put it by the side door we rarely use.  It was an exciting moment since the radishes were the first crop we planted from seed this season and Violet remembered putting the tiny seeds in the ground.

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Radish from our first crop in our Spring garden. Credit: Susan Lutz

We all played around in the back yard for a while and Tim found two beautiful grapefruits in the small tree wedged in the corner of our yard.  (Who knew that sad little tree could even bear fruit!?!)  The girls collected a wagon-load of loquats, as they usually do.  We didn’t even have too much trouble convincing Annabel that she shouldn’t shove whole loquats into her mouth as she collected them.

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Backyard grapefruit on our kitchen table. Credit: Susan Lutz

I thought I’d planned well for this meal by cooking a turkey meatloaf earlier in the week and freezing half for today’s meal.  I’d roasted onion and peppers to spruce up the leftovers and we made a really nice potato and green bean salad.  The girls and I had carefully selected new potatoes, string beans, and a bag of lemons at the farmer’s market the day before and I made a simple lemon and olive oil vinaigrette while Tim and Violet snapped the green beans.  It was the first time Violet had ever taken on this important task and it still makes me smile to remember how proud she was of the “work” she was doing.  Meal preparation was going well and it seemed natural that this good-feeling would build on itself.  Boy was I wrong.   I decided to take a couple of quick photos of our meal and that’s when the trouble began.

In her excitement about seeing the freshly pulled radish, Violet tried to snatch it off the table just as I was taking the photograph and I snapped at her to “leave it alone!”.  This started a flood of tears and I felt terrible about squashing her excitement about our home-grown produce.  Tim insisted that I continue to take photos and as sweet a thought as that was, it didn’t turn out to be a popular idea.  Annabel joined in the crying game and by the time we sat down to dinner everyone was grumpy.  Lesson learned.

NOTE: Seven years to the day after I originally wrote this piece, I still cannot accomplish all three things, but I have gotten better at sneaking in a photo or two during meal prep.

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Why Julia Child Still Matters to Cutting-Edge Chefs

Visitors can tour Julia Child’s kitchen at the National Museum of American History. Credit: Courtesy of the National Museum of American History

When you visit the Smithsonian, you see Julia Child’s kitchen literally enshrined. It is surrounded by plexiglass, but you can see all of it and even “step inside” at places, while the kitchen itself is surrounded by videos of Julia. You get a sense of the real Julia, while you are also awed to be in the actual space inhabited by the First Lady of Food Television. Her seminal series “The French Chef” has just been re-released on the online TV site Twitch – bringing Julia once again into the public spotlight.

I was reminded of the cultural status of chefs at the Smithsonian’s Food History Gala. It was a public event to present the first ever Julia Child Award to Jacques Pépin. Taking place in the grand hall of the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, the location made it clear where chefs stand today in the pantheon of American greats. They stand right next to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Literally.

Todd Schulkin, executive director of the Julia Child Foundation, felt the space was appropriate. “It was very meaningful to be in the flag hall,” he said “under the image of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ ”

The first ever Julia Child Award was given to Jacques Pépin, who worked closely with Child. Credit: Photo courtesy of Jacques Pépin

Marcus Samuelsson, author of “Yes, Chef,” reminded the distinguished guests that “being a chef was an anonymous labor for a long time.” Their high-flying cultural status is newfound. Even the evening’s celebrant, Jacques Pépin, spent the early part of his career as the corporate chef for Howard Johnson’s.

And it’s not just food stars, but food itself that has become a cultural touchstone. The Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend, kicked off by the gala, was followed up with two more days of events and workshops that showcased innovation in American food culture. And the conversation didn’t stop with the weekend. The Smithsonian has embraced food history with the American Food History Project. They feature monthly events that place food culture on the same level with such celebrated icons as Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat and Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers.

But there was a wistfulness underpinning the gala dinner. Many of the speakers of the evening – including the celebrated Chef Pépin – remarked on the strangeness of being cultural superstars. They all seemed to feel a sense of concern: being “enshrined” can also mean losing touch. A classic artifact like Julia’s Kitchen must be preserved by plexiglass. But a chef shouldn’t be. Superstars can find themselves living in a bubble, and it takes work to avoid this fate.

Marcus Samuelsson; Eric Spivey, chairman of The Julia Child Foundation; Jacques Pépin; and Sara Moulton at the Food History Gala. Credit: Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History

Most of the pantheon at the gala seemed to be deeply aware of this. Sara Moulton pointed out that Julia’s real métier was television – the great leveler. In Sara’s first job in television, Julia told her: “smile for the camera.” Now on her own television series, Sara keeps that smile and counsels her guests to “Smile constantly and for no particular reason.” It’s not an act – it’s an acknowledgment of the reality of the joy of food. While setting up a food demo on a set, Julia Child said to Sara: “Aren’t we having fun?” Sara had to think about it, then the truth dawned: “Yes,’ she said, “Yes, we are!”

It’s the sense of fun, the sheer joy of preparing food, which made Julia Child an icon – the first food superstar of our culture. The joyous face of Jacques Pépin as he accepted the Julia Child Award made it clear that he is a fitting inheritor.

I got a sudden shock of the humanity of our great chefs on the last day of the Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend. I was leaving the American History museum when I ran into Anne Willan and Todd Schulkin coming in the doors. Anne, of course, is the founder of the iconic cooking school École de Cuisine La Varenne and author of “La Varenne Practique.” I was delighted to see them, and Anne explained she was coming to the Smithsonian to experience Julia’s Kitchen. “I’ve never seen it,” she said. Then she stopped with a frown, “Well, I have, of course, when I cooked in it with Julia. But I’ve never seen it…” She stopped again. “I’ve never seen it behind glass,” she finished.

The Smithsonian and the Julia Child Foundation are well aware of the danger of putting something behind glass. “Enshrining” both preserves — and distances. So on the same floor as Julia’s Kitchen, children can now interact with a miniature version of Julia’s Kitchen at the “Wegmans Wonderplace” exhibition, allowing them to grab pans from the famous pegboard wall and pull things out of the iconic but miniaturized refrigerator. And events like Food History Weekends and awards for populists like Jacques Pépin can keep food culture personal, intimate and connected.

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Stir Fry Awaits: 5 Location Tips for Suburban Foragers

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Bittercress is brilliant stir-fried. Credit: Susan Lutz

The concept of foraging brings to mind a post-apocalyptic landscape and survivalist rations, so I wasn’t expecting to start a foraging walk on the manicured lawn of a lush suburban park just north of Washington, D.C.

I squatted on the lawn, watching a bearded man dig through the thick ground cover with a small spade until he pulled up a clump of green by the roots.

“Bittercress,” he said. He pulled off a sprig and put it in his mouth, then passed the rest around to my fellow foragers. “Try a piece. It’s got a little bite, but it’s amazing stir-fried.”

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Forager Matt Cohen discovers the skunk cabbage, a harbinger of spring. Credit: Susan Lutz

I pulled off a sprig and put it in my mouth, surprised by both its sharpness and its raw freshness. Forager Matt Cohen encouraged us each to paw through the grass in search of our own clump of bittercress, helpfully pointing out the important details: several stalks all growing from a central point, five-to-nine paired leaflets, and a single leaf at the tip of the stalk.

Cohen’s quest expanded into the rest of the park lawn, uncovering chickweed, dandelions, onion grass and garlic mustard. He crushed the leaves of the garlic mustard and encouraged us all to do the same: The aroma is unmistakable. It’s also one of the few clear signs that a plant is safe to eat, Cohen explained. If it smells like garlic or onion, it’s usually not poisonous. In fact, it can be delicious: “Garlic mustard makes an incredible pesto,” he said.

Cohen began his career as a forager 20 years ago, when he abandoned his career as a computer programmer to become a full-time landscaper and avid amateur wild-plant forager. He counsels people to begin foraging as he began, by finding edible plants in the most common areas, suburban lawns.

Cohen supplied us with specific methods for identifying edible plants, but also gave us bigger-picture tips for someone just beginning to investigate wild foraging. Like so many things, foraging begins with the concept: location, location, location.

Matt Cohen’s Top Five Location Tips for Beginning Foragers:

  • Start in your own backyard if you have one. Learn the most common weeds and find out which ones are edible.
  • Next, move on to vacant lots, waste areas and spots that are neglected. There are lots of weeds there, but be careful to avoid possible sources of contamination, such as areas frequented by dogs and dog walkers.
  • Learn about invasive plants, which are usually free for the taking. Public park officials often hire volunteers to remove invasive species from the local ecosystem. You can help the environment while creating a delicious meal.
  • If you live in a city, check out community gardens. Gardeners are often excited to have help with the never-ending task of weeding.
  • Always know the land you want to forage and get permission from the owner.
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Mature fairy spud (spring beauty) in late winter. Credit: Susan Lutz

We walked further into the Maryland woods in search of wilder fare. We passed a large patch of snow, when suddenly Cohen excitedly spun around. “Skunk cabbage!” he said. The foul-smelling purplish plant poking through the snow heralds the coming of spring.

Further in the woods Cohen pointed out a series of small, bright green shoots, spreading out in the undergrowth. He explained that its common name is spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), but foragers have a different name for it. They call it fairy spuds. Cohen revealed why when he showed us the diminutive potato that dangled within its roots. It’s a wild food eaten by Native Americans and early settlers alike.

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Two primitive methods of tapping a tree for its sap. Credit: Susan Lutz

Then Cohen stopped at a bare, leafless birch tree. Using a pocketknife, he drilled a small hole into the trunk, then stuck a small bamboo stick into the hole. We waited patiently, staring at the unmoving stick, until a small crystal drop of  birch sap appeared at its end. We each took a turn touching our fingers to each drop as it appeared, then tasting the wet sweet sap.

Cohen then revealed a steel maple tap he had placed in a maple tree just an hour before. Beneath the tap was a jar nearly overflowing with a clear liquid. We passed the jar around and when it came to me, I lifted the light clear liquid and drank. It was like fresh spring water, with an edge of sweetness. It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever tasted — water from inside a tree.

It brought back to me the recent cross-country move I had made, from warm, always-sunny Southern California to the bare, early-spring chill of the East Coast. The lushness of Los Angeles may seem alluring, but it’s easy to become accustomed to abundance and take it for granted. In a world with winter, the first stalks of skunk cabbage are greeted with pleasure. Tiny clumps in the lawn can become a stir-fried delicacy. And deep inside a tree, gathering all winter, a hidden fountain of water courses through the trunk, sweet enough to turn into pancake syrup.

My new home is full of surprises.

Bittercress Stir-Fry

Courtesy of Matt Cohen

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ cup field garlic (also known as onion grass)

4 cups bittercress

1-2 tablespoons tamari

Directions

1. Heat up the olive oil over medium heat.

2. Chop field garlic bulb and greens.

3. Cook for a few minutes in olive oil.

4. Finely chop bittercress and add to field garlic.

5. Add tamari to taste.

6. Cook another 5 minutes and serve as a side dish.

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My “Secret” Recipe

Each Wednesday we share a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults. This essay originally posted on June 22, 2008.

People think I have a secret recipe. I maintain that I do not. The recipe is for “Coconut Cake with Seven Minute Frosting”. It came from my Grandma Willie, who lived in the Shenandoah Valley, and anyone who’s tasted its magical fluffy goodness wants the recipe. I have a strict policy that I will not give anyone the recipe because I know people will have trouble making it and call me to complain. So I tell anyone who asks that the “secret” is in the frosting and that they can look up a recipe for Seven Minute Frosting in any cookbook made before 1960. If the person is insistent, I politely say that I don’t give out the recipe, but that they can come over to my house and I will show them how I make the cake. In the decade that I have been making this cake, nobody has ever taken me up on the offer.

The real secret to my “secret” recipe is that there is no secret. It’s just that Seven Minute Frosting is no longer popular and most people have never tasted it. It isn’t hard to make once you’ve seen it done, but somewhat challenging to learn through a written recipe. I watched my grandmother make her coconut cake for 20 years before it occurred to me that I should try to make it myself. It took me an entire day, several batches of droopy frosting, and numerous phone calls from LA to my grandmother and mother in Virginia before I finished a version of the cake that was edible. My grandmother and mother are patient women who love me, but I realized I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of these phone calls now that I was in on the secret.

There is an art to making this cake and after ten years of trial and error, I can now make my grandmother’s coconut cake without thinking about it much. It’s easy for me to bake the cake after a long workday and ice it the following evening. (I do it this way because the cake is perfect when it’s made 12 to 24 hours in advance. Any less and the icing doesn’t have time to work it’s magic. Any more and the cake starts to get soggy.) By Day Three, I’m ready for any Birthday Party/Christmas Meal/Easter Picnic. But it was a long road to get there.

There are some things that cannot be explained in words. Baking a coconut cake is one of them. It is something that needs to be witnessed to be perfected. There are many ways to make a good cake. Each recipe is particular, often a little peculiar, and delicious, as most things made with love and a certain level of obsession tend to be. So if you want my secret recipe, it’s yours. Just tell me when you want to come over.

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City-Style Ranching

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Seville oranges ripen on a 100-year old tree at E. Waldo Ward’s orchard. Credit Susan Lutz

I read books and magazines about urban farming the way many people read cookbooks.

Sometimes I intend to use the information I read, but usually I’m just daydreaming. I love visiting urban farms for the same reason. I justify these trips by saying they’re good for my children’s education. But what I’m really after is to see how urban farmers have managed to carve out a bit of undeveloped land to grow crops, raise chickens or wrangle livestock in the midst of the city.

The E. Waldo Ward Ranch in Sierra Madre, Calif., is not an “urban farm” in the usual sense. That is to say, the ranch is not the product of urban land reclamation for agricultural purposes. It was here first, long before suburban sprawl took over. E. Waldo Ward started his ranch in 1891, and the city grew around it.

The ranch is situated in a quiet, “un-ranch-like” suburban neighborhood of Craftsman homes. But behind a stately house with a large lawn, you’ll discover barns, tractors, pick-up trucks and a “backyard” that stretches to the next block. It’s like a farm that’s been carefully camouflaged by surrounding it with suburban homes.

The barn at the E. Waldo Ward Ranch Museum. Credit: Susan Lutz

An empire built on marmalade

We parked behind the house and I went inside the small gift shop for our tour. I was greeted by Jeff Ward, fourth-generation rancher. Jeff pointed out the ranch is still a working ranch, even though it’s only 2.5 acres, and it still produces the same product that his great-great-grandfather (E. Waldo himself) started producing more than 100 years ago.

Our first stop on the tour was the original processing room, built in the early 1900s, where the company’s first product was tested. On the day we visited, soft winter light filtered through the many windows that wrapped around the room. It was here that E. Waldo Ward launched an empire based on marmalade.

Edwin Waldo Ward imported two Seville orange trees from Spain in 1891. He planted these new trees in the rich soil of the San Gabriel Valley. As a luxury food salesman, E. Waldo knew that the best marmalade came from Seville oranges, and no one in America was making high-end marmalade.

E. Waldo slowly built a grove of more than 600 trees that covered 30 acres using his two Seville orange trees as grafting stock. By 1915, he believed he could take the big step — quit his job, and launch his product.

Within a few years he was selling massive amounts of his high-end marmalade to his old sales clients, the railroads. He was harvesting oranges, making marmalade and packaging the product in his canning “factory” behind his house.

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Jeff and Richard Ward in front of a 100-year old Seville orange tree. Credit: Susan Lutz

Into the modern era

Jeff walked us past pallets and a small lift truck to the barn that E. Waldo built in 1902. Today it’s part store-room, part museum — a treasure chest of crazy old machines and relics of early 20th century preserve-making. One side of the tiny museum showcases examples of kitchen tools and family photos of the ranch over the past 100 years. The other side contains a workbench that looked (and smelled) just like my grandfather’s workbench on his farm in Virginia. In these quiet corners it is easy to feel that E. Waldo’s spirit is still very much alive at the ranch.Marmalade jars in the Ward ranch gift shop

After leaving the barn, we entered a series of much more modern processing and packing rooms. It is here that Jeff, and his dad Richard, spearhead the marmalade and jam processing operation that still bears E. Waldo’s name.

Jeff also applies the family’s know-how to help others create their own commercial food products. The company now offers consulting and co-packing services, helping small-time entrepreneurs take a handcrafted food product to market, just as E. Waldo did in this same spot more than a century ago.

The tour ended back in the gift store where we were offered the ranch’s high-end jams, marinades and sauces. I managed to taste, and ultimately take home, a number of delicious goodies, including blood orange marmalade and sweet spiced peaches.

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Ward Museum apple peelers. Credit: Susan Lutz

As we packed up our jars of preserves and headed back down the path to the city street, I watched my daughters scamper amid the orange trees playing hide and seek. I remembered hiding behind the gnarled old apple trees in my grandfather’s tiny orchard in Virginia in much the same way. Although I was 3,000 miles away from my family’s farm, I couldn’t help feeling that I was giving my daughters a glimpse of their own agricultural roots. This tiny piece of old California rancho history conjured up the spirit of 19th century while creating a vivid memory of the pleasures of living in Southern California today.

And the sweet spiced peaches were delicious.

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