A Piquant Spread With All-American Charm
The tackiest of Southern indulgences, pimento cheese is now a favorite of top chefs nationwide
CHEESE, PLEASE: The creamy classic, as served at Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Ala.
For years, there was fine food on one side and pimento cheese on the other. But lately even haute-cuisine chefs have been reaching across the Mason-Dixon line and reinterpreting this Southern raid-the-fridge-and-spread-it-on-celery home staple. It’s part of a national rethink of Southern food, once decried as fatty and trashy, and now understood to be an American regional cuisine worthy of celebration.
While mom’s pimento cheese typically consists of processed cheese, supermarket mayo and a jar of chopped pimentos, chefs are upgrading the down-home dish by roasting their own bell peppers, enriching it with everything from artisanal mayonnaise to crème fraîche and adding international accents like chipotle and smoked paprika. We canvassed chefs from north to south to ask how they pay homage to this iconic spread. Below, a classic recipe and some ideas for how to shake it up.
— Katy McLaughlin
For 25 years, chef Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Ala., has served a platter of pimento cheese and crudité to regulars who know to ask for it (it’s not the menu).
The recipe: Shred 1 pound sharp yellow cheddar, then blend it with ¼ pound cream cheese, 1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper, 3 large red bell peppers (roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped), ½ cup mayonnaise, 1 teaspoon sugar, a splash of hot sauce (such as Tabasco or Cholula), several splashes of Worcestershire and 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional). Serve chilled.
Southern, via Spain
At Hog & Rocks, a San Francisco bar that specializes in oysters and aged hams, chef Scott Youkilis marries Spanish and Southern flavors in a pimento cheese made with piquillo peppers, aged Majon cheese, mayonnaise and cheddar, served in a four-ounce Mason jar.
The owners of Van Horn Sandwich Shop, which opened in Brooklyn in January, hail from Chapel Hill, N.C., and have brought pulled pork and hush puppies with them. To make their BLP—a bacon, lettuce and pimento sandwich, of course—they both honor and update tradition with sharp yellow and white cheddar, mayo, roasted red peppers and the added kick of chipotle peppers and parmesan.
Thomas Keller, the dean of American haute cuisine, doesn’t serve pimento cheese at any of his restaurants. But at home he makes a mean grilled cheese sandwich with it. The secret to his version is combining uptown and downhome tastes: He uses crème fraîche and smoked paprika, blends it all with chopped-up jarred pimentos and spreads it on brioche.
Celebrity Chef Take
Bobby Flay, whose mini-chain Bobby’s Burger Place offers a Napa Valley burger (goat cheese and Meyer lemon mustard) and a Santa Fe (pickled jalapeños and blue corn chips), goes Southern with a pimento cheeseburger. He blends roasted red peppers, white and yellow cheddar, mayonnaise and cayenne pepper, spreads it on a brioche-like roll and adds the burger. Dietetic it’s not.