Mac and Pimiento Cheese

Show up at any family reunion or church potluck in the South, and you can bet your sweet tea you’ll find at least three kinds of mac and cheese on the table, plus a couple of pimiento cheese appetizers (probably layered thinly in little white bread finger sandwiches). I love doing mashups of classic foods, and so it seemed obvious to me that pimiento cheese should be paired with mac and cheese. It’s a beautiful, diet-be-danged casserole collision, if I do say so myself.

If you have made any of my other mac and cheese recipes, you know that American cheese is usually the standard in my cheese sauce base. The special salts and enzymes in American cheese are what gives it that ultra-creamy, ooey-gooey meltability, and isn’t that the best thing about mac and cheese?


But pimiento cheese has its own character (namely, it’s mayonnaise-y) and I didn’t want it to feel overshadowed in this mashup. Last summer, I shared the recipe that my husband, Les, uses for pimiento cheese, and it is awesome but not a classic “Southern” style (mainly because it was not drenched in enough greasy mayonnaise). My own pimiento cheese recipe is also shy-of-classic, because I blend together mayonnaise and cream cheese for the base, and it’s probably no surprise that I usually add unexpected ingredients such as jalapeno or chopped pickles. I just can’t leave well enough alone.

For this “mac and pimiento cheese,” which just happens to be my 200th post here on Comfort du Jour, I leaned on cream cheese rather than American in the base for my cheese sauce. I really wanted the smooth, velvety texture of the mild cream cheese to anchor all the cheddar that’s happening throughout the rest of the dish. For the pimiento cheese accents, I used a whole jar of roasted red peppers, drained and chopped into small pieces. Some of them went into the cheese sauce, but the rest found their way into a quick mayo-based pimiento cheese that was layered in with the cooked noodles and cheese sauce before baking. All those dollops gave this mac and cheese that distinctive mayonnaise-y tang that is so signature to a good, classic Southern pimiento cheese.

Oh mercy me, look at that pimiento cheese dripping through that mac and cheese!

Disclaimer warning on this one—there’s a lot of richness in this recipe, and the chance is fair to middlin’ this mac and pimiento cheese will crush your calorie count, so you would do well to consider it dinner all on its own or with a fresh side salad. Here we go, y’all!


Ingredients

Cheese sauce

1/2 medium onion, diced small

4 Tbsp. salted butter

4 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk

6 oz. cream cheese, softened to room temp* (this was most of a standard brick)

8 oz. brick sharp cheddar, shredded* (see notes)

About half of a 7 oz. jar of pimientos or roasted red peppers, drained and chopped


Pimiento cheese dollops

2 oz. cream cheese, softened to room temp (the rest of the brick)

1/4 cup mayonnaise

A few shakes sweet paprika

The other half of the 7 oz. jar of pimientos or roasted red peppers, drained and chopped

4 oz. sharp cheddar, shredded (this was roughly a cup)


For assembling the casserole

Most of a 1 lb. package of macaroni or other pasta*

1/4 cup panko bread crumbs

1 Tbsp. salted butter, melted

1/4 cup parm-romano blend (ours was seasoned with “chili onion crunch” from Trader Joe’s)


*Notes

I recommend regular, full-fat cream cheese for this recipe. I have found that the light version does not maintain the creamy texture in a heated sauce. For the complete recipe, I used an entire 8 oz. brick of cream cheese, but it was divided nearly evenly between the cheese sauce and the pimiento cheese mixture.

Two kinds of cheddar went into my mac and pimiento cheese, because we like spicy stuff at our house. I used an entire 8 oz. brick of sharp cheddar and half a brick of habanero cheddar. Mix and match to your liking, but reserve about a cup of shredded cheese for the pimiento cheese mixture.

Pimientos are a variety of pepper, and though it is easy to find jars of pimientos at the market, I used a large jar of roasted red peppers because that is what I had in the cabinet. You might even choose to roast fresh peppers yourself—that’s what I usually do when I make my own version of pimiento cheese. If you choose jarred peppers or pimientos, be sure to drain them well and use a paper towel to wick away excess moisture.

I held back about 1/4 of the box of pasta for this recipe, because I wanted it to be extra “saucy.” Classic elbow macaroni works great in a mac and cheese, and I always encourage choosing pasta that is labeled “bronze die cut,” because the surface of the pasta is rougher and holds a sauce extremely well. Cook your pasta just barely to the “al dente” stage, or a bit underdone than you would prefer. When you bake the mac and cheese, it will soften further from the heat and the cheese sauce.


Instructions

  1. Make the béchamel: melt butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Saute the onions until soft. Sprinkle in the flour and stir to combine. Cook until flour is absorbed and bubbly. Add milk and whisk until smooth.
  2. Add the first amount of cream cheese to the béchamel and whisk until smooth and creamy. Add the shredded cheddar, a handful at a time, and whisk until smooth. Use immersion blender (optional) to amplify the creamy texture of the cheese sauce.
  3. Pat dry the first amount of pimientos or roasted red peppers, and stir them into the cheese sauce.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350° F, with oven rack in center position.
  5. Cook the elbow macaroni or pasta according to package instructions until just al dente. Slightly undercooked is better than overcooked, as the pasta will absorb moisture form the cheese sauce during baking. Drain the pasta and cool slightly.
  6. Combine the remaining cream cheese and mayo, whisking as needed to create a smooth-textured spread. Add the remaining pimientos (pat them dry first), paprika and remaining shredded cheddar.
  7. Fold the cooked pasta into the cheese sauce and layer about half of it into a glass 8 x 8 inch casserole. Spoon dollops of pimiento cheese mixture randomly over the mac and cheese, then layer on the rest of the pasta mixture. Spoon remaining pimiento cheese over the surface of the mac and cheese, but do not spread it.
  8. Bake the mac and cheese, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle the cheesy panko crumbs all over the top of the mac and cheese. Slide it back into the oven for 15 more minutes. Cool 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
Life is good, y’all!


Cajun Shrimp & Garlicky Cheese Grits

Take a road trip across the Southeast, and you’ll find a wide array of flavors and presentation in dishes that all claim to be “shrimp and grits.”

And they all are.

There is no right-or-wrong when it comes to this classic southern dish. Whether served with a lush and savory gravy, or piled high with onions, peppers and tomatoes, or spiked with spicy andouille or tasso ham, cheese or no cheese, you are guaranteed a flavorful experience. Over the 34 years that I’ve lived in N.C., I’ve developed my own recipe into what I believe captures the best of all the varieties I’ve tasted around these parts, though I can’t claim to make it the same every time. My “comfort du jour” usually depends on what ingredients are in the fridge, and many times, my decision to make shrimp and grits is a last-minute one.

I almost always have good quality, wild American shrimp in the freezer. I’m guaranteed to have some kind of pork product—ham, bacon, sausage or chorizo—and just about any kind of onion or pepper works, so whatever I have on hand can slide into place. I may or may not incorporate cheese, depending on the other ingredients. One thing that remains constant is my method of cooking the grits. You cannot rush them, and for goodness sake, don’t cheat yourself by using instant. It should take a minimum of 20 minutes on the stove, unless you have, you know, “magic grits.” I think we all remember how that played out in My Cousin Vinny.

If you have ever eaten grits and thought they were, well, gritty—the simple explanation is that they were not cooked long enough or with enough liquid. Grits (or polenta, which is nearly the same thing) are made of broken-down, dried corn. They are tooth-cracking hard straight from the package, and I have found that it takes a good bit longer than the package instructions suggest to get them right. They are kind of like oatmeal in that regard—you can have creamy, soft oatmeal that drips off the spoon, or sticky, gloppy oatmeal that sticks to everything it touches. The difference is all in the cooking process.

The other complaint some people have about grits is a common one—“they’re so bland.” And if you use only water to cook them, they certainly are. Grits do not have much flavor on their own, but you can coax the flavor out of those dry little kernels with the right technique and the right stuff. In other words, ignore the package instructions and use your own cooking instincts. There is no magic to it. 😉

Here’s my secret for perfect, creamy grits every time: treat them like risotto. Cook them low and slow, with plenty of broth additions and plenty of stirring, and finish them with a little cream or half and half. You’ll be rewarded with a silky, luxurious base for whatever you choose to pile on top of them.

These grits are perfectly creamy, with no clumps and no gritty texture.

For this batch of shrimp and grits, I used smoked andouille sausage, cut up and lightly fried until the edges were crispy, sautéed cremini mushrooms, a sprinkle of Cajun seasoning on the shrimp, and scallions on top to finish the dish. The grits, as always, were creamy and delicious, with a few cloves of chopped garlic in the broth and just enough cheddar cheese at the end, to give them some extra body, and a few shakes of RedHot sauce for tangy-spicy flavor.

This recipe serves 2, with a scoop of grits left over to go under your weekend eggs.

There’s so much texture here, beginning with the juicy shrimp and crispy sausage, and down to the creamy, cheesy grits. This is one of our faves!

Ingredients

1 cup yellow grits, a.k.a. polenta* (see notes)

2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth

About 2 cups hot water, as needed for cooking the grits*

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

Salt and pepper

Frank’s RedHot Original sauce, to taste*

2 Tbsp. light cream or half and half*

1/3 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

Extra virgin olive oil for sautéing

2 links smoked andouille sausage, cut into bite-size pieces

Handful of cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

About 2/3 pound of wild-caught shrimp, peeled and de-veined

A few shakes of your favorite Cajun seasoning*

2 scallions (green onions), trimmed and sliced

*Notes

For the best results, and creamy grits, do not use anything packaged as “instant.” My preferred brand is Bob’s Red Mill polenta, which you can find in well-stocked supermarkets, including Super Walmart.

It’s helpful to heat the water in a teakettle or the microwave ahead of time and keep it on standby. When you add liquid to polenta or risotto that is already cooking, you want the liquid to be warm.

As always, you will need to adjust the salt amount to work with your other ingredients. I lean toward low-sodium versions of broth and seasonings so that I have more control of the overall salt in my recipes. Check your labels and taste as you go.

I love the flavor of RedHot sauce, but Texas Pete or Tabasco would also be good for a spike of flavor in the grits.

For readers abroad, “half and half” is a term used to describe a popular dairy product in the U.S. It is essentially equal parts light cream and whole milk, with about 12% milkfat.

We use a dry Cajun seasoning that my husband picked up in New Orleans, but there are plenty of options available in your supermarket. You could also make up your own, with some combination of garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne, black pepper and thyme.

Instructions

I’m a visual learner. If you are, too, then follow along with my slideshow or keep scrolling for written instructions and a pdf you can download for your recipe files.

  1. Place a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add vegetable broth, garlic, salt and pepper, and heat to nearly boiling. Add polenta, stirring constantly until it is fully mixed with the broth and no visible clumps appear. Reduce heat to medium low and cook, stirring frequently, until most of the liquid is absorbed.
  2. Add hot water, 1/2 cup at a time, and continue with frequent stirring until each addition is absorbed and grits take on a smooth, creamy appearance. This may be up to 2 cups of additional liquid, and may take as long as 40 minutes.
  3. When grits achieve desired consistency, add a few shakes of RedHot sauce and stir in the light cream. Stir in shredded cheddar until melted and smooth. Remove grits from heat and cover to keep warm until you are ready to assemble the dish with the shrimp and other ingredients.
  4. Season the prepared shrimp with a few shakes of Cajun dry seasoning, and toss to let the flavor meld with the shrimp.
  5. Place a large skillet over medium heat. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and brown the andouille sausage bits until they have slightly crispy edges. Add the sliced mushrooms to the pan, tossing to brown them on both sides. Transfer sausage and mushrooms to a bowl.
  6. In the same skillet, again over medium heat, swirl in another tablespoon of olive oil. When oil is shimmering, place shrimp into the pan, one at a time. Allow them to cook, undisturbed, about one minute, then begin turning them, following the same order, to cook the other side.
  7. Add the cooked sausage and mushrooms back to the skillet and give the whole thing a few quick tosses to heat everything through.
  8. Spoon a generous amount of grits onto your serving bowls or plates, top with sausage, shrimp and mushrooms. Sprinkle dish with scallions and serve.

Time for dinner!


Brunswick Stew

After 30-plus years in the Southeast, I’ve come to appreciate many of the traditions, especially the ones related to food. There’s a particularly tasty tradition that occurs here in the fall, when churches, civic groups and Boy Scout troops set up giant, outdoor cast-iron kettles for their Brunswick stew fundraisers. They sign up volunteers, who take turns stirring the simplest of ingredients into a delicious aromatic stew, and folks arrive in droves to enjoy it by the bowl, and to take home quarts for freezing. It’s tradition and it’s delicious.

If you look into some of the old-time church cookbooks, you’d likely find Brunswick stew recipes that begin with fresh-caught rabbits or even squirrels, but (thankfully) my introduction to this homey, comforting soup was a chicken version, and that’s what I’m sharing today.

Brunswick stew is one of those comfort foods that tastes rich and hearty, but checks in on the low end of the fat-and-calories scale. Feel free to swap in other vegetables that suit your fancy—it’s what folks do in different parts of the South and depending on where you are, you might find potatoes, green beans or carrots in the bowl.

You can roast your own chicken if you’d like (overnight in the slow cooker makes amazing broth at the same time), but to keep it quick and simple, I’m using a rotisserie chicken this time, plus packaged broth, a few simple fresh and frozen vegetables, and a can of tomatoes. Whip up some corn muffins while it simmers, and dinner is served.

Can you taste the comfort?

Ingredients

First, the essentials. This is a Southern classic comfort food, so the “holy trinity” of peppers, onions and celery is the foundation of the recipe. Any color bell pepper is fine for Brunswick stew, but I personally find the red and orange bells to be a bit on the sweet side, so I’m using a green bell.

Okra came to the Americas from Africa in the 1600s, and it remains a staple of Southern cooking. You’ll find it in many Cajun and Creole recipes in Louisiana, and it’s not unusual to see it breaded and fried, or even pickled, which I love in a Southern-style potato salad or on deviled eggs. The pectin in okra gives it some thickening power when it’s cooked in liquid, but some people are turned off by the slightly slimy texture. Two things can minimize this: don’t overcook it (for this recipe, it’s added at the end), and cook it in combination with tomatoes, which is what’s happening in this Brunswick stew.

If you make this stew in the late summer or fall, of course you would want to use fresh corn, lima beans and okra.


1 deli roasted chicken, dark and white meat shredded* (see notes)

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 yellow onion, chopped

4 stalks celery, trimmed and chopped

1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped

3 large cloves garlic, chopped

15 oz. can diced tomatoes

2 quarts chicken or vegetable broth

1 bay leaf

2 cups frozen corn

2 cups frozen lima beans

2 cups frozen sliced okra

1/4 cup BBQ sauce

2 to 3 Tbsp. tomato paste

A few shakes hot sauce (optional, Frank’s RedHot or Texas Pete recommended)

Salt and pepper, of course


*Notes

If you prefer to roast your own chicken, more power to you! If you have time to work ahead, you might also want to make your own stock. Or you could make your own stock from the frame of the rotisserie chicken. After de-boning and shredding the meat, toss the bones and skin into a pot with cut-up onions, celery, carrots and just enough water to cover it all. Simmer a few hours then strain out the solids, and you’d have a great alternative to the packaged broth (or, at least, some of it).


Instructions

If the pictures here seem to defy the ingredient amounts listed, there’s good reason for it—on this particular day, I only had half a rotisserie chicken, so I halved the entire recipe. The ratios are the same, and this stew is so satisfying and delicious, I’m already regretting that I didn’t run to the store for another chicken!


  1. Place a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Swirl in olive oil. Sauté onion, celery, bell pepper and garlic until vegetables are soft and onions are translucent. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. Stir in tomatoes, tomato paste, shredded chicken and broth. Add bay leaf, reduce heat and simmer up to an hour.
  3. Add frozen corn and lima beans, but reserve frozen okra until about 20 minutes before serving, to prevent the okra from breaking down too much. Give it a taste and add salt and pepper to your preference.
  4. Stir in BBQ sauce (and hot sauce, if using), and add the okra to the pot. When the bright green color of the okra begins to fade a bit, it’s ready to serve!

Want to make this Southern classic?


Southern Peach Shortcake with Sweet Tea Syrup

What could be more southern than summer sweet peaches and cream on tender, salty butter biscuits? How about all that, plus a sweet tea syrup? Oh, yeah.

This idea came to me after my first taste of an Arnold Palmer, a non-alcohol summer beverage made of equal parts sweet tea and freshly squeezed lemonade. The drink is attributed to, and named for, one of the greatest American pro golfers of our time. Apparently, after a hot afternoon on the links, it was his go-to beverage, and I can understand why. I still have enough Yankee in me (despite 30+ years living in the South), that sweet tea on its own is decidedly not my drink of choice. But lightly sweetened and combined with tart lemonade, it’s light, refreshing, and I cannot get enough of it. When a flavor combination takes hold of me this way, I can’t help myself from thinking, “what else can I do with this?’”

I had four plump, juicy peaches on the counter—not enough for a cobbler, which would be too much for the two of us anyway.

So here we are. I boiled down the Arnold Palmer blend to concentrate the flavors of the tea and lemonade. My tea was light on sugar to begin with, so I added a couple of teaspoons when the syrup reached the reduction level I wanted. The syrup underscores the sweetness of ripe, juicy southern peaches, which are still undeniably the star. Go ahead and use frozen or canned biscuits if that’s easiest or knock it out of the park with some homemade fluffy biscuits if you’re a rock star (and how about sharing that recipe with me because biscuits are not my forte).

This recipe made exactly enough for 3 generous servings, dessert that night and one leftover for hubby’s lunch.

Of course, it’s topped with freshly whipped cream!

Ingredients

4 ripe freestone peaches, peeled* (see notes for peeling tip)

Juice of 1/2 small lemon

3 tsp. cane sugar

3 cups Arnold Palmer* tea-lemonade beverage (see notes for suggestions)

1 Tbsp. corn starch

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter

3 fresh buttery biscuits (I cheated and used purchased biscuits)

Sweetened whipped cream for topping


*Notes

Freestone peaches differ from “cling” peaches in that the soft fruit flesh will release more easily from the pit. The peaches at your market are likely to be freestone unless otherwise labeled.

Here’s a tip for peeling peaches without subjecting them to boiling water or crushing them: Use a sharp paring knife at a tight angle to the skin of the peaches and “scrape” against the peel, but not in a way that slices or cuts it. The best way I can describe this process is to pretend you are giving the peach a close shave. This gentle, all-over pressure will cause the skin to loosen from the soft flesh of the fruit. Then, you can slip the point of your knife under a small section of the skin and peel it right off.


For the Arnold Palmer beverage (named for the champion golfer who loved the drink), I mixed equal parts of lightly sweetened tea and Trader Joe’s freshly squeezed lemonade. Simply Lemonade brand would also be good, and homemade would be best of all. Steer clear of instant lemonade drinks such as Country Time. You’ll appreciate the flavors of real lemonade. This blend is so refreshing and summery, I could honestly drink it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

If you’re not already making your own sweet tea at home, here’s the quick rundown for success. First, get some Luzianne blended tea—this is the real-deal “southern” tea, specifically blended for iced tea (though I can’t identify what makes it so). Seriously, if you aren’t in the South or cannot find Luzianne, there’s nothing wrong with Lipton or another brand, but for this recipe, stick with black tea rather than herbal. If you have the jumbo tea bags, you’ll only need two of them, or six regular sized tea bags.

Southerners swear by this stuff.

May I suggest also, if you expect you’ll be enjoying this beverage in the evening, consider getting the decaf version of the tea bags. On my first experience with the Arnold Palmer drink, I kept filling my glass without a thought about the caffeine (the stuff is that delicious). It was a decision I regretted the entire next day, after having only slept about three hours. I think I’d rather have a hangover than an all-night caffeine buzz. On the plus side, it was a very productive day. 🙂

Bring water to a boil in a tea kettle or pan and pour 6 cups over two family-size tea bags in a heat-safe pitcher. Allow the tea to steep 5 minutes, then remove and discard the tea bags. Add about 1/2 cup pure cane sugar (give or take, depending on your taste) and stir until dissolved.

Allow it to cool a few minutes, then add 2 cups of fresh ice cubes and stir until melted. Refrigerate the tea until you’re ready to enjoy it or, in this case, blend it with equal amount of fresh lemonade.


Instructions


  1. Toss peaches in lemon to prevent browning
  2. Sprinkle sugar over peaches and macerate several hours or overnight in the fridge.
  3. Simmer Arnold Palmer blend down to about 3/4 cup volume.
  4. Taste syrup; if too tart (lemony), add 1 tsp. sugar at a time to taste
  5. Combine 1 Tbsp. cornstarch with 1 Tbsp. cold water. Bring sauce to gentle boil and slowly stream in the slurry to slightly thicken the syrup. You may not use it all. Stir in butter. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate if you aren’t using it right away.
  6. Split a biscuit, drizzle syrup on the bottom half, then layer on peaches and biscuit top. Drizzle generously with sweet tea syrup and top with whipped cream.
The first bite of a sweet summer dessert is the best, am I right?

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Just Collards.

As much as I love vegetables and know that dark, leafy greens are incredibly rich in nutrients, I’d actually been mystified and intimidated by collards for decades. They seemed foreign to me, even off-limits to a degree because of their cultural origin. So I kept to myself and didn’t bother with them until one day two years ago, when I worked up enough gumption to put a fresh bunch of collards into my cart at Food Lion. At checkout, I humbly confessed that I was nervous because I’d never cooked them before. From behind me in the line a friendly Black woman spoke up: “What are you planning to do with them?” I shrugged and said I figured I’d be boiling them or maybe putting them in the slow cooker because I assumed they took a very long time to cook.

She quickly gave me an alternative. —

“No, honey, fry them!” And right there at register 3, she gave me a crash course in her way of making collards, the food that so many take for granted is a native “southern thing,” though food historians say they came to this country for the first time in the 1600s—from Africa. And in Africa, cooks have learned from their grandmothers for generations that frying collards in oil, then simmering them is the best cooking method.

Ever since, I’ve prepared them precisely as she instructed, because it wasn’t just a recipe that kind woman shared with me that day—it was part of her culture, her tradition, her story, her life. She was happy to share it with me, and I’m honored to share it with you.

These have a terrific flavor and have become a staple in our meal rotation. I don’t know why I wasted so much time feeling intimidated by this simple food. After all, as the woman told me—”they’re just collards.”

The humble collard, in all its beautiful green glory.

Ingredients

2 slices bacon, cut into one-inch pieces

1 medium onion, chopped

Cooking oil (I use extra virgin olive oil)

2 lbs. fresh collard greens, cleaned and chopped

A few shakes crushed red pepper

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

1 cup water or broth (I used vegetable broth)


Instructions

If you’re a visual learner like me, you won’t need to read the instructions below. That’s how easy it is.


  1. In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, cook bacon pieces and chopped onions together until the fat renders and bacon begins to crisp. Sprinkle with crushed red pepper and season with salt and pepper.
  2. Add collard greens, a few handfuls at a time, and stir them around so they soften and wilt. When there’s room in the pan for more, add more. Add cooking oil to the middle of the pan as needed for cooking the remaining collards.
  3. When all the greens are wilted, move them to the outside edges of the pan. Pour vinegar into the center of the pan, and stir with a wooden utensil to de-glaze any burned bits from the bottom of the pan.
  4. Add water or broth and reduce heat to low, then cover and simmer the greens for about an hour until tender.
Collards are packed with nutrients and antioxidants.
They are considered by nutrition experts to be a “superfood.”

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