Full disclosure: I’m a New Englander through and through. (I do have an uncle who lives in Texas, but he arrived by way of Las Vegas. It’s a long story.) So my connection to the southern United States and this classic appetizer is tenuous at best.
But pimento cheese’s popularity has spread beyond the south. You can now find it in restaurants and supermarkets in the northeast, which is how I became familiar with it. It’s on the menu at two of my favorite Boston-area restaurants—Hungry Mother and Cutty’s. At Hungry Mother, which specializes in southern cuisine, it’s served as an appetizer alongside some crackers and pickled or fried vegetables. The bright, zesty spread is a testament to the dish’s—and chef Barry Maiden’s—southern roots. Cutty’s doesn’t claim any regional theme, but it has a reputation for nailing everything from Philly’s pork rabe sandwiches to Boston’s own spuckies. At Cutty’s, pimento cheese is smeared on a baguette along with ham and sweet pickles. It adds zip, tang, and creaminess, and is a perfect example of pimento cheese as a sandwich spread.
We’ve gotten hooked on the stuff here in Boston, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a New Englander who knows how to make it. Mixing cheese and chiles ought to be easy enough, but it’s harder than it seems. My first attempts were overly zesty and lacked the trademark crumbly-creamy texture of good pimento cheese. Finally, after reading about a secret ingredient (that you probably have in your fridge right now) and receiving some constructive feedback from my southern friends, I finally landed on a version that everyone—no matter his or her state of origin—can agree upon.
Pimento chiles are available at every grocery store. This mild chile pepper is small, round, and sweet.
Sharp cheddar cheese is used in essentially every recipe for pimento cheese. I cut its sharpness with Monterey Jack, which is mild and zesty at the same time. It’s the perfect contrast with cheddar, whose sharpness can easily overwhelm this spread if not reined in by a more mellow cheese.
My first few attempts were missing something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. After a bit more research, I figured it out: pickle juice. It may have been a secret to me, but I found several versions of this dish that benefit from a small shot of its vinegary, sour flavor.
It takes a bunch of stirs before the mixture starts to resemble pimento cheese. But don’t give up if it’s looking dry; after some vigorous stirring, the cheese and liquid ingredients start to combine and smooth out. But don’t overmix and make it too smooth—those small, cheesy lumps are what gives pimento cheese its characteristic texture.
Pimento cheese is traditionally paired with crackers (saltines or Ritz crackers) or white bread. It also makes a mean grilled cheese, as a burger topping, or mixed into scrambled eggs.