Do you have a food that your mother would prepare, and you just couldn't stand the thought of eating? Chit'lins was definitely high on the list for me...the smell! But also on my list was Chow-Chow. Maybe once a year my mother would spend what felt like days dicing and boiling and conjuring up the relish-like condiment. I think it was the smell of hot vinegar that turned me off, or perhaps it was the way my dad slurped and devoured everything on the plate where it was showcased. My dad had this way of just making the most delicious meals look disguising. I'm happy to say that his table etiquette has improved significantly since my childhood years, and now, I feel like I missed out. More than ever do I desire to explore those culinary traditions that my mother featured in our North St. Louis kitchen. Since, I now make my home on the east coast, I rely on random phone conversations and texts to bring the same vigor to my table.
I was inspired to create a Soul Food menu the other day. However, I didn't want to feature only the standard Soul Food fare. I wanted to dig a little deeper with new textures and flavors that were uniquely Southern and with a punch of flavor. That's when I had my light bulb moment and remembered my mother's Chow-Chow. Ok, so I reached out to my mother when she quickly confessed that it wasn't her Chow-Chow recipe per se. She'd been using a Ball recipe that comes with the box of Mason jars and putting her spin on it as needed...no cauliflower! Initially, she rambled off the ingredients and approximate amounts that I would need...went through a rough method of preparation emphasizing that I had to make sure that I used new jar tops and boiled the closed jars long enough so the bubble at the top went away. She even took the extra step of tracking down one of the Ball recipe books that she had laying around. Apparently, she had a few.
But I knew I wasn't going to wait around for the book to tackle Chow-Chow. In this age of technology, I knew there had to be a recipe online. In fact, I found the same Ball recipe. However, I did appreciate my mom's efforts. I think I get my love of food and cooking from her. I remember one time, we were in the kitchen surrounded by 3 or 4 cakes that she made the day before. I remember German Chocolate, a 7-Up cake, Red Velvet, and something else...Caramel? I think I gave her the, "What the hell?" look. She explained that at least 2 were heading to our family's upcoming reunion. One, I know, was reserved for pops. She said, "You know how sometimes you just feel like cooking?"
Well, the day I texted my mom about Chow-Chow, I was ready to go. I ended up using a recipe that I found at Food & Wine, with a few changes. The most notable one would probably be the use of Roma tomatoes instead on green tomatoes. Good luck finding green tomatoes at a Maryland grocery store in April. Then, I only used half the sugar. I guess since I didn't have all the tartness of the green tomato, all that sugar wasn't needed. Plus, I wanted to highlight more spice in the final product. Also (and please no virtual slaps), I didn't have celery seeds, so I used...Old Bay! Shout out to Baltimore! They swear by Old Bay...Old Bay Wings, Old Bay Chips, Old Bay Ice Cream...yes, check out The Charmery if you can...delish! I remember one day at work not having Old Bay to make shrimp salad. My cook had a fit! "What we gon' do, Ashley?!!" She actually left the kitchen in disgust. Picture me standing in front of 12 pounds of under-seasoned shrimp salad..."Really?" I snuck off and googled Old Bay and discovered that the primary ingredient along with salt was celery seeds. I quickly threw some in the bowl along with paprika and red pepper before she got back. I played it off like I found some Old Bay in another outlet...sucker! Back to my point, I have a fairly extensive spice/seasoning collection. I've got containers of stuff that I have ordered online and purchased abroad that I can't even pronounce. On this particular day with the knowledge that I had in hand, I refused to leave the house and spend more money on seasonings...plus, I think it was cold :-I I also substituted the dried ginger and turmeric for fresh. That made a huge difference in the vibrancy of flavor in the overall product. I think I'm going to make that a standard.
One of the tips that my mom gave me was to save time and use a food processor. I heeded her advice and chopped up the peppers, onion, and cabbage together. I processed the tomato separately, and I was happy that I did. The difference in texture and water content is too drastic. The tomatoes seemed to need a little more love when pulsing to get the course, even chop that I was looking to achieve.
Even with all the changes, the cooking steps provided my Food & Wine seemed to work well. When cooking down all of my ingredients, I was afraid that I was lacking liquid. However, by lowering my flame and stirring more frequently, I avoided that upset. I do think my version is a little chunkier than my mom's or some that I have seen online. I actually preferred it my way.
So, what's the lesson? Don't make excuses! Chow-Chow is simply a relish. How many different types of relish are out there?!! Don't freak out if you don't have every single ingredient. Have some fun, and experiment with another ingredients that make sense. Do taste and make any adjustments before canning. You can get a really good idea of your final product when you have finished cooking the relish. If the Chow-Chow is too salty, acidic, or sweet, fix it before it goes in the jar. Waiting a couple of weeks only helps to meld the flavors not fix your mistakes. With that, I wish you the best in your Chow-Chow adventures. Who knows? On one of those days when you just feel like canning, you might set a new standard for you and your family.
Inspired by Linton Hopkins and Mama Cat ;-)
Makes Approximately 2 ½ quarts
1 pound green bell peppers, seeds and stem removed
1 pound red bell peppers, seeds and stem removed
1 pound orange bell peppers, seeds and stem removed
1 pound yellow bell peppers, seeds and stem removed
2 pound yellow onion, root end and stem removed
1.5 pound green cabbage, core removed
2 pounds Roma tomatoes, cored
2 Tablespoons kosher salt
1.5 cups sugar
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1 cup water
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 tablespoon Old Bay
1 habanera, seeds and stem removed, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh turmeric, finely chopped
Process the bell peppers, onion, and cabbage in a food processor. Pulse until you have achieved a somewhat uniform small dice. Process in batches if needed. Place vegetables in a large colander placed in a slightly larger bowl. Process the tomatoes next. Pulse until a small and course chop is attained. Do this carefully to avoid making a puree. Place the tomatoes in the colander with the other vegetables. Sprinkle the vegetables with the salt. Gently toss the vegetables to distribute the salt. Cover the bowl and strainer with plastic wrap and allow the vegetables to drain over night.
The next day, heat the sugar, vinegar, water, mustard, crushed red pepper, and Old Bay in a large 4 quart pot. Stir to combine. Heat to boil, then add the drained vegetables, habanera, ginger, and turmeric to the pot. The remaining liquid from the vegetables can be discarded. Stir once again to combine.
Let the mixture simmer until all the vegetables have softened and a thick relish is achieved (about 45 minutes). Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
Pack the hot relish in hot Mason jars leaving a 1/4 inch between the top of the relish and the jar lid. Tightly secure all the tops. Submerge the closed jars in 180°F water until the bubble at the top of the jars inverts. This takes about 10 minutes. It might take a day for the bubble at the top of the jar to invert, so don't flip out if a jar or 2 hasn't gotten to that point after 10 minutes. Carefully, remove the jars from the water and wipe down. Label appropriately with the product name and date of canning. Store in a cool, dark place for at least 2 weeks to allow all the flavors to meld.
Use as you would any relish on hotdogs, sandwiches, or a condiment on other savory dishes. Offer them as gifts. Impress your mama.