People often ask us how we come up with our recipes, and it’s difficult to answer. Kitchen inspiration comes in so many different guises, but we do get a lot of ideas from old Southern cookbooks. Our Shrimp and Deviled Egg Salad Roll—sort of like a Low country take on New England’s Lobster Roll—was inspired by an elaborate dish called Shrimp-and-Deviled Egg Casserole, which we came across in a spiral-bound volume published by the Fairyland School PTA in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. The casserole itself sounded heavy and complicated, but the idea of pairing of shrimp and deviled eggs seemed genius to us, and one thing led to another!
Other times, a recipe may emerge from a months-long meditation on complementary southern ingredients. Our Sweet Potato and Okra Fritters, which we dip in buttermilk tinged with fresh garlic, happened that way.
But this recipe, for a Pimento Cheese Potato Gratin, hit like a thunderclap—pow! Why not perk up scalloped potatoes with a tangy, peppery double-hit of sweet roasted peppers and hot crushed red chile? In retrospect, it makes so much sense—after all, we eat the tar out of pimento cheese, often making a double-batch and using it up over the course a few days. This casserole is a great side dish, or a meal in itself, served with a green salad.
This year, for the first time since we were kids, we’re each cooking Thanksgiving dinner in a separate city, for our respective in-laws. And although we’re cooking different turkeys, trimmings, sides, and desserts, the one dish we’re cooking in common will be this Pimento Cheese Potato Gratin. It’s so easy to assemble, it holds well, it’s comforting, and crowd-pleasing. But more than that, it brings pimento cheese’s slouchy, in-front-of-the-TV informality to a table bedecked in holiday finery!
pimento-cheese potato gratin
serves 6 • time: 10 minutes preparation, 35 minutes cooking
Pimento cheese, sometimes called the South’s “house pate,” is a simple cheese spread made with extra-sharp cheddar, mayonnaise, and diced roasted red peppers. It’s a very mildly peppery blend straight from the mid-century, and it’s delicious on celery sticks, sandwiches, and hamburgers.
We hosted two parties, one in New York and one in Charleston, for our first book (which contains two recipes for “P.C.”). For the New York shindig, we booked a crack team of four kitchen-savvy transplanted southerners, and we all pitched in to make 1,800 pimento-cheese tea sandwiches over the course of two days.
All 1,800 sandwiches disappeared in the first twenty minutes of the party (that’s 90 per minute!). One editor at a major food magazine was spotted with a stack of six in her hand, and later, wrapping more in napkins to stuff in her purse.
This recipe hit like a thunderclap—why not juice up a gratin with the peppery double hit of sweet roasted peppers and hot crushed red chile? We went into the test kitchen and developed this casserole that has dethroned our macaroni and cheese for the title of favorite cheesy dish in the house!
3 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
1 1⁄2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1⁄4-inch thick rounds
3⁄4 cup heavy cream
3 shallots, finely diced (scant 1⁄2 cup)
1⁄4 teaspoon crushed dried red chile flakes
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
One 9-ounce jar roasted red peppers or piquillo peppers, with their liquid
8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated (about 2 cups)
1 Heat the oven to 375°F, with racks positioned in the middle and the top third of the oven.
2 In a 3- to 4-quart stockpot, bring 2 quarts water and 2 teaspoons of the salt to a boil. Add the potatoes and cook for 10 minutes. Then drain, and set them aside.
3 Combine the cream, shallots, chile flakes, remaining 1 teaspoon salt, the black pepper, and 2 tablespoons of the liquid from the jar of roasted peppers in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook until the chile flakes have begun to stain the cream, about 2 minutes. Add half of the cheese and stir until it melts, about 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat.
4 Layer roughly a third of the potatoes in a 6-cup baking dish, overlapping them slightly so that they fit in an even layer. Scatter half of the roasted peppers on top of the potatoes (cut up any peppers that have remained whole so that they lie flat), and repeat layering potatoes and peppers until all the peppers and potatoes have been used. Pour the cream mixture over the potatoes and peppers, and agitate the dish to distribute the liquid throughout. Cover with aluminum foil and bake on the middle rack for 15 minutes.
5 Uncover the dish, sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top, and place the dish on the top oven rack. Bake for 8 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbly and gently browned on top. Serve immediately.
MATT LEE and TED LEE grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and in 1994 founded The Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue, a mail-order source for southern pantry staples. Their first cookbook, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, received the James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year in 2007. They are contributing editors for Travel + Leisure and the wine columnists for Martha Stewart Living. Log on to www.simplefreshsouthern.com for technique videos, bonus recipes, and a schedule of where you can catch the Lee Bros. in person.
Paula's Note: Y'all know I love when brothers are in the kitchen together. I was fortunate enough to meet these talented brothers, Matt and Ted, and have them on Paula's Party where they made a chocolate grit ice cream that I'm still thinkin' about. They truly are the modern day Lewis and Clark of Southern Cooking! Congratulations boys for winning the Cookbook of the Year award for your last book and I'm currently enjoying reading every recipe in your new cookbook, Simple Fresh Southern.
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