I have a real affinity for Southern cooking. It first captured my imagination as a child and continues to inspire me as a cook. The South has such a rich food history influenced by so many different cultures which make it both fascinating to explore and immensely satisfying. As a child raised on Midwestern suburban restaurant food and dinners at home that usually consisted of a piece of over-cooked meat, canned vegetables and a microwaved potato, these culinary traditions were enviable. I wanted my grandma to have a cake recipe that had been passed down for generations or a secret method for fried chicken. Although my family put a lot of care into holiday food, outside of those days what we ate was pretty soulless. I began to look outside of my life for inspiration.
One of those inspirations is Edna Lewis, who I hope you are familiar with. She was a cook and writer who chronicled classic Southern cooking. She left us with several important cookbooks and inspired many people to help preserve traditional Southern cuisine. Her classic, The Taste of Country Cooking, reads like poetry and is difficult to put down. Lewis’ cooking is characterized by simple recipes relying on the best local and seasonal ingredients before any of those had become buzzwords. In a NY Times interview Edna Lewis said that “As a child in Virginia, I thought all food tasted delicious. After growing up, I didn’t think food tasted the same, so it has been my lifelong effort to try and recapture those good flavors of the past.” I am also in search of those flavors, although I suspect that the flavors I am chasing were conjured by my imagination rather than my kin.
With summer on the horizon I find myself returning to favorite Southern recipes that I have collected over the years. Most Northerners don’t realize they have been missing out on Pimento cheese. This delicious spread of sharp cheddar cheese and sweet roasted red peppers is all but ignored outside of the South. It is available as a mass-produced food in supermarkets but many southerners have their own recipes for this spread. My favorite version forgoes the traditional jarred pimentos in favor of freshly roasted red peppers. This is what I love about cooking, we can create our own traditions and signature recipes. This is my version of pimento cheese which was inspired by Frank Stitt, which was inspired by a colleague of his named Miss Verba, which was undoubtedly inspired by someone else, and so on. Now I too can make and eat food that is both delicious and full of the history and culture that I fantasized about as a kid.
Pimento Cheese (inspired by a recipe in Frank Stitt’s Southern Table)
- 1 pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated
- 1/4 pound cream cheese, softened
- 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
- 2 large red bell peppers, roasted (see below), peeled, seeded and diced
- 1/4 cup best-quality commercial mayonnaise or homemade
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 4-5 splashes of hot sauce
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- pinch of salt
Combine all ingredients in medium bowl and blend together thoroughly. Refrigerate and serve chilled. Will keep for several days in the fridge. Serve with crackers, celery, as a topping for burgers or the classic preparation: sandwiched between two slices of white bread.
To roast peppers: Place peppers on a grill over hot flame or under broiler and turn occasionally until the skin is black. Transfer blackened peppers to bowl and cover in plastic wrap. Let steam for 10 minutes. Remove the blackened skin with your fingertips. Remove stem and seeds. Don’t worry about getting all of the skin off. Never rinse under water because you will lose lots of flavor.