February 22, 2017

Dear friends,

Pimento cheese is having a moment. The classic Southern sandwich spread has begun showing up on menus of upscale Southern restaurants, and even made a recent episode of the Bravo TV series Top Chef (although the judges hated John Tesar’s version with crab).

I thought my moment with pimento cheese had come and gone in the 1950s, until recently the last time I ate a sandwich filled with the stuff. My mother, an Ohioan all her life, bought the spread in little glass jars and doled it out sparingly. I thought Kraft had invented it. I had no idea it could be made at home by amateurs.

Southerners have known better all along. In decades past, many a cook’s reputation was made or broken by his or her skill with — and secret recipe for — pimento cheese. Although arguments abound about ingredients and technique (grate versus puree?), the version I like consists of sharp and extra-sharp Cheddar stirred together with mayonnaise, grated onion, Worcestershire sauce, horseradish and cayenne pepper. The chopped pimentoes are added at the end. My basic recipe, minus the horseradish, is from Southern Living magazine.

I began looking into pimento cheese after the Top Chef appearance, and am amazed at the flavor variations and the ways the spread is being used. So far I’ve used it as a dip with crackers and for grilled cheese sandwiches (delish). I’ve also seen it melted over fries, dolloped on burgers, stirred into grits, in mac and cheese, and shaped into balls, breaded and deep fried.

Chefs are treating the basic cheese spread as a blank canvas and pumping up the flavor with a multitude of add-ins such as crumbled bacon and chili paste and tamari (think Asian). Personally, I’m thinking of using it as a base for cloning some of West Point Market’s late, great cheese spreads such as my favorite, Coyote.

But first I’ll spoon some of it into a crock and surround it with crackers to snack on Sunday while I watch the Oscars. Lowbrow meets highbrow. You tell me which is which.

CLASSIC PIMENTO CHEESE

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1 1/2 cups mayonnaise
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. finely grated onion
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp. hot pepper sauce
8 oz. block sharp Cheddar, grated
8 oz. block extra-sharp Cheddar, grated
1 tbsp. prepared horseradish
1 jar (4 oz.) chopped pimento, drained

Combine mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, onion, cayenne and hot pepper sauce in a bowl and mix well. Stir in cheese, horseradish and pimento. Cover and chill several hours before using. Makes about 4 cups.
THE MAILBAG
From Marcia:
I’m hoping you have a reasonable version of lobster bisque in your archives, something akin to the soup at Beau’s on the River in Cuyahoga Falls. That is the best lobster bisque in town, I swear. Chunks of lobster, thick slices of mushrooms, sliced green onions and an extremely flavorful broth loaded with cream.

I cannot find a good recipe in the half-dozen cookbooks I use for research, nor can I find Beau’s version on the Internet and I’m afraid to adapt, say, a mushroom bisque recipe because I don’t know what the umami is. I would appreciate your help.

Dear Marcia: I think the umami — meaty depth of flavor — of all seafood soups is rich seafood stock. Without hesitation, I reached for a copy of the New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne for his classic version of the soup. It doesn’t call for mushrooms, but you can add them when you sauté the carrots and onions.

Claiborne suggests you ask the fishmonger to kill and split the live lobster for you. Good luck finding someone to do that for you today. I take the coward’s way out and gently steam a live lobster just until it expires before splitting and continuing with a recipe. Depth of flavor is added by simmering the lobster shell in the unthickened soup for an hour, then draining and thickening. This isn’t Beau’s recipe, but I bet you’’ll like it.

LOBSTER BISQUE

1 1/2 lb. live lobster
5 tbsp. butter
1/4 cup finely diced carrot
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 bay leaf
Pinch of thyme
2 sprigs parsley
3 tbsp. cognac
1/3 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup seafood stock
1 tbsp. sherry or Madeira
1/4 cup flour
3 cups boiling milk
3 tbsp. heavy cream (about)

Split and clean the lobster (after gently steaming just until dead, if desired). Crack the claws and cut the body and tail into four or five pieces.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a sauté pan. Sauté the carrot and onion until the onion is transparent. Add the bay leaf, thyme, parsley and lobster. Sauté until the lobster turns red, or about 5 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally. Add 2 tablespoons of the cognac and ignite. When the flames die down, add the wine and seafood stock and simmer 20 minutes.

Remove the lobster, cool and remove the meat from the shell. Finely dice the meat, sprinkle with sherry and set aside. Reserve the shell and broth.

Melt the remaining butter in a saucepan, add the flour and blend with a whisk. Cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes. Meanwhile, bring the milk to a boil and add all at once to the butter-flour mixture, stirring vigorously with the whisk. Grind or crush the lobster shell and add to the sauce. Add the reserved broth with the vegetables and simmer, covered, about 1 hour. Strain through a fine sieve.

Bring the soup to a boil and add enough cream to achieve the desired consistency. Stir in the reserved lobster meat. Correct the seasonings and add the remaining cognac. Makes about 5 servings.

From Anne M.:
For linguini carbonara, try Geraci’s Restaurant in Cleveland heights. It’s not Akron, but at least it’s on the south side of the metro Cleveland area.

The family restaurant is cash only. We stop by a couple of times a year. It has been featured on the Food Channel’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. The website is http://www.geracisrestaurant.com.

Dear Anne: Thanks for the recommendation.

From M.A.:
Fran asked if carbonara is served in our area. Yes, dba at Northside has it on the menu as one of its four regular pasta offerings. Fran can have a full serving ($21), a taste ($7) or as one of three tastes including green spaghetti and Bolognese for $21. Now I’ve got my mouth watering…..

Dear M.A. Me, too.

From Sura:
In our younger days, my husband and I ate spaghetti carbonara at least once a week. I made it with bacon and used the rendered fat, a really good Parmesan and heavy cream for the sauce. Salt and pepper to taste and whatever herbs or chopped scallions added after. I used no eggs at all, and always used linguine for the pasta.

Dear Sura: Oh, for our younger days when we could eat foods like spaghetti carbonara with abandon.

From Amber, Florida (formerly Bath):
Regarding carbonara my late husband taught me to reserve a bit of the water the pasta was cooked in to add creaminess to the sauce. We always use bacon and bacon grease.

Dear Amber: Yep, good ideas all.

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