Sunday, August 8, 2010
You Say Puh-MEN-uh, I Say PA-Minn-Ta...
Or, you might say:
Just a few pronunication options offered up by a Google search. And I can't resist adding this charming utterance, from Christy Jordan's "Southern Plate":
"They'd always ask 'Ya want some puh-men-ah cheese, baby?'”
What we're discussing here is pimento cheese. Pimento, as above; cheese, as in cha-ay-z.
It's a southern specialty that we first learned about, I think, from a New York Times article by Matt and Ted Lee. Hard to believe that was 10 years ago! In the meantime, we've come up with our own pronunciation--puh-MUHN chayz--our own evolved (or de-) version, and this toothsome glop consisting of cheese, mayo, canned pimento, and onion has become one of our go-to summer happy hour snacks. With a glass of scotch, by a campfire, preferably one overlooking Lake Superior, there is nothing better.
It was interesting to look back at the original recipe and see that it calls for cream cheese, which we never use, and that it does not call for onion, which we always add. Go figure. But we pretty much always have some cheddar and mayo in the house, cream cheese less often. I think we did make it originally with the cream cheese, but we found it difficult to mix in, while whomping up a mess of shredded cheddar and mayo takes no time at all--which is important when your scotch is getting watery....
For the version pictured here today I made my own mayonnaise, an intensely local mayo, too, using the Smude Minnesota sunflower oil that I've mentioned before, and just a touch of olive oil, and our own apple cider vinegar where I often would add lemon juice. But you know what? In the real world, not the local-seasonal-food blog world, I would suggest you use Hellmann's.
One little step to localize and seasonalize that I do endorse is roasting a bit of red chili, sweet or hot or both, instead of using the canned pimento bits that come in those cute little jars, you know, the ones you can never track down in the store, so you have to ask the stockboy, Where do you keep those...? And now I still can't recall if they live with the pickles, the olives, the vegetables.... You can put a jalapeno or similar right over the flame on your stove if you have a gas cooktop, or if you have the grill going anyway, roast it over the coals (because you might be getting ready to grill a steak, and this would be the ideal appetizer for that), and if neither of those situations applies, go for the stuff in the jar.
I found a couple ripe-ish chilies on a Bulgarian Carrot pepper I have in my garden. Picked it up on a whim at the farmers' market this spring, knowing nothing about this variety. Says on the ID spike that it is HOT and, Yessir!, it is hot--some web sources say it's as hot as an habenero, some say it's milder than a jalapeno, and I'd say it's somewhere in between; thank you, Internet. Beautiful bright orange color, hence the "carrot" in its name.
Anyway, the proper platform for puh-muhn chayz is definitely a Ritz cracker. Can you believe I actually considered making my own crackers, just for this post? Then I came to my senses. And then again, and this probably violates the whole spirit of puh-muhn chayz, but I had a few fresh-picked green beans lying around the kitchen, and it occured to me that they'd be good with a schmear, and I was right. So, that's another summery, healthy alternative, serve some crudités with your puh-muhn chayz. In the Lee's article it's described as a sandwich spread, which I'm sure would be good, too.
Finally, while this is clearly a down-home sort of preparation, and I wouldn't recommend using some $20-a-pound 10-year-old cheddar for this, the cheese does matter. Get a good, sharp, white Wisconsin cheddar, at least a couple of years old. We usually purchase our cheddar from Rene at Bolen Vale Cheese on highway 64 in Connorsville, Wisconsin. She offers cheddars from one to ten years old; we usually go for a six- or seven-year-old cheese for general consumption.
Puh-Muhn Chayz (with sincere apologies to any southern readers, but I once lived in Roanoke, Virginia for the better part of an entire year so I feel I'm at least somewhat entitled...do they still have that great butcher shop, Mason & Hannabass, down on the market square?)
2 Tbsp minced onion
5-6 ounces sharp cheddar, medium grate, about two cups
roasted red pepper or hot red chili, to taste,
half a jar of chopped pimentos
1/4 cup mayonnaise
paprika or cayenne to sprinkle on top
Ritz crackers to spread or raw vegetables to dip
Scotch whiskey, preferably Balvenie DoubleWood 12-Year-Old, on the rocks, optional
Mix everything together with a spatula. Let sit, refrigerated, a half hour or more for the flavors to blend. Bring out of the fridge at least one half hour before serving. Let it warm up a bit while you build your campfire, and pour your scotch.
Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw