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Pimiento Cheese

In the South, pimiento cheese is a birthright.

I know there are lovers and haters out there. Cheese and Mayo? Ugh! Believe me, I used to feel the same way. It's a little like pairing sea slugs with okra or something. It just doesn't sound right. But there are reasons for pimiento cheese's ubiquity--reasons why it is still the party/snack food of choice for millions of people.

First off, pimiento cheese is one of those foods that has countless versions. Everyone who makes pimiento cheese has a different method and uses different ingredients. Some people use sharp cheddar. Some people use Velveeta. Some pimiento cheese is more mayonnaise-y and some is cheesier. Some people add other ingredients--garlic, mustard powder, worcestershire sauce--and some prefer a bare-bones rendition. In any case, those who are passionate about pimiento cheese will insist that their way is the only way to make it.

My great-grandmother on my father's side makes a very thick pimiento cheese, made mostly of extra sharp cheddar with just enough mayo to bind it. I suspect she adds a little sugar to round it out. For as long as I can remember, she has made enough pimiento cheese every week to give my parents, my uncle, and my grandparents a weekly ration after Sunday lunch. She packages it in reused sour cream containers. It's almost as if she wants to ensure that we eat well throughout the week.

My grandmother on my mother's side makes a pimiento cheese that is almost the polar opposite: Velveeta and lots of mayo. Her recipe yields quarts, not cups. I suspect this is because she brings her pimiento cheese to gatherin's--church potlucks, family reunions, bridal showers, and get-togethers.

Pimiento cheese is something many people are very opinionated about. I try not to pass judgment one way or another. In my mind, there is no one way that pimiento cheese is supposed to be. It's supposed to be how it tastes good to you. Isn't that the goal with most cooking? Besides, dogma stifles creativity and innovation. I prefer my pimiento cheese without a side of dogma.

Before I read the pimiento cheese recipe in JOY, it had never occurred to me to add worcestershire sauce and garlic. As it happens, these additions make for a fantastic cheese spread. I tend to decrease the amount of mayonnaise in the recipe, though, and I never use anything except extra sharp cheddar (JOY uses half cheddar, half colby)--just a personal preference. I also roast my own red peppers. The flavor is much truer that way.

However, you can easily make this recipe your own by adding different ingredients. Try adding a diced jalapeno, fish sauce, scallions, and cilantro for a Thai-inspired spread. Use garam masala or curry powder to add spice. You can even fool around with the type of cheese that you use. Just don't expect anyone else to agree with your recipe.

Pimiento Cheese
Makes about 2 cups

Feel free to use jarred pimientos instead of roasted red pepper.

Combine in a medium bowl:
     3 tablespoons peeled, seeded, and chopped roasted red pepper*
     1/4 cup mayonaise
     1 garlic clove, mashed to a paste
     2 teaspoons lemon juice
     1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
     1 teaspoon worcestershire sauce
     1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

Beat with a spoon or spatula until combined. Add:
     8 ounces grated extra sharp cheddar cheese
Mix until well-combined.

To roast peppers: Place pepper on a baking sheet lined with foil. Turn the broiler on high. Place the baking sheet about 6 inches below the broiler and broil, turning occasionally with tongs, until the skin is blackened all over. Remove from the oven and place in a paper bag, folding the top of the bag over to allow the pepper to steam a bit. In about five minutes, when the pepper is cool enough to handle, peel off the skin. It should come off fairly easily. Remove the stem and seeds.
If you have a gas stove you can do this over a burner, using tongs to hold the pepper above the flame. You can also do this on a grill.

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Simmer gently over medium heat until tender, about 15 to 20 minutes:
     1/2 cup French, brown, or green lentils
     1 cup water

Combine the lentils in a large...