I should have known it contained mayonnaise.
The secret ingredient in loads of delicious dishes, it's one of the crucial ones in pimento cheese, a Southern staple that is more spread than cheese.
I wasn't too familiar with it before I tried it at Cob & Pen a year or two ago. The Lakeland restaurant serves a big mound of it as an appetizer with crispy crackers. A lovely, cheesy snack.
Soon, I started seeing it on other menus around Tampa Bay, as an appetizer, the filling for fried fritters, on sandwiches. Oh, it also goes great with a cold beer.
That's one of the reasons why Dunedin's Fenway Hotel serves it at its rooftop bar. Chef Adam Hyatt said it was the first thing he thought of when coming up with dips and spreads suitable for rooftop snacking.
"I didn't grow up eating pimento cheese, but I remember the first time I ate it," Hyatt said. "It's just one of those items when made right, the flavor and simplicity hits you, like 'Why haven't I been eating this forever?' I remember feeling like I'd been missing out my whole life."
Pimento cheese gets its name from jarred peppers called pimentos, sweet, bright red peppers that are similar to bell peppers but a little more lively. They're sometimes called cherry peppers; you've most likely seen them in the centers of green olives.
To make pimento cheese, very finely chopped pimentos are combined with cheddar cheese, mayonnaise and usually cream cheese.
"It's found in many different variations in the South," Hyatt said. "Bar snacks, sandwich spreads, served with chips or mixed in with deviled eggs — pimento cheese is one of those things in the South you can find for breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner or snack times."
Cob & Pen's chef Will Ball has some tips for home cooks trying to make it from scratch.
"Make sure to press the oil out of the pimentos before adding them to the cheese," he said. Otherwise you could end up with an oily mess.
And try adding some acid to the mixture to cut through all of that fat.
"Something like pickle juice or hot sauce works great," he said.
Let it sit in the fridge for a few hours after mixing it, so the flavors can gel. And don't be afraid to play around with the standard recipe.
"Try goat cheese instead of the cream cheese," Ball said.
Pimento cheese is the first thing that came to mind when I was thinking about a recipe for an upcoming event. The Times is hosting a free happy hour Thursday evening to celebrate our new food critic, Helen Freund. (Read Freund's first column on Page 4E.)
We're working with Pete's General, a general store in St. Petersburg that has quickly become known for its lineup of bagels. They'll be making mini bagels for the event, and Freund and I are creating two toppings specifically for the festivities.
Pimento lends itself really well to being spread on bread or crackers. And Freund is drawing inspiration from New Orleans, where she lived and worked most recently, for her topping: a play on the olive salad found on muffuletta sandwiches, an Italian specialty found often in New Orleans.
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You can try the toppings, meet Freund and snag samples of Green Bench Brewing beer from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Pete's General, 495 Seventh Ave. N, St. Petersburg. We hope to see you there.
8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated on a large box grater
2 ounces cream cheese, softened
¾ cup jarred pimento or roasted red peppers, finely diced
3 tablespoons store-bought mayonnaise
Freshly ground black pepper
Red pepper flakes or hot sauce, to taste, optional
Bagels or crackers, for serving
In a large mixing bowl, place the cheddar cheese, cream cheese, pimentos and mayonnaise. Use a spatula to mix the ingredients together, working them for at least a minute until they all come together. Season with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. Stir a couple of times to incorporate. You should have something smooth and spreadable.
Serve with bagels or crackers.
Source: Michelle Stark, Tampa Bay Times
Muffuletta Olive Spread
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 cup green Spanish olives, pitted and chopped
¾ cup black Spanish olives or kalamata olives, pitted, chopped
⅓ cup olive oil
3 tablespoons chopped drained capers
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon chopped oregano
Freshly ground pepper
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese
Bagels or crackers, for serving
1 (10-ounce) package hard salami, sliced or cut into squares
Combine shallots, garlic, olives, olive oil, capers, red wine vinegar, oregano and salt and pepper in a bowl. Spread cream cheese on bagels or crackers and top with a spoonful of olive salad and a salami square.
Source: Helen Freund, Tampa Bay Times