Chicago: Beautiful lake views at sunset. Very little pimento cheese.


Pimento Cheese (It's a Spread)

One of my brothers, who lives in Los Angeles, recently asked me for the recipe for Pimento Cheese (if you are Southern: yes, it is capitalized), which reminded me that it has been a long time since I'd tasted any. It's not available in local restaurants, here in Chicago (correct me if I'm wrong). And I imagine the same is true for this brother; if there were someplace he could pick up a tub of it, he'd do that. 

While I was writing down how I make it, I started fondly recalling all the finest Pimento Cheese Moments in my life; there are so many that I won't be able to recount them here. 

The few bad Pimento Cheese Moments of my lifetime will just take a minute, and who wouldn't have time for that?

If you're not a Southerner, you probably don't even know what P.C.  is, and I'll start by telling you that is a cheddar cheese spread with chopped pimentos. 

What is is not is a dip, and if you call it a dip, my sister will let you have it. So annoying to watch someone trying to dip crudite in a batch. You eat it on toast, as a sandwich, or saltine crackers. Watching yankees mess with the recipe, by adding onion or chives or something to give it visual interest, which is insane, is excruciating. Of course, there are Southerners who put pickle relish in it. And sugar. So it's not just the yankees. It all makes my skin crawl. 

Anyway, my worst Pimento Cheese Moment involved making it for two new friends, a father-daughter duo with whom I'm now very close. I made a big batch for them; he is a Southerner living in Chicago, too, so naturally he hankered for it.  I used a lot of black pepper. I love black pepper. And I was not used to cooking for children back then. And after eating way too much of it (removing many of the pimentos one by one) on saltines, the daughter got a stomach ache. I blamed myself. We now know, from this awful experience, that one must decide: make it spicy and eat a little, or make it normal and eat a little more. Do not eat a vat of it. And don't let children eat a vat of it. 

Because this is not health food. The first recipe is one I like very much, from my very favorite restaurant in Charleston, S.C., a place where the food is close to perfect for me. It incorporates some fanciness, but not too much. Mine is lazier. Here is their website, which features a few more Southern recipes. 

Hominy Grill Pimento Cheese

Makes 4 generous cups

6 cups cheddar cheese, grated (1 1/2 lbs)

3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, crated

1/2 cup jarred pimentos, rinsed and chopped fine

3/4 cup mayonnaise

1 1/2 tablespoons bourbon

1 teaspoon ancho chili powder

1/3 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine the pimentos, mayonnaise, bourbon and seasonings in a large mixing bowl. Work the grated cheeses into the mix until thoroughly combined.

Emily’s Pimento Cheese

Makes much more than you should consume in one sitting

1 giant (1 lb) block cheddar cheese, grated

1/2 cup mayonnaise (more if necessary; it’s just to bind)

1 jar (4 oz) pimentos, drained, juice reserved, and finely chopped

lots of black pepper (probably no more than 1/2 teaspoon)

Tabasco sauce, a few shakes

Combine the cheese, mayo, pimentos, some of their juice, pepper, and Tabasco.  Adjust seasoning to taste. I usually use about half the pimento juice from the jar. It’s not much. And I probably use more than a half cup of mayo. You don’t want it to be too wet or too dry. It helps to let this sit for a while so the flavors can blossom, before eating. Again: you can eat it on saltines or on toast with more mayo. Some people eat it on celery, but I can’t dope that out. And remember: “It’s a spread not a dip,” and tell that to  yankee lady who insists on calling it “this marvelous dip,” with wonderment, as if she’s never heard of pimento cheese. If you put to much pepper in it, it will keep you awake at night. 


Ruined Beauty, Repaired

O Asparagus! Who among us has not turned your slender felicities into a soup that was unfabulous

Many of us, I suspect, have made plain old bad asparagus soup. It probably happens with great frequency, but we'll never know since such statistics are rarely reported. 

Because the shame attached to botching a soup--or any dish-- made with such an appealing vegetable, and composed of nothing more than the lissome stalks, broth, salt, pepper, and some dairy, keeps cooks from sharing, and therefore preventing, such unnecessary horrors in the future. 

Here's how you make a creamed soup with just about any vegetable: you saute some onions or leeks, if you like, maybe a bit of garlic,  in some oil or butter; briefly saute the starring vegetable--broccoli, tomatoes, squash, etc; then simmer it all in liquid, usually stock, until tender. You may add a complementary herb. Then you puree, add some salt and pepper and some cream or half and half. What could be bad? 

And yet. . . I did make bad asparagus soup, or, at the very least, soup for which no one requested seconds. 

I'd love to blame it on the asparagus. But they were not old or tough and imperfect. Just look at them. 

During my most recent Saturday trip to Chicago's great Green City Market, there wasn't much else to buy so early in the season, so I came home with way too many of them. Hence the soup, just for variety. 

I'd also love to blame it on the tawdry chicken stock from a box that I used, even though I have frozen vegetable stock in my freezer. But, free will and all.

Why did I do this? Because I wanted immediate gratification; what I got instead was a beautiful looking puree that had a faint underlying flavor of boxed chicken.

But I fixed it rather than wasting, by adding plain nonfat yogurt, a tiny bit of ground cayenne, some more fresh lemon juice, and a little more salt and black pepper. It was delicious cold and hot. This recipe suggests vegetable stock; use chicken stock from a box, if you must, but don't blame me when your delicate soup tastes like poultry. 

Creamy asparagus soup

Serves 6 or so

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 lbs fresh asparagus, trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/4 teaspoon dried tarragon, crumbled (optional)
4-5 cups vegetable stock
1/2 cup cream
1 1/2 cups plain nonfat yogurt
juice of 1/2  lemon
salt, pepper
pinch of ground cayenne

  1. Saute onion in a large heavy pot over medium heat, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add asparagus pieces and saute, stirring, until they turn bright green. Add tarragon (optional). Add vegetable broth or water, bring to a boil; lower heat to simmer and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. 
  2. Once the mixture has cooled slightly, puree in blender in small batches, being careful not to burn yourself; don't fill the blender, and use a potholder to hold down the lid! Return to pan, add cream, yogurt, lemon juice, salt, pepper and cayenne. Cook slowly over low heat, until heated through. Taste for salt and pepper. 

Note: you can remove some of the asparagus tops after step one, and set aside for garnish if you'd like. Sprinkle on top before serving