WHEN IT COMES to pimento cheese—that delicious, creamy, slightly spicy Southern staple—chef Amanda Ivy has what you might call a “complicated” history with the stuff.
Growing up in Southern California, Amanda wasn’t exposed to pimento cheese until she moved to Arkansas in 2010. But when she was a contestant on Guy’s Grocery Games on the Food Network in 2017, she had to confront the much-loved dish head on.
Challenged by host Guy Fieri to grill a dish representative of her adopted hometown of Little Rock, Amanda settled on pimento cheeseburgers with a side of fried okra. Sounds delicious, right? Well, it didn’t turn out quite the way she intended.
“I found this jar of pimento cheese, and it looked terrible,” Amanda says. “It looked kind of, like, baby food-y.” But in light of the time constraints of the contest and the ingredient options available from the show’s mockgrocery-store set, she tried her best to work with what she had.
“I was flustered,” Amanda says. “I was like, I’ve gotta put texture or something in it, and I put celery in it. It was horrible, awful.”
Amanda had some wound-licking to do, to be sure (though the judges had positive things to say about her dish, and she advanced to the next round), but the experience just reinvigorated her to perfect her pimento-cheese skills. Since then, every time Amanda’s made a dish with pimento cheese, there’s been a bit of her looking for redemption. And redeemed herself, she has (including an opportunity to make amends in a return to national television). She also hasn’t been deterred from putting ambitious spins on the time-honored classic.
While competing in The Great Food Truck Race as chef Donnie Ferneau’s sous chef on The Southern Frenchie truck, Amanda pitched a grilled pimento-cheese sandwich with fried chicken that proved to be a hit. And on the Low Ivy truck’s menu last summer, Amanda introduced a dish called the Old Yeller, a house-made pork sausage stuffed with cubed cheddar and house-pickled pimentos.
When once again confronting her old nemesis for this month’s State Dish, Amanda decided to apply her pimento-cheese chops to a dish she was actually well acquainted with: tamales.
Amanda’s been eating tamales since she was a kid growing up in SoCal and could practically make them blindfolded by the time she helped open Little Rock’s Heights Taco & Tamale as kitchen manager in 2015. She also frequently teaches tamale classes at Eggshells Kitchen Co. in Little Rock.
“You know, I don’t have any heritage linking me to tamales,” Amanda says, regarding her approach to the traditional Mexican dish. “So rather than do something that’s really authentic, I always do something that’s kind of a fun spin on a tamale.”
The approach is one that Amanda often takes, applying those network television-tested skills to just about everything that comes out of her food truck. (See the Reuben Cuban or the sugar-cane shrimp and grits from last month’s menu.) But for this recipe, she wanted to crank things up yet another notch with a special ingredient: Cheetos dust. “I just thought, Cheetos and pimento cheese—I mean, it’s like a cheese-on-cheese tamale, right?”
Honestly, Amanda, you had us at Cheetos … and pimento cheese … and tamales, for that matter. One thing’s for certain, though—with this recipe in our arsenal, our tamale game will never be the same again.
Pimento Cheese Tamales
1 quart chicken broth
2 packets Sazón Goya
1 can Hatch green chiles
2 cups Cheeto dust, (aka pulverized Cheetos)
7 cups Maseca Tamal masa
12 ounces lard
8 ounces butter
4 cups tamale broth, boiling hot
Dried corn husks, set aside
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
8 ounces cream cheese
½ cup Duke’s Mayo
½ cup red bell pepper, marinated in apple cider vinegar for 1 hour, minced
½ teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon chili powder
In a medium pot, bring the ingredients to a boil, and remove from heat.
Mix lard and butter into masa; then mix in the tamale broth. The dough should be smooth, shiny and not sticky at all. (Note: If using a stand mixer, mix on low.) This recipe does not need to rest, but it can sit overnight if you are working in stages.
Mix ingredients until fully incorporated. Place in a piping bag or a zip-close bag with a corner cut off.
Soak dry corn husks in hot water for 20 minutes. Using a spatula, spread prepared masa on the wide end of the husk. In a line down the center of the masa, pipe the pimento cheese into the middle. Use the husk to close the masa around the filling. Roll up the husk, and tuck the tail to close the skinny end. In a tall stock pot with a lid, simmer 3 inches of water with a steam basket above. Place the tamales in the steamer with the open ends pointed up. Cover and steam the tamales for 30 minutes; then let them rest for 10 minutes uncovered.
In light of COVID-19, Amanda’s Low Ivy food truck is currently offering to-go meals and a weekly menu of take-and-bake dinners available for pick up and free delivery. Follow Low Ivy on their Facebook or Instagram pages for each week’s menu and info on how to order.