A blog of hopeful, inspired living: cooking & baking & growing & harvesting & preserving & gleaning & eating & sharing food... while bringing positive change to my kitchen and our food system.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Chow Chow

The change of seasons has been palpable. A couple weeks ago the air was cool and the smell of rain hung in the air all weekend until it actually sprinkled -- the first rain of the season, if you can call the bit that fell 'rain'. This week it's been pouring and cold at night -- cold enough to test our heater. I like this time of year, yet am always caught off guard when it arrives. On the east coast it was easier to mark the seasonal change: watching the leaves change and pointing out the showstopping leaf colors that seemed to appear overnight. Here in California the first hint before the rain comes is the shifting light. I've had to adjust my photography accordingly in order to catch the best rays of the day.

Like I said, autumn somehow catches me off guard. When the reality finally sinks in I instinctively start to horde all things summer. The past few weekends have seemed like a mad rush of canning, pickling, freezing. That's where this recipe comes in. Chow Chow is both an ode to and celebration of the end of summer. It heralds green tomatoes. Sure, you can pick green tomatoes any time of the summer -- but I really like making this recipe at the end of the summer. It makes good use of those few stubborn green tomatoes left on a wilted, brown plant that just are not going to ripen at the end of the season. And it calls for cabbage, a quintessential fall vegetable. A nice farewell to summer and welcoming of fall.

This relish is also a tribute to my southern roots. I was born in North Carolina and on a recent trip back to the Blue Ridge Mountains, I enjoyed seeing how much the local agriculture, beer and music scene has been growing. Farming, home-brew and blue grass are native beasts to that area and it was inspiring and uplifting to see and feel the vibe. While I was in Asheville I made sure to visit my favorite independent bookstore, Malaprops, and browse their local section. I snagged The New Blue Ridge Cookbook: Authentic Recipes from Virginia's Highlands to North Carolina's Mountains, featuring local farms and new takes on lots of Appalachian cuisine. Chow chow is mentioned in the book, but there is no recipe. It sparked my curiosity, though, and I went hunting.

quilts for sale, Route 23 near Franklin, North Carolina

Boiled peanuts

Have you ever heard of Chow Chow? Not the dog -- rather, a relish. It's a specialty in the southeast United States. Different states seem to have different ways of making it. I've tasted it in sweet forms and sweet-spicy forms. It's not a cucumber based relish, though. It has chopped up green tomatoes, cabbage, peppers and onion. Some versions use chayote. Some use more sugar, some less. It goes well on sandwiches or burgers, or on top of grains or beans.

Chow Chow gets its name from the French chou chou, or cabbage, which makes me really happy: the one French term of endearment I know is mon petit chou chou, or my little cabbage.

This chow chow is not as sweet as some. If you go looking for more recipes, you'll find some with less sugar and some with twice or three times the amount of sugar, resulting in a relish more reminiscent of a sweet pickle relish. That's great for some things, but this chow chow is more savory... and in my opinion, more versatile. It goes great on burgers or hot dogs, like a traditional relish, but it also pairs well with rice and beans (pintos, especially), on crostini with goats cheese, sausage, pork chops, and with bacon and eggs. Give it a try and let me know what else it goes well with.

I canned this recipe but you can make it and refrigerate it for up to a month without canning. Feel free to halve or quarter the recipe.

Chow Chow
adapted from Put 'Em Up, by Sherri Brooks Vinton
makes 12 - 13 half pints

4 cups chopped green cabbage (one small-medium head of cabbage), chopped finely
2 pounds green tomatoes, chopped finely
1 pound yellow onions, chopped finely
2 red bell peppers, chopped finely
4 cups apple cider vinegar
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup salt
2 teaspoons ground allspice
1 teaspoon celery seed
2 - 3 Tablespoons red pepper flakes, or less -- depending on how much heat you like.

cabbage, red pepper and green tomatoes ready to go

1. Sterilize your jars and lids for canning and have them ready to go.
2. Get the hot water bath going -- it takes a while to come to a boil.
3. Heat the apple cider vinegar, sugar, salt, allspice, celery seeds and red pepper flakes in a large, non-reactive pot. Bring to a boil.
4. Add the chopped cabbage, tomatoes, onions and peppers and return to boiling, stirring to heat everything thoroughly.
5. Using a wide-mouthed funnel, scoop the mixture into the jars, covering by about 1/4 inch with the vinegar liquid, and leaving about 1/4 inch of space between the liquid and top of the jar. Wipe the jar rims with a clean cloth, put on the clean lids and screw tops, tightening only enough to close.

To Can:
Process in a hot water bath for 15 minutes. Let the jars sit in the hot water another 5 minutes with the canner lid off. Remove the hot jars carefully, using canning tongs.  Check that all the jars sealed (this could take up to 12 hours), then store sealed jars in a cool, dark cabinet for up to a year. Unsealed jars can be put in the fridge to eat within a month. Wait a week before eating to allow the flavors to develop. 
Enjoy... best with some good local brews and tunes!

A flower on a hike at Craggy Gardens, at mile point 364 on the Blue Ridge Parkway


  1. The jar of Chow Chow that you gave me is gone. It was so good with beans and bacon - the perfect amount of sweetness to go with the salty fatty flavor of the bacon. Great photos!

  2. I'm loving your blog!