The Moment You Taste This, You'll Understand

By Kristen Miglore

Every week 
— often with your help — Food52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: Cheese, mayonnaise, and pimentos shouldn't be this good together.
Photo: Courtesy of James Ransom/ Food52
Pimento cheese is, at its core, nothing but tufts of unmelted cheese, a cushion of mayonnaise, and chopped pimentos: a glomming-together of unassuming and seemingly unfriendly ingredients. It doesn't seem like it should exist, but the moment you taste it, you understand.

This trinity is a Southern institution —  but from there, everyone has their own way. Perre Magness (Food52's own TheRunawaySpoon), who's writing a pimento cheese book, has learned that every Southerner has a story, an opinion, a recipe. "What's so interesting is —  for something that's basically three ingredients  people have such strong opinions about the absolute only way to make it," Magness told me.
Photo: Courtesy of James Ransom/ Food52
Virginia Willis adds grated onion. Richard Miscovich spikes his with rye. America's Test Kitchen's linchpin ingredient? Pickle brine. For some, orange cheddar is non-negotiable (and it's not like it's Red 40 dying most of our orange cheese, so let's all relax about that). Even the question of Duke's vs. Hellmann's mayonnaise isn't safe territory. "People get very emotional about that," Magness said.

It's common practice to stir together a batch to keep it in the fridge all week — to stuff in brown-bag sandwiches, on your favorite crackers, in the crook of a celery stick. We recommend all of this. But, it's starting to see new life too. "Ten years ago, you never would have seen pimento cheese on a burger," Willis recently told me. Or, in fritters or biscuits, or as a starter at fancy restaurants. But, how could any of that be a bad idea?

It would be impossible to declare any one version genius, old or newfangled, and to do so, I would have to possess a boldness that I simply do not. Pimento cheese is genius, period.

This one, from Parker and Otis in Durham, North Carolina, is an excellent place to start. It has a low mayo-to-cheese ratio and a big dose of pimento  both of which keep it strong and fierce. There's also an underdog spice at play: celery salt, which takes a heartbeat of sharp tang and breathes a little herbal depth into it. (Don't worry — not too much.) 

And, as if they knew that pimentos aren't always easy to find at Yankee grocery stores, this recipe says it's okay to use comparatively milder and less cute roasted bell peppers (which we did).

Related: DIY Roasted Red Peppers
Photo: Courtesy of James Ransom/ Food52
Best of all, Parker and Otis use it to make a jaw-dropping upgrade to a grilled cheese. It has bacon. And tomato. To mimic the sandwich press used at the shop, we weighted and dry-toasted ours in skillet, and finished warming it through in the oven. But, Magness has an even better idea for next time: "Put a little mayo on the outside so it gets real crispy." 
Photo: Courtesy of James Ransom/ Food52
Pimiento Cheese Dip
Serves 12 

2 cups coarsely grated sharp yellow cheddar cheese (about 8 ounces)
2 cups coarsely grated extra-sharp white cheddar cheese (about 8 ounces) 
1 cup finely chopped drained pimentos or drained roasted red and yellow peppers from jar
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 tsp celery salt
Crackers and assorted raw vegetables (such as carrot sticks, celery sticks, trimmed green beans, and bell pepper strips), to serve

1. Mix ingredients in large bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Can be made 3 days ahead. Cover; chill. Transfer dip to serving bowl. Surround with crackers, baguette slices, and vegetables. Alternately, make sandwiches (below).

Grilled Pimento Cheese Sandwiches With Tomato & Bacon
Serves 6
Pimento Cheese Dip (above)
12 strips bacon, cooked until crispy
1 large, ripe tomato
12 slices sourdough bread

1. Heat oven to 350°F. Spread pimento cheese on 6 of the slices of sourdough. Top the cheese for each sandwich with 2 slices of bacon, 1 slice of tomato, then a second slice of bread. Toast each sandwich in a large skillet over low heat till golden brown on both sides, flipping as needed.

2. Transfer sandwiches to a baking sheet in the oven to finish warming through and melt the cheese. Serve hot.

Next: Barbara Lynch's Spicy Tomato Soup

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