Make some chowchow. Put it on a sandwich.

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The above sandwich continues on a theme I started with the carnitas confit post—that of food you make once then enjoy for a few months.  It's a theme worth covering in depth because traditionally preserved foods often exist at the perfect intersection of convenience, practicality, and flavor.  Despite this, pickles and preserves of all sorts have long been relegated to the realm of "that thing your aunt does," while only recently taking residence in the harshly polarizing world of "that thing trendy hipsters do."  But regardless your feelings about quirky aunts or the honey bee life spans of hipster affections, I'd implore you to look at preserving not as hobby or eccentricity, but as an essential cornerstone of feeding yourself well.  

The difference between a neglected refrigerator whose contents have long gone furry and an equally neglected refrigerator full of still delicious food is learning some very simple preserving techniques.  Often, this simply means: dump something acidic on it.  And yes, there are arduous ways to go about making sure that preserved food can exist safely on a shelf for years to come, but that's a world away from the more everyday technique of just making sure the environment around what you want to eat won't grow bad bacteria for a while longer.  Regularly shooting for the latter is remarkably easier than you think, saves you money, allows you to have at the ready a fridge full of components that augment your meal, and tastes just fantastic.  

Take chowchow for example.  It's a Scandinavian import that has found a home in Southern American food traditions.  A relish made often of green tomatoes, cabbage, onion, and whatever else the garden is growing at the time, chow chow is a perfect example of how a preserve can improve both the flavor of a vegetable (mellowing out too-tart green tomatoes) and the flavor of a dish (providing a welcome acidic counterpoint to rich southern cooking), all while being ready to eat at a moments notice even months after being prepared.  

I didn't know of chowchow until my twenties when I moved east to Richmond, VA from my home state of California.  Working in one restaurant in particular, I saw almost daily throughout the summer how versatile and useful chowchow was.  Paired with fish, chicken, or pork, it always elevated the dish, adding a refreshing tang and a welcome texture.  In a lot of ways chowchow is basically the salsa or chutney of the south.  Like both, it brings freshness and acidity to the plate, and so if you're new to chowchow a great way to start using it would simply be to ask yourself: Where would I use salsa or chutney?  Could chowchow work there as well?  Chances are, the answer to the second question is yes.  

The actual process of making chowchow is relatively easy.  Here's how:

 

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First off, buy some vegetables.  If possible, go to a farmers market and buy what they're selling.  I know what you're thinking, "Farmers markets, I thought those were just places where people with faded Obama stickers on their Volvos talked about the benefits of Montessori schools and the dangers of water fluoridation with other Volvo owners."  Well, yes, they're mostly that.  But they also have some really great produce too.  I worked one summer in a cold storage managing the national shipment of fruit for a very large farm, and I know how "fresh" the fruit is at your grocery store.  It isn't.  And not to the detriment of the efforts of farmer or the buyer, but simply because the process of picking, packing, selling, shipping, unpacking, and displaying takes time.  And that time robs the produce of a lot of its potential.  At a farmers market you remove many, if not all, of the middlemen and thus greatly improve your chances of getting produce at its peak.   

Moral of the story: Always buy the freshest ingredients and adapt recipes to that.    

Moral number two: Use what you got. 

My chowchow was the combination of those two morals.  Corn was fresh at the market so I bought it.  As were some early season peppers which were more fruity than spicy.  I couldn't find green tomatoes but I did have some tomatillos, which actually have a very similar flavor, so I went with those.  Cabbage I bought at Fred Meyer a few aisles away from the flat screen TVs.

I went with: 

  • 1/4 head green cabbage
  • 3 tomatillos
  • two shallots
  • 2 each, jalapenos and Fresno chiles
  • 3 ears of corn

Basically, make equal sized mounds of green tomatoes/tomatillos, cabbage, and onions (I went a little low on shallots, cause that's what I had), then add other stuff.   

Can't find green tomatoes or tomatillos?  No worries.  Simply go buy firm red tomatoes at the grocery store.  Why?  Because standard firm, pale red grocery store tomatoes are essentially green tomatoes.  See, because of the time it takes to get produce to a supermarket, and because of how fragile ripe tomatoes are, most all of the tomatoes you see at the store have been picked when they were unripe, green, and much sturdier.  Luckily, tomatoes, like many other fruits (avocados, bananas, peaches), produce ethylene gas which triggers the ripening process.  This happens naturally on the vine and even after being picked (which is why placing hard avocados in a paper bag quickens ripening, it's trapping them in their own ethylene).  After being shipped, green tomatoes are gassed with ethylene, which turns them red, then displayed and sold.  Problem is, despite being "ripened", these tomatoes were picked long before their flavors could maximize on the vine.  That's why grocery store tomatoes suck.  BUT, they actually work quite well as substitutes for green tomatoes.  So buy em, bread em, and fry em.  Or, make chowchow.  

I'm no pro at chowchow making so I did a lot of reading up before making a batch, and one part always confused me.  The brine.

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Most every recipe I read called for salting or brining the vegetables overnight, then straining them off.  Problem is, almost no recipes told me why.  I hate it when they do that.  This included the primary recipe I was following from the generally fantastic Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook (which you should own).  I was confused why brining was necessary, especially since the brine was thrown away.  In traditional pickling, you'd actually just leave the vegetables in the brine until salt resistant and friendly bacteria produced enough acid to sour the whole thing.  In fact, you could actually just do that here.  But why brine then strain?  The chef I work for, who makes a ton of pickles, was mostly confused but then suggested that maybe it allowed the vegetables to absorb more flavor.  Seemed like a nice idea but didn't explain the ubiquity.  After scouring a good 30 recipes, I finally found one that mentioned that brining leached moisture from the vegetables thus preventing them from later diluting the vinegar they're stored in.  That made some sense, except my experience with brining (in the world of meat cooking) is that it actually ADDS water.  It pulls water out at first, but then water and salt rush back in to stabilize everything.  Meaning, a 24 hour brine seemed counterintuitive if the goal was to leach water.  A lot of recipes call for sprinkling with salt then squeezing the moisture out the next day.  That makes more sense to me, but still seems mostly dumb.  A Until I get a firm answer, I really am not going to tell you to add 24 hours to your cooking time.  At the very most, I suggest you sprinkle some salt on the veggies and put them in a mesh strainer for an hour.  Some water will leach out naturally.  Press on them to get a little more out.  You should be good at that point.  I brined my veggies in a 5% solution for about an hour until I decided I didn't care, then strained it off and went on with the recipe.  I've had my chowchow in the fridge now for over a month, and it still tastes great.  

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Next step is to cover this all up with delicious vinegar.  How much, well, I don't know how much yield you got from your vegetables, or how many you used to begin with.  So the best way to figure that out is to tightly pack the veggies in a narrow, high sided jar or container, just barely cover them with distilled vinegar, then strain that vinegar into a pot.  There, now you have enough vinegar.  Now, how to flavor that vinegar?  Well, vinegar is incredibly sharp tasting, right?  So round it out a bit.  Sugar is a great neutralizer of acidity, so add that.  Brown sugar contains molasses and has way more depth than white, so I'd recommend using that.  Palm sugar could also be delicious.  Add some sugar, taste it.  Then keep adding until you like it, keeping in mind that this is supposed to be acidic, and that the veggies will also impart some sweetness.  The Lee Brothers suggest 1/4 cup sugar for every 1 cup vinegar, and I think they're correct.  I've also seen recipes calling for more sugar than vinegar.  My personal opinion is: no.  

After adding sugar, add some spices.  This can be as simple as adding some black pepper, mustard seed, and celery seed (basically, barbecue sauce spices) or as complicated as dumping your whole spice drawer in there.  The brothers Lee call for a cinnamon stick, allspice, coriander seed, celery seed, ginger, turmeric, black pepper, and chile flake all in equal parts (1/2 teaspoon).  I'm guessing not because they spent weeks diligently testing all possibly combinations and proportions, but because they were like, "Maybe this will work" and then it did.  I talked to a James Beard winning cookbook author the other night, and this was basically her process.  So I implore you to also adopt the process of the pros.  Make some educated guesses and add everything with a shrug of your shoulders.  I'm almost positive you won't mess this up.

Add the spices to the vinegar in a pot, bring to a simmer, cover, and remove from the heat.  Let that infuse for 30 minutes.  Strain the spices out and you'll now have this:

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Transfer the veggies to a narrow, high sided sauce pan, cover with the vinegar, and bring to a simmer.  Cook for ten minutes, just let all the flavors get to know each other.  Then transfer to clean jars (or plastic tubs...anything really, as long as the vinegar covers the veggies).   

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This tastes good right away and keeps tasting good for months or until you have reason to believe it has spoiled.  

Ok, so the above took both some time to read (sorry, thanks) and some time to make too.  Good news is, now you have chowchow, and so everything from this point on is actually really quick and easy.  

For example, make some chowchow coleslaw.  Basically just add it to cabbage with some mayo and you're golden.  Though, if you have a moment and you don't like watery slaw, I'd suggest sprinkling some salt on the cabbage and letting it drain for an hour.  The draining technique is great if you aren't eating it right away.  Hungry now, don't bother draining it.  

 

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And, if you have an immersion blender and an old plastic gelato jar, well, then you can also make some two minute mayo

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Add the two things on the left to the thing on the right until all the things taste good.  

Are you feeling classy?  Add some celery seeds.  What's classier that that?  Nothing. 

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Grill some buns. 

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Heat up your pork confit in a pan and drizzle some chowchow vinegar on it.  Put it on the grilled buns.  Add some slaw.  Then maybe add some more chowchow and a few roasted jalapeños if you're into that sort of thing (pro tip: you should be into that sort of thing).

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Should you drink a beer while eating this?  Yes.  Yes I really do think you should.   

There.