Cha-Cha-Cha: April McGreger’s Chow Chow

by April McGreger

Native Mississippi Deltan Shelby Foote, in describing the rigid dichotomy between Mississippians from the aristocratic Delta and the hardscrabble red-clay hills, once said, “Out in the hills of Mississippi you will see people canning vegetables and doing all kinds of things looking forward to a hard winter. Down in the Delta they just go to the supermarket and a buy a can of beans.”

I will take that as a complement, Mr. Foote. While pickles and preserves might be staples in every Southern pantry, I would argue that nowhere is the canning tradition stronger than in my native Mississippi Hill Country. Our penchant for tart-sweet condiments is born out of the need to add variety to our once otherwise monotonous winter diet of staples: salt pork, dried peas or beans, greens and cornbread. In the inland and upland South, winters were longer and food preservation was essential. Long before we could squeeze a wedge of lemon over our sauteed kale, we added a dollop of chow-chow to our purple hull peas for excitement.
chow_chow2Chow Chow, which Kathy Starr points out in The Soul of Southern Cooking that many Mississippians pronounce “cha-cha,” is a sweet-and-sour, end-of-the-garden relish made generally of green tomatoes, cabbage, onions, and peppers that are spiked with mustard and celery seed. In Appalachia it’s a must-have condiment for pinto beans, but in the Mississippi hills, it’s most often found topping cowpeas or turnip greens. Ask me what is the difference between chow-chow and green tomato relish or another relish called picalilli, and I can tell you it’s not much. If I put cabbage in it, I call it chow chow. That said, some people don’t put cabbage in their chow-chow. Call it whatever you will. I just call it good!

Here’s a formula that you can adapt to pretty much anything you have coming out of the garden. It’s a common end-of-the-season relish to make when you are clearing the garden before frost, but I find that especially in wet years, you get a harvest of green tomatoes coming off of declining tomato plants in mid-summer as well.

You need not commit an entire weekend to sweat and steam infused canning mania to tackle this project. Where the old recipes call for bushels of produce, I’ve scaled this one down to yield 3 pint jars — one to eat, one to keep, one to share, and it is almost as simple as making homemade coleslaw. You can use a food processor if you wish to chop the vegetables.

Mississippi Chow Chow

2 lbs. or about 7 cups chopped green tomatoes or cabbage or a mixture

1 medium green pepper, seeded and chopped

1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and chopped

1 jalapeno or other hot pepper, chopped (optional)

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped

2 Tablespoons pickling salt or fine sea salt

2 ¾ cups distilled white vinegar

2 cups sugar

1 ½ teaspoons yellow mustard seeds

¾ teaspoon celery seeds

¼ teaspoon of ground tumeric

Place the green tomatoes or cabbage, onions, peppers, and salt in a nonreactive bowl and toss well to combine. Cover and set aside for 4 hours, tossing every hour or so. Alternately, you can just refrigerate the mixture overnight.

Drain off the brine that has leached out of the vegetables. Press or squeeze out the remaining brine. I like to give the vegetable mixture a spin in the salad spinner. Alternately, wrap the mixture in a large piece of cheesecloth or muslin or an old (clean) pillow case and give it a good squeeze.

In a nonreactive 5.5 qt. pot, bring the vinegar, sugar, and spices to a boil. Stir in the chopped vegetable mixture and bring to boil. Turn down to low and simmer gently for 30 minutes or until the mixture shifts in color and transforms into relish. If you mixture gets too dry, you can add a tablespoon or two of water.

Pack into to clean, sterilized jars and refrigerate.

To make shelf stable, process pint jars with two piece lids in a boiling water bath canner (212 F) for 10 minutes. For more information on water bath canning, visit http://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/uga/using_bw_canners.html .

April McGreger first learned the art of preserving at the elbow of her mother and grandmother in a small Mississippi farming town. Among other pursuits, she spent years researching vernacular preserving traditions around the world and experimenting in her home kitchen before founding Farmer’s Daughter Pickles & Preserves in 2007.