Sandwiched: Grilled Pimento Cheese, Ham, and Homemade Pickles


Pimento cheese is as Southern as that region's languid drawl, but oddly, it is not as well-recognized a food as some other tabletop offerings such as mint juleps. I say oddly because the vibrant cheese spread, flecked with finely chopped pieces of red pimento peppers is not only delightful, but a point of much secrecy, pride, and contention in the South.

Everyone acquainted with pimento (properly pronounced "pi-meh-nnah") cheese spread knows that its basic components are orange cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, and jarred or canned pimento peppers, but ratios, stir-ins, seasonings, and methods of making are particular to individual households and cooks who jealously guard their recipes. Cream cheese, hot sauce, cayenne pepper, grated onions, dry mustard, Worcestershire sauce, minced green olives, garlic powder—like the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie pop, the world may never know what lies in one woman's (or man's) pimento cheese spread.

I find this type of secrecy funny and quaint, but come on now, let's play nice and share, shall we?

My pimento cheese spread has a solid foundation of orange cheddar, cream cheese, and...this is where the quirks and particularities begin. Judge me at will, but I opt for canned piquillo peppers rather than the spread's namesake pimentos. Too often, tinned pimentos are water-logged, bland, and flabby, and I suspect them of being roasted red peppers. Piquillos are smaller red peppers, packaged just the same, but somehow their flavor remains brighter, bolder, sweeter, and more tart: important attributes as they will be folded into a rich and fatty spread that needs to be cut through.

Self-confessed condiment fanatic that I am, I opt for as many of those optional additions as I can pack in. I've tasted raw onion and dry mustard in some pimento cheese spreads, and they need mellowing. Since the spread has mayonnaise for easier spreading, I melt a couple of tablespoons and cook the onion and mustard to soften and bloom them. This simple step gives the spread a distinctive, but not overwhelming, boost. Worcestershire, cayenne, and hot sauce provide backbone and enough heat to give your brow just the lightest hint of perspiration.

Pimento cheese is commonly served with crackers or celery sticks—you can make a batch of this and serve it at your next dinner party—but one of my favorite ways to eat it is in grilled cheese form. Crisp and buttery bread, gushing cheese, ham, and homemade pickles that are crunchy, sour, and fresh with chopped dill. Ifyou're not acquainted with pimento cheese, you'll experience love at first bite, and, if it's old hat, you know exactly what I'm talking about.