Growing up, I hated mayonnaise and I hated cheese. Strange for a kid, yes, but the cheese-hatred had some basis: my dad hated it, so we never had it in the house. And I became so conditioned to hating cheese, it took me years (and a cheese-loving boyfriend) to get over it. As for the mayo, that was entirely my own thing: nothing repulsed me more. The gummy, gooey whiteness mortified me; nothing could ruin a sandwich faster than spreading mayo on it first. I could abide it in coleslaw and tuna salad because I didn’t see it go in, but a turkey sandwich with gloppy mayo on top? To this day, I’d say “no.” So imagine how repulsed I’d be if, as a wee lass, you’d presented me with a Southern delicacy known as “pimento cheese”–cheddar cheese mixed with mayo and chopped up pimentos. I might’ve, to use an elegant verb from my childhood, hurled.
Lucky, then, that fate brought me to Atlanta, Georgia a few years ago to visit old friends from college and law school. And it was there on that trip to Atlanta (see post here) that I experienced the cooking of one of Atlanta’s great chefs, Scott Peacock, co-author along with the legend Edna Lewis of one of my favorite cookbooks ever: “The Gift of Southern Cooking.” [To learn more about Scott Peacock & Edna Lewis, read this indispensable article about them by Kim Severson (I link to it all the time.)]
At Chef Peacock’s restaurant Watershed, I was presented–for the first time–with pimento cheese; a dish that might’ve repulsed me in my childhood, but which suddenly fascinated me:
Strangely, magically, all of those dreaded elements came together to form a fascinating whole. The cheese was sharp and pungent, the mayo was creamy and lemony and the peppers added brightness and color. On celery, it was a dream of an appetizer–unexpected, unhealthy, and unlike anything else I’d ever eaten. Which is why, when our friends Morgan and Phil were coming over for dinner last week, I knew exactly what to make for the start of a Southern feast. Say it together with me: pimento cheese.
The process began with me doing something I’d never done before: making mayo from scratch.
Scott Peacock & Edna Lewis call, in their recipe, for cider vinegar, lemon juice, sea salt, dry mustard, two egg yolks and–for the fat–pure vegetable oil or a light olive oil or a combo. I had some olive oil and some vegetable oil and lots of canola oil so I made a combo of the first two and put the canola oil aside.
Well, after whisking and whisking and slowly dripping the fat in the result was oddly, uncomfortably bitter. I asked our friend Sharon, who was over, to taste it and she said: “It is bitter but I thought that’s what you were going for.”
That’s not what I was going for and so I deduced (via Twitter) that the olive oil was rancid, so I started again using just the canola oil. And this time? Success!
Look at that creamy, dreamy concoction. Even the me of yesteryear might have to dip my finger in to taste. I think anyone who hates mayo should make it themselves; seeing how it works–how the oil emulsifies with the egg yolk and the lemon juice–makes all the difference. If I can, I’m going to make my own mayo more often (I used it later for tuna salad and it was incredible.)
Now, then, to make pimento cheese you just mix together a bit of that mayo (3/4 a cup, actually), with grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese (Chef Peacock uses a mixture of white (for flavor) and orange (for color), so I did too), a pinch of cayenne, salt, black pepper, and finely chopped roasted red bell peppers or pimentos (I got mine from a jar, which was easy). Here it is, pre-assembly:
It’s the kind of dish that should come with its own treadmill, but let’s not worry too much about nutrition at the moment. Here it is set out for our guests, being snurfed by the cat:
It was such a hit that Phil and Morgan barely noticed the fried chicken and collard greens I served them afterwards (“It’s good, but it’s no pimento cheese.”)
[Just kidding about that; Morgan loved the fried chicken so much he said it was the best he ever had!]
Now, the next time you cook a Southern meal, you know how to start. Save some for later, though–leftover pimento cheese sandwiches will be the next night’s dinner:
from “The Gift of Southern Cooking” by Edna Lewis & Scott Peacock
First, make your own mayo (it’s key).
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard
2 egg yolks
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil or light olive oil, or a combination [I’d stick to vegetable or canola]
1 tablespoon hot water
Put the vinegar, lemon juice, salt, and mustard into a bowl, and whisk or stir until the salt and mustard are dissolved. Add the egg yolks, and beat until smooth. Add the oil drop by drop at first, and then in a slow, steady stream, whisking or stirring constantly until all of the oil has been incorporated and you have a very thick emulsion. Stir in the hot water until smooth.
[Refrigerated, homemade mayo will keep for up to 1 week.]
Now for the pimento cheese, it couldn’t be easier…
Mix together 2 1/2 cups (10 ounces) grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese [try a combo of white and orange], 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste), salt (to taste, if needed), 5 to 6 grinds of black pepper, 3/4 cup of the the homemade Mayonnaise and 3 tablespoons finely chopped roasted red bell pepper or pimento. Stir until it’s well mixed and creamy, then taste carefully for seasoning and adjust. Cover and store, refrigerated, until ready to use.