october 30, 2015
There are iconic Southern dishes that have become staples of the American culinary experience. No New South restaurant worth its salt would fail to offer Shrimp and Grits, creamy with cheese and flecked with bits of cured pork. The New York Times recently profiled local eateries vying for the best fluffy biscuits, but we know the most outstanding are made with White Lily Flour, a soft winter wheat, and full fat buttermilk. And then there is pimento cheese….
Although I grew up in the South, pimento cheese was not part of my upbringing. When I lived in North Carolina, it was everywhere, slathered on lowly slices of grocery sandwich bread and fancy croissants, mixed into pasta salads, stuffed into little tomatoes and sold in both highbrow restaurants as a starter and on the shelves of convenience marts next to the red pickled eggs. Everywhere!
You can customize by using cream cheese with the cheddar for a fluffier spread, add heat with jalapeños or chipotle pepper or hot-sweetness with minced peppadew peppers. There is only one absolute : shred the cheddar by hand (or machine for a larger amount), since the pre-shredded packaged cheeses are tossed with a powder that keeps the shreds from clumping. You want clumping, and creaminess, not firm and chewy pimento cheese. And that brings me to another absolute : have your cheese at room temperature, perhaps even setting it out of the refrigerator for several hours if your kitchen is cool, so that the cheese is soft enough to cream with the other ingredients.
Double the recipe so that you have extra for noshing and use the amount of mayonnaise that provides the creaminess you desire. I made these appetizers for the recent Fall Sunday Supper at Little House Green Grocery, and the guests enjoyed them with wine chosen by resident spirits expert Terry Shiple.
Wanting to put my own stamp on pimento cheese, I experimented on willing victims and came up with this recipe, which holds high honor on the sideboard whenever I entertain a crowd. And, yes, I end up putting it everywhere – on baked potatoes, on roasted fish, and now in Medjool dates, offering a nice savory contrast to the cloying sweetness of the fruit. You don’t have to be a Southerner to appreciate the timeless appeal of pimento cheese. After you see how easy it is to make at home, you’ll never again fall for the store-bought version.
recipe by Michele Humlan, The Good Eats Company
makes about 24 date appetizers
eight ounces shredded (by hand) sharp cheddar cheese, very soft at room temperature
two ounce jar chopped pimentos, drained well
one scallion, minced
small garlic clove, zested or finely minced
pinch of fine salt
one or two shakes of cayenne pepper
⅓ cup good quality mayonnaise (I like Hellmann’s canola)
24 Medjool dates, split carefully and pit removed
optional garnish : thin diagonal slices of scallion green
cook’s tips : avoid pre shredded cheese, as it is coated with anti-clumping powders; double the recipe for extra snacking spread
- It is important to have all ingredients nice and soft at room temperature.
- Combine all ingredients except dates with spatula, mixing well.
- Adjust amount of mayonnaise to your preference.
- Chill cheese mixture at least 30 minutes to develop flavor and allow better texture for stuffing dates.
- Place a small dollop of pimento cheese in each date and garnish if desired with cut scallion green.
- May be made one day ahead (garnish just before serving); allow to sit at room temperature at least one hour before serving.