In case you haven’t heard, the Super Bowl is coming – February 3. It’s a football game, to be sure, but it’s also a significant event on the holiday food calendar. Conveniently timed between the December holiday feeding frenzy and spring, game day is a major cause for entertaining.

Makings for Pimento Cheese

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Super Bowl buffet without at least one dip. Maybe it’s because the game is called a bowl (or maybe not).  The two seem to go hand in hand.

Since the game is in Atlanta this year, pimento cheese, the premier dip of the south, should be on the buffet. It instantly brings up images of crustless sandwiches, iced tea, and fall tailgates. I’m sure it’s been part of every southern celebration for generations.

Like potato salad, there are some agreed upon ingredients plus lots of regional and family variations. You have to have grated cheddar cheese. Freshly grated from a good, sharp, block gives the best flavor, but I won’t hold it against you for using pre-grated.

Pimentos, not peppers.

Pimento from a jar is also essential.  Mayonnaise is deregure. Down south they like Dukes brand, but Hellman’s will do just fine.

Some source of heat is needed – pepper sauce, pepper flakes, fresh jalapeno, and the like. There’s lots of diversity here – some like more heat than others.  

Paula Deen, the queen of cholesterol from Savannah, GA, adds cream cheese, monterey jack, and garlic powder.  Southern Living Magazine, the arbiter of southern culture, adds toasted pecans to an otherwise traditional recipe. It doesn’t seem like a bad idea. At a minced jalapeno pepper is included.

Marsha’s cousin Blaine Whittle lives in Macon, GA, about an hour south of Atlanta.  He likes pimento cheese straight up – just cheese, pimento, and enough mayo to bind it all together.  “Some folks add pickle relish or horseradish and use roasted peppers, but simple is best for me,” he confided.  “Not too much mayo either. I don’t like my mix too creamy, it should have a rough texture.”

Blaine sent me photos of Merry Ann Finch’s “Cafe South” cookbook from her long-closed restaurant in Milledgeville, GA outside of Macon.  Her recipe, simplest of all, calls for cheese, pimento, a little hot sauce and mayonnaise. Just the way Blaine likes it.

Serve it with crackers (Ritz are what they use down south), celery, or as a sandwich (on white bread), and you’ll see why it’s such a hit across the south.

Beyond that regional specialty, there are some classic dips perfect for super Sunday. Probably the most popular is French onion dip. I’ve seen some recipes for making it from scratch by the long, slow caramelizing of onions, but frankly I don’t see the need.  You can’t beat Lipton onion soup mix stirred into some sour cream. It’s ridiculously easy and utterly irresistible. Sprinkle on some diced chives if you feel the need to gussie it up. We like Utz ripple chips, and we don’t get on the scale the next day.

Hot artichoke dip is another often-seen game-day pleaser. The bubbling hot mix of artichoke hearts, mayonnaise, and cheese quickly disappears from any buffet table.

Served in a hollowed out loaf of bread, spinach dip has been around as long as I can remember. Spinach mixed with mayonnaise and sour cream is the basic recipe.  It’s usually seasoned with a dry flavor mix like onion soup or ranch dressing. Add a little fresh mint for a pleasing surprise.

You may have noticed that so far everything has been mayonnaise based. Be assured, there is life beyond mayo, although it’s not necessarily lo-cal.

Guacamole is one of my favorites. Homemade is, of course, best, but a tub ready-made from the Stop and Shop takes the guesswork out of ripening avocados. It can easily be customized by adding more avocado for additional texture, hot sauce for a kick, or some finely diced red pepper for color.

Carefully layered in a glass bowl, the strata of a seven layer dip can be quite pretty.  The colors of the beans, guacamole, tomato, lettuce, sour cream, black olives, and cheese make a unique presentation. Sturdy chips are needed to dig through the layers.

Chili con Queso is another cheesy favorite. The zingy cheese atop some sauteed ground beef is a hearty dip. Some diced tomato, guacamole and sour cream almost make it a meal. There are lots of recipes, both simple and complex, or you can just brown the meat and add a jar of ready-to-go sauce.

I hope the game is good, at least as memorable as the dips. It’s a long time till the next food holiday.

Merry Ann Finch’s recipe for pimento cheese