Step into any of the city’s nouveau Southern restaurants, and you’ll likely see a menu full of regional staples like biscuits, fried green tomatoes, and cheesy grits. While foods like boiled peanuts grow increasingly popular, a few Southern staples still remain a bit of a mystery.
Take chow-chow, for instance. Even the name sounds fictitious.
“I call it a catchall relish because, although somebody might tell you that your grandmother made the one and only ‘right’ kind of chow-chow there is, in fact, there is no such thing as an objective standard,” West said. “You basically take whatever’s in the garden right before the last frost, and you grind it up.”
Then salt, vinegar, and spices like mustard seed, mustard powder, celery seed are added for flavor. The concoction is then sealed up in a jar and left to age.
“Chow-chow is one of those preserved products that is somewhere between a condiment and a side dish,” he explained. “If you think about a regular relish... you might put a little dab of that on your hot dog. With chow-chow, you can make yourself a big plate of pinto beans and cornbread, and then you get a big spoonful of chow-chow to go on the plate.”
West has also seen very sweet versions of the relish served on cheese boards, but he’s quick to add that the presentation is decidedly nontraditional.
“I would say the basic [ingredients] are the things you would find in a fall garden, so cabbage, probably green tomatoes, perhaps cauliflower,” West said. “Those are the three fundamentals.” His recipe also calls for mustard powder, which helps thicken the final product, and apples, which cuts down on the amount of added sugar.
(Photo: Kevin West/Josh Norris)
At home, West uses an old fashioned sausage grinder to process the vegetables, but he admits that a food processor would work, too. It would also make the process much faster. He cautions in his book not to over-process and liquify the vegetables, though.
As for the origins of the term “chow-chow,” West said the nonsensical sounding name likely hails from more distant origins. “According to pickling guru Linda Ziedrich, the name probably derives from the Hindi word for pickle, which is achar,” he explained.
When it comes to “putting food up,” as his grandmother referred to the canning process, West says that you don’t need a high degree of skill or specialized equipment. “Home canning is really just home cooking by another name,” he said. “If you can make a cake, or make brownies, or even make cookies — if you can undertake a little homemade project like that —then you’ve got all the kitchen skill that you need to can.”
Below, try West’s recipe for chow-chow from Saving the Season. If the quantity of vegetables seems daunting, he said to go ahead and just reduce everything by half.
The song played at the end of today’s Last Chance Foods episode is “Don’t It Make You Wanna Go Home” as performed by the acappella group The Persuasions. Hear it used in the promotional video for Saving the Season.
Yields: 8 pints
1. Grind all the vegetables and fruit, and toss them with the salt. Pour into a colander, and set aside to drain for 4 hours.
2. Working with one handful at a time, squeeze the liquids from the vegetable mixture. You should have 16 cups of vegetables. In a large pot, combine the vinegar, water, sugar, celery seeds, and mustard seeds. Mix a few tablespoons of the vinegar syrup with the mustard powder and flour to make a paste, then stir the paste into the pot. Bring the liquids to a boil, and add the vegetables. Bring everything back to a boil, and cook for 5 minutes longer.
3. Using a slotted spoon, pack the vegetables into eight prepared pint jars, leaving a generous 1 inch headspace. Ladle the liquids into the jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. Run a skewer or other thin implement around the inside edge of the jars to release any air pockets, then seal. Process the jars in a boiling- water bath for 10 minutes. To reduce venting, leave the jars in the water for 5 minutes before removing. Allow to cure for 2 weeks before opening.
Excerpted from Saving the Season by Kevin West. Copyright © 2013 by Kevin West. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.