One of the South’s best-kept secrets for years, pimento cheese is catching on with the rest of the country. While pimento cheese and things made with it are still only on 4% of U.S. restaurant menus, according to www.datassential.com, that’s an increase of 65% in the last four years.
Still, people in the South expect puzzled looks when the subject comes up. It’s just so simple: Grated cheese (preferably the sharpest cheddar you can find), diced pimentos and mayonnaise. That’s it.
There’s still room for debate in those three basic ingredients: How coarse to grate the cheese, what kind of mayonnaise and whether it’s OK to substitute roasted red peppers for the pimentos. Additions like hot sauce, cayenne pepper, paprika or cream cheese can all cause arguments.
Kathleen Purvis, North Carolina-based food writer and author of two "Savor the South" cookbooks, calls pimento cheese “the duct tape of party foods.
“You can nuke it, spread it, mix it with something else or slap it on a tray surrounded by crackers.”
If you’re just encountering pimento cheese, there really are endless things you can do with it. Stir it into hot pasta for a shortcut macaroni and cheese, stir it into cornbread batter before baking, and put it between two flour tortillas to make fast quesadillas. Or try these:
- Hot cheese dip: To make a southern twist on queso, just bake or microwave a small bowl of pimento cheese. If you want something more substantial, stir in cooked black-eyed peas first.
- On a biscuit: Try spicy pimento cheese on a warm biscuit. Even better, Bojangles’, the chicken and biscuits chain known for its real deal southern flavor, has debuted pimento cheese on its signature Cajun Filet Biscuit. Pro tip: You can also add the pimento cheese on anything you order, like ham biscuits and Bo Rounds, the little hash brown bites. For a location near you, go to Bojangles.com.
- Fried bites: Take an idea from a popular bar snack. Roll very thick pimento cheese into balls, coat them in flour, then beaten egg and finally in Japanese-style panko crumbs. Freeze them before dropping them in hot oil, so they don’t fall apart before the outside browns.
- P.C. deviled eggs: Beat the cooked egg yolks with pimento cheese, then pipe it into cooked egg-white halves. Garnish with a small slice of pickled jalapeno if you want.
- Instant appetizer: Fill frozen phyllo cups with a dab of pepper jelly, top with pimento cheese and bake just until bubbly.
- Grilled cheese: If you want to elevate a simple hot sandwich, use pimento cheese instead of sliced cheese. If you really want to make it special, try spreading a little raspberry jam or pepper jelly on the bread before you add the pimento cheese.
You get the idea: If you’re just getting to know pimento cheese, the options are endless.