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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Stir Fry Awaits: 5 Location Tips for Suburban Foragers

bittercress-stir-fried_Susan_Lutz
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.”

forager-matt-cohen-photobysusanlutz
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.
fairy_spud_spring_beauty_photobysusanlutz
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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DIY Vinegar From Thomas Jefferson

Homemade peach vinegar made from peach skins, photo by Susan Lutz 2015.
Homemade peach vinegar made from peach skins,  copyright Susan Lutz 2015.

High-end vinegar is going through something of a renaissance among foodies, chefs, and home cooks. Vinegar is alive. Literally. At least before it’s pasteurized—a step taken by most manufacturers to make vinegar shelf stable. I’m on a quest to make my own vinegar, the kind that must be consumed quickly while at its peek acidity level, or fed at regular intervals to keep it alive. This living vinegar is tastier, healthier– and can give you better bragging rights — than the expensive pasteurized product you’re likely to find in gourmet food stores.

I dove into the world of DIY vinegar at the home of America’s greatest promoter of Maker lifestyle: Thomas Jefferson. The Monticello Heritage Harvest festival is an annual celebration of food, history and the do-it-yourself spirit of the American Revolution; where authors and PhDs rub shoulders with urban homesteaders; a gathering that my husband calls “Historians ‘n’ Hippies.” My guides in the arts of vinegar production come from both ends of this spectrum: Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation, and Gabriele Rausse, a pioneer of modern Virginian winemaking, and Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello.

Ancient Roots of Vinegar Culture

Hillside vineyard at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Charlottesville, VA, copyright Susan Lutz 2015.

Vinegar appears in the human record at the dawn of civilization. Vinegar residue has been found in Egyptian urns from 3,000 BC. Vinegar is mentioned as a tasty treat in the Bible and as medicinal treatment for colds in the works of Hippocrates. Apple cider vinegar was a cure-all in colonial America, but by the time of the American Revolution, people like Thomas Jefferson explored vinegar as the ultimate addition to fine dining. Jefferson’s years in Paris made him a connoisseur of vinegar – and culinary historian Damon Lee Fowler declared Jefferson was positively “addicted” to tarragon vinegar.

Making Your Own

Sandor Katz at Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival, copyright Susan Lutz 2015.

There are extremely elaborate, highly-measured ways to accomplish the transformation of fruit juice or wine into fine vinegar. But Sandor Katz takes a loose, DIY approach to the process. Acetic-acid-producing bacteria called Acetobacter and yeast—the two microorganisms required for vinegar- making– are all around us. “You don’t have to be a microbiologist,” said Katz, when I expressed my concerns about making fruit scrap vinegar. “Not to worry: vinegar makes itself.” My process began with fruit scraps. While making a pie, I found myself with a pile of peach skins, and several less-than-perfect chunks of fruit. I would begin with this – starting the process of turning fruit sugar into alcohol.

Step One: Sugar to Alcohol

Vinegar requires two steps to turn fruit scraps into vinegar. First, yeast naturally found on fruit turns sugars in the fruit into alcohol—a process called alcoholic fermentation. And second, Acetobacter converts the alcohol into acetic acid. A home-brewer or winemaker will use specific types of fruit sugar and add a specific type of yeast to the mixture. For my purposes, I just mixed the fruit scraps with a sugar solution in a Mason jar following Katz’s recipe in his first book Wild Fermentation. Then I covered the top with a paper towel secured with a rubber band, and let the natural yeasts on the fruit (and in my kitchen) find their way to it. Yeast consumed the sugar, excreting carbon dioxide bubbles and ethanol in the process. I gently swirled the mixture around in the jar every once in a while and within a week, I could see the telltale bubbles that showed alcohol was being created.

Step Two: Alcohol to Acetic Acid

peach vinegar
A “mother” begins to form in my peach skin vinegar, copyright Susan Lutz 2015.

My goal was not low-alcohol peach hooch. There’s a second step: turning alcohol into an acetic acid mixture that tastes delicious. “The word we use is French,” Katz said. “Vin Aigre just means ‘sour wine.’ It is the consolation prize when alcohol goes bad.” I strained out the chunks of peach skin to stop the alcohol-creation process, then put the golden liquid into a new container with a scrap of thin kitchen towel over the top of the jar. Sandor Katz’s approach to this step is extremely simple: just let it sit there. The peach alcohol soon began to get stringy gelatinous threads that eventually massed into a noticeable translucent layer on top of my peach mixture. At first glance it seemed like a food safety disaster, but it’s actually the start of the vinegar magic.

This was the beginning of the “vinegar mother” – a gelatinous membrane made mostly of cellulose produced by the Acetobacter. It is the “starter” from which more vinegar can be created. After two weeks, a quick whiff at the top of the jar revealed the powerful tang of transformation.

I poured some of the vinegar into a shot glass. It tasted sharp, with a hint of sweetness – a distinct peach taste to the delicious acidy liquid. I plan to let this sit for a couple of more weeks, until it reaches its peak of acidity. I have a dozen plans for this: salad dressing, marinade, potato salad, even mayonnaise.

Making fruit scrap vinegar was an interesting experiment, but this kind of live vinegar needs to be used fairly quickly, while at it’s maximum acidity level, or heat-pasteurized and stored in a closed narrow-necked bottle for long-term storage. I wasn’t interested in the details of heating and storing this kind of vinegar safely. And it is crucial to pay attention to these details because as the acidity level in vinegar drops, other microorganisms can start to take over—a potentially dangerous situation from a food-safety standpoint. I wanted to find an easy sustainable way to keep vinegar alive in my own kitchen, so I turned to a classic Italian method for making wine vinegar.

AN ALTERNATE STEP: ACQUIRE A MOTHER

vinegar mother, Susan Lutz
A thick vinegar mother in my kitchen, copyright Susan Lutz 2015.

The traditional method of making vinegar with wine begins with acquiring a “mother of vinegar” from a vinegar-making friend or from a wine-making supply store. I was generously given a small jar of this vinegar mother by Gabriele Rausse, Monticello’s Director of Gardens and Grounds. A passionate wine-maker and vinegar-maker, Rausse makes vinegar in his home every day using a “mother” that came from his grandmother’s house in Italy. When I asked him how long he had had his vinegar mother, he told me, “Since I was born.”

I was honored. My vinegar mother had its birth on another continent three generations ago. But such a legacy requires dedication and focus. I learned about the care and feeding of vinegar mothers at Rausse’s vinegar-making demonstration at Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival.

Keep Your Vinegar Alive

Gabriele Rausse, photo copyright Susan Lutz
Gabriele Rausse, Monticello’s Director of Gardens and Grounds, in Monticello’s vineyard, copyright Susan Lutz, 2015.

The key to good vinegar, according to both Katz and Rausse, is to consume it while it is still alive. Most vinegar that you buy in the grocery store or gourmet shop has been pasteurized – the living organisms killed for the sake of shelf-stability and food safety. There is an important place for pasteurized vinegar, most notably in food preservation. The USDA recommends that only vinegar with an acidity level of at least 5% should be used for pickling fruits and vegetables. Because the acidity level of homemade vinegar is unknown, it should never be used for pickling. I follow this rule in my own kitchen and encourage others to do the same. But when I want to dress a salad, I reach for live vinegar.

Up until now, I’ve bought commercially-produced vinegar with live bacterial cultures (Bragg’s makes a good one from apple cider). In a few months I hope I’ll be reaching for vinegar with a living history instead. My homemade vinegar will tell the story of at least three generations of Italian vinegar-makers, with additional flavors from my own kitchen. Over time, I’m sure my homemade vinegar will transform into something unrecognizable to Gabriele Rausse and his grandmother, but I hope it will be a delicious heirloom that I’ll be able to pass on to friends and family over the years and eventually to my own grandchildren. Time will tell.

 

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