Chow Chow Is a Garden-Fresh Condiment That Celebrates The End of Summer
Chow chow relish is a staple Southern condiment. This recipe utilizes the last of the summer’s harvest of green tomatoes, cabbages, bell peppers, and onions and preserves it for the coming months.
I grew up in the rolling hills of the Piedmont in North Carolina where almost everyone had a garden. We lived on a suburban street, but every summer my mom processed the fruits and vegetables from our hearty garden: canned tomatoes, bread and butter pickles, and plenty of grated zucchini popped into the freezer awaiting quick bread once the weather turned cool.
Backyard gardens filled our plates and pantries all summer long. And just as August bore down and we didn’t think it could get hotter, the weather broke. The garden crescendoed into a tangle of vines past their prime as the days shortened and the nights turned cool.
It was a unique time, a bleeding from one season to the other—the tomatoes staying green longer, the cukes getting seedier. The final assignment on the pantry to-do list was a celebration of the shoulder season: chow chow.
What is Chow Chow Relish?
Simply put, chow chow is a relish made using late summer produce. Green tomatoes were the inspiration for this chow chow, so they are the centerpiece for the recipe. The flavor definitely skews on the side of tangy versus sweet in order to keep that fresh garden taste.
There’s also lots of onion, sweet bell pepper, and not many spices—my family has a traditionally mid-South “salt and pepper” only cooking palate. This recipe keeps true to those roots by accentuating with celery and mustard and no hot peppers.
Chow Chow History
Revered Southern food historian John T. Edgerton asserted that the name originated from a condiment made by Chinese railroad workers. But that condiment included a lot of orange peel and ginger, a far cry from chow chow as I know it.
Other explanations include the migration of French Acadians, since their word for cabbage was “chau.” My theory is that the Carolina version I know originated with the Pennsylvania German and Dutch settlers, who traveled the wagon road to the South bringing their love of relishes and mustard with them.
Whatever the origin, the reason for chow chow’s continuation in the Southern preservation canon has always been economy. In modern times, we use words like “sustainability” and “no waste,” but the desire to reduce food waste is the same—and the results are delicious.
Variations on a Chow Chow Theme
Chow chow is a late summer or early fall recipe whose inspiration is the last of the summer garden vegetables. There are as many variations of this finely chopped, vinegar-laced relish as there are varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Try these simple tweaks:
- Substitute 1 cup of corn for 1 red or orange bell pepper
- Add 1 to 2 cloves of minced garlic
- Add 1 jalapeño or other hot garden pepper or 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of dried red pepper flakes
- Add 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
- Use brown sugar in place of white sugar
Storing and Canning Chow Chow Relish
It’s best to store chow chow in glass jars since vinegar and spices can leave scent and flavor residue on plastic. Pint jars are the most common size for chow chow (the tangy condiment can top a variety of dishes) but half-pints—commonly referred to as jelly jars—are also applicable.
Once the mixture cooks and is transferred to jars, you can simply chill for a quick refrigerator relish that will keep in the fridge for 4 months. For longer storage, can chow chow relish by processing in a water bath. The processing time will be the same for both jar sizes.
I advise against freezing the mixture, as the thawing process can make it more watery than desired.
How to Use Chow Chow Relish
- Dollop on top of black-eyed peas, white beans, or crowder peas
- Mound on a hot dog
- Top leftover collard greens
- Use to garnish deviled eggs
- Mix into cream cheese to make a quick dip
Preserve Summer With These Canning Recipes
Prepare the ingredients for chopping:
Stem the tomatoes, coring if needed, and quarter. Peel the onions and cut them all into quarters. Stem and seed the peppers and quarter. Core the cabbage, quarter, and set aside.
Chop the vegetables:
Use the chopping blade on a food processor or a hand-crank food mill to chop each vegetable into fine pieces. (With a food processor, you’ll need to work in batches, taking care not to overfill the work bowl.) You want fine, small pieces but not gazpacho, so be careful not to pulverize or liquefy. Place in a large non-reactive bowl or pot.
Salt and chill:
Once all the vegetables are chopped, sprinkle the salt over the top. Using clean hands, mix everything thoroughly, making sure to mix all the vegetables and reach to the bottom of the bowl.
Cover and chill in the refrigerator for 4 hours or overnight. Don’t skip this step—it yields better flavor and texture.
Drain the vegetables:
Remove the chopped vegetables from the refrigerator, place in a colander, and drain, pressing lightly on the mixture with the back of a spoon. Do not rinse. Set aside.
Prepare for canning:
If you want to can your chow chow for a shelf-stable condiment, gather equipment for water bath canning while the vegetables are chilling.
Create a jar station by spreading out a clean kitchen towel on the counter and set out jar lifters and a canning funnel. Clean new jar lids and rings in hot soapy water.
Sterilize the jars:
Place clean jars on a canning rack in a pot and cover by at least 1 inch of hot water. Bring to a boil and sterilize the jars by boiling for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to a low simmer until you’re ready to fill the jars.
Prepare the brine:
In a large non-reactive pot, add the vinegar, sugar, mustard, and dried celery and bring to a boil. Once boiling, lower the heat to a strong simmer, cover, and allow to simmer for 10 minutes.
Cook the relish and can:
Add the chopped vegetables to the vinegar mixture, stir, and bring back to a boil. Once boiling, set a timer for 10 minutes and stir often, adjusting the heat as necessary to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot.
Once the vegetables are almost done cooking, carefully lift each sterilized jar out of the pot and dump the hot water back into the pot. Set them upright on the clean kitchen towel.
Remove the relish from heat and begin filling the hot jars with the chow chow, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace at the top of each jar (about the width of the lip and jar screw threads). Carefully wipe each jar lip with a clean, dry towel or paper towel, then top with a clean lid and screw on the band so it is finger tight. Repeat.
Process the chow chow:
Use a jar lifter to carefully lower the jars onto the rack, adding more hot water if needed so there’s at least 1 inch of water above the top of each jar. Bring to a boil and process for 10 minutes.
Remove the jars with the jar lifter and set the jars on a cooling rack or another heat-resistant surface to cool. After cooling to room temperature, tap the lids firmly. If they make a dull thump, they’re sealed.
Store unopened jars of chow chow relish in a cool, dark place for up to a year. Store opened jars in the fridge and use within 4 months of opening.
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