This is a big welcome to Acorns On Glen’s “Charleston, South Carolina Vacation Review” festivities! Yes, we are back from our vacation to Charleston and the beach on Kiawa Island and we are ready to show you some of the highlights of our trip. First off, we were in South Carolina when news of Hurricane Irene started. We did fly back to Connecticut before the hurricane hit land and we were impacted on Glen Road when it hit Connecticut on Saturday evening. Most of our town is still without electricity as of today, but everyone we know is safe and sound (just a little cranky at this point). To all of you that were impacted by this storm, we hope that you and your families are doing well.
I will start off with a confession. I wasn’t expecting much of this vacation. I had done some research on Charleston and learned that during August, Charleston is:
- Really hot
- Super humid
- All of the above
Not sure that this is really a good match with a person who:
- Is experiencing male menopause, including hot flashes
- Doesn’t really enjoy the beach
- Has not had a tan since the ’80s
- Has thick, coarse hair that does not do well in humidity
- All of the above
Let me tell you this. I have learned in my life that when expectations are low, you usually have one of the best times of your life. An example, when Les Miserables was a hot play on Broadway, I bought tickets. I was so excited to see this show. All of my friends that knew I was going called me and told me that I was in for a treat. It would be the best show I ever saw in my life. My expectations were super high. I went to the show and, guess what, I left at intermission. I mean, come on, how long can that revolution go on? Shoot your guns and die. Get it over already!
It’s the same with our trip to Charleston. One of my best friends (love her) and her husband (who I’m crazy about as well) take their kids (love them too; an all around super-duper family) down to Charleston and then a drive over to Kiawah Island (about 30 miles east of Charleston) for some beach time. She knew that we had not had any vacation this year and knew that we didn’t have any plans and so she graciously offered for us to travel down to SC and be a part of their vacation. She also knew that our saying “yes” was dicey because of the points listed above. After a lot of persuasion from my dear friend, we said yes. I set expectations low in my mind….thinking it was better to get away to a place that you probably wouldn’t like versus not going away at all. In my experience, low expectations usually produce the best times of your life and this was the case here. What a week of great fun! To anyone that is ever on the fence about going to Charleston, I have to tell you to just pack your bags and get down there. From history, architecture, GREAT food, nice people and a great opportunity to relax, Charleston has it all.
For me, Charleston will always be remembered for great food. Because the landscape is marshy and swampy, they refer to their cooking as low country. The food that they produce is down home, comfort food and I believe that it is similar to the food I grew up with in Iowa, where the cooks in Charleston work very hard to take the ingredients that they have and work to develop the best taste that they can with the simple ingredients that are present. So to give you an example of this, I thought I would start our vacation review festivities with a recipe for Pimento Cheese. To make this Southern classic, I turned to Matt Lee and Ted Lee, two brothers that have brought Southern cooking to life with their cookbooks. I turned to their first cookbook, ‘The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook’, to help me make my Pimento Cheese. This cookbook by the Lee Brothers is fantastic for a would-be Southerner like me. It won the James Beard Foundation Cookbook of the Year Award for Food of the Americas in 2007 and is as fun to read the stories as it is to read the great Southern recipes. It is my newest addition to my vast cookbook collection. Halfway through my visit to Charleston, I saw it in a shop window and looked it up on Amazon.com that night and knew that my new-found lust for Charleston made this a must for my collection. So let’s have the Lee Brothers take it over and let’s make this Southern classic, Pimento Cheese.
The Lee Brothers say that there was a time when you could eat pimento cheese sandwiches at lunch counters throughout the South. Today, you are more likely to find this orange spread of sharp cheddar and mild pepper served as a dip, on crackers, in someone’s home during cocktail hour. That’s how we enjoyed our dish of Pimento Cheese over the weekend.
Traditional recipes for Pimento Cheese call for canned pimentos, but this recipe broils a fresh red bell pepper, removes the blackened skin and then cuts the pepper into small dice before mixing it with the cheeses. The Lee Brothers do admit that some of their Charleston friends roll their eyes that the recipe uses red pepper versus pimentos, but they believe it is a simple route to a more vibrant and sophisticated (and less chemical tasting) pepper flavor. If you are a die-hard pimento lover, you can feel free to replace the pepper with 3 1/2 ounces of pimentos, but make sure that you dice them finely so that they get distributed throughout the spread.
For the spreadable Pimento Cheese:
- 1 red bell pepper
- 8 ounces finely grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese
- 2 ounces softened cream cheese, cut into pieces
- 3 tablespoons mayonnaise (I made the Lee Brothers homemade Lemony Mayonnaise and used it in the recipe….see the recipe below)
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
Turn on the broiler. Place the pepper on its side on a dry cookie sheet and slide it under the broiler until the skin blackens on the side facing up. With tongs, turn the pepper so that an unblackened side faces up and repeat until the skin is blackened on all sides. Place the pepper in a small bowl, cover it with plastic wrap and let it steam for 5 minutes as it cools down. Uncover the bowl. When the pepper is cool enough to handle, transfer it to a cutting board, reserving any liquid in the bowl. Remove the blackened skin with your fingers and discard. Using a paring knife, cut the pepper in half, remove and discard the stem and the seeds and chop the pepper into 1/4-inch dice. You should have about a 1/2 cup.
After chopping, you have to admit that these peppers do a pretty good job impersonating pimentos. The choice is yours, but I have to think the Lee Brothers know how to make some good Pimento Cheese. You be the judge and do what you need to do.
Place the grated cheddar in a medium bowl and add the cream cheese pieces, the mayonnaise (homemade version coming up), the diced red pepper and its liquid and the red pepper flakes, distributing them evenly over the cheese. With a rubber spatula, blend the ingredients together until the spread is thoroughly mixed, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Note that Pimento Cheese keeps in the refrigerator for 1 week.
Are you adventurous? Here is the homemade Lemony Mayonnaise that I used in my Pimento Cheese recipe. This takes less than 5 minutes to make. Give it a try.
For the Lemony Mayonnaise:
- 2 large egg yolks
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (from 1 lemon)
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon vinegar (white, white wine, champagne, red wine or sherry…I used red wine)
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the lemon juice. Add the oils in a thin stream, whisking constantly to emulsify. When the mayonnaise is thick and consistent, add the vinegar, salt and pepper and whisk vigorously to incorporate. Store in the refrigerator up to 2 days.
This is my new favorite dinner party appetizer dip. If you are really trying to get back to your Southern roots, spread this Pimento Cheese on some white sandwich bread and enjoy a sandwich for lunch. Thanks so much to the Lee Brothers for this delicious recipe and please buy their great cookbook. This is just the start of our Charleston, SC vacation review. Come back to enjoy more of this jewel of a city. We have more stories….from hats to our hotel to restaurant fun. Come back and visit us, y’all. Have you ever visited Charleston, SC and what did you think?