The following is a guest post by Cesar.
Tinned sweet red peppers, sharp cheddar cheese and mayonnaise. None of these things alone are terribly exciting. Pimento cheese, or “menta” cheese as you’ll hear it called in some parts of the South, is essentially a mixture of these three ingredients- any additions are a personal flourish that some might argue is a corruption of the true thing.
Pimento cheese is one of those dishes where the sum truly is greater than the parts. Each time I make the shopping list, I wonder why I’m spending time and money on such bland ingredients. As I get out the cheese grater and open the mayo, I doubt that anyone who likes food could possibly enjoy a spread in which these are two of the three key components.
When you chop up the pimentos and add them to the cheese and mayo, something borderline magical happens: suddenly you have a dish that is completely unique in taste and appearance. It is a spread somehow worthy of plating and serving to other people…and it tastes really good. Such is the logic-defying deliciousness of this quintessential southern delicacy.
Is it the unholy power of salty cheese and mayonnaise, or is it alchemy?
Pimento cheese is traditionally served as a spread with crackers (I like wheat crackers or Triscuits), or used as a sandwich filling. In the second instance, don’t bother getting high quality bread. While pimiento cheese is great for summer picnics and the like, I also think it fits as an appetizer for holiday get-togethers. It’s probably the perfect side for tomato soup.
Note: while this can be made with just the three ingredients mentioned above, I like to add a few spoons of hot pepper relish and a dash of salt or worcestershire sauce, as suggested in the recipe below. Choosing the pepper relish is important: you can make your own or use a pre-made Sambal-style relish, but the key is to use one that won’t add too many additional flavors. You want it to be salty, hot and coarsely textured.
Pimento Cheese (a slightly spicier version)
Ingredients (enough for a party appetizer)
2 6 oz jars of pimento drained
1 pound of sharpest cheddar cheese
3 tbs best quality mayonnaise
3 tbs hot pepper relish
Salt or worcestershire sauce to taste
Grate the cheese coarsely or chop using a food processor. Dice the pimentos into small chunks and combine with the cheese in a large mixing bowl.
In a separate bowl, blend together the mayonnaise, pepper relish and worcestershire sauce if you are using it.
Finally, fold the pepper and mayonnaise mixture into the grated cheese and pimentos with a spatula or spoon so that the cheese-pimento mixture is evenly coated. Some like to put all of this in a food processor to make it finer, but I like it to have texture so that you can distinguish cheese from pimento.
If you’re using it in sandwiches, spread the pimento cheese on slices sandwich bread and toast them lightly in a pan as if you were making a grilled cheese. Serve immediately.
Returning to Chicago is always wonderful but I never fail to overestimate the amount of stuff I can do while I’m here. The problem is that it’s hard to check off a to-do list when there are so many great people around, so many favorite bars and restaurants to visit and so many sites to see again.
Even though I’ve spent the majority of the last five months away, Chicago is still my home base. I wonder how long that assurance will last. If I do the traditional job-search this time in two years, I’ll be applying to positions in all sorts of places other than Chicago. I tell myself I’m ready for that, but then I come back and fall in love with my favorite things all over again: the things that make me feel grounded and stable. Such is the lot of an itinerant academic.
I’m not trying to sound bleak- there are plenty of people in my field who adopt a fatalistic attitude. I’ve been guilty of that myself at many points, but the more I speak to people both in and outside academia who are satisfied, the more I realize that these people have decided that they are capable of fashioning their own fate. For me, this means being between two cities at the moment and trying to do it in a way that is least disruptive to the non-research-related aspects of my life. In the future, it might mean taking serious stock of what really counts. What is most important at the end of the day?
Doing this blog has confirmed, at least, the importance of cooking – I’ve said this before but it’s good to put that in writing as much as possible.
Today it’s cheese straws. Truth be told, these are more twists than straws and they don’t resemble the cheese straws my mom makes – those are more dense and complex. This recipe, taken from the Canal House Cooking series, is shockingly easy to make though, and the payoff is absolutely satisfying. Cheese straws are a party food and December is a party-food kind of month, so the next couple of posts will be devoted to them.
Cheese Straws (recipe adapted from Canal House Cooking, Volume 2: Fall and Holiday)
Ingredients (for about 30 straws)
2 cups parmesan cheese, finely grated
2 sheets puff pastry, defrosted
Preheat your oven to 375.
Clean and clear a flat surface on your counter. Dust the surface with a few sprinkles of the cheese and place the unfolded puff pastry on top. With a rolling pin, begin to roll out the puff pastry, flipping it every now and then and sprinkling the top with cheese as you go along. You want to work the cheese into the dough this process, and for each sheet you should end up using about one cup of the cheese. Continue rolling and incorporating the cheese until the dough is a mere 1/8 inch thick.
Next, use a pizza slicer or knife to cut the flattened sheet into strips about 1/3 of an inch across. Take each strip and twist either end so that it forms a cork-screw shape (see photo above). Then take these and arrange them on a baking sheet covered in parchment paper or lightly greased with butter.
Repeat the process with the other sheet of puff pastry and remaining cup of cheese.
Bake the straws in the oven until just golden, around 10-12 minutes, then open the oven and dust them with cayenne pepper and bake again for 1-2 minutes. Let the straws cool for a few minutes and then serve or stash. They’re best if used within a day.
It’s 6 AM here in Berlin and I’m packing my suitcase to head back to Chicago and eventually Auburn for the holidays.
Last Friday I let the revised draft of the first chapter go: sent out into the ether with a few clicks (oh how I love Dropbox). Do I feel good about how it reads? Not really. But, I’m glad it’s out there hovering for the moment. One thing I’m learning about this dissertation process is that it’s good to let things go sometimes simply for the purpose of moving on. Or, as my dad would say, “sometimes you have to turn Granny’s portrait to the wall.”
It’s been a Christmassy few days here and I did make it to my obligatory Weihnachtsmarkt on Saturday night. I went to two, actually. I also truly enjoyed Gluhwein for maybe the first time. Mulled wine isn’t my favorite drink in the world, but it was such a bitterly raw night that I can see why it became popular.
For those of you in Berlin- next time you go to the Neuköllner Weihnachtsmarkt in Rixdorf, get your food and drink in front of the butcher on Karl-Marx-Platz located outside the actual market. It’s cheaper than the stuff inside, and better! Then you can enter the throng buzzed from the first Gluhwein and refill as necessary.
Finally, today I have a suggestion rather than a recipe: invest in a decent piece of cheese every once in a while. Living off of grant budgets calls for thrift, and I’ve mostly eliminated such treats from my diet. I was reminded last weekend though how much a couple of extra Euros can go around here. Worth every cent.