Saturday, August 8, 2015

Legacy Pickles: Green Tomato Relish

Surely almost every culture on Earth has a pickle (or, sometimes a fermented food) that serves as a gentle bass line to the melody of the meal - a taste that is part of the food though never its focus. Often this is something that has been passed down through the family, or friends, or perhaps a familiar food conveyor.  Once you have become accustomed to that little assist, the food never tastes quite right without it. The jar is there in your pantry, and you reach for it without much of a second thought. 

Green Tomato Relish, ready for the shelf
In our family, that is Green Tomato Relish.  It is required that we make a batch of this every few years.  Homemade hamburgers are not real without it.  It is the secret ingredient in meatloaf, deviled eggs, sauces and salad dressings.  This relish is closely related to a couple of other Southern pickles, "chow chow" and "piccalilli".  Indeed, when I was introduced to this, it was called piccalilli, but as far as I can tell, most recipes for piccalilli include some fruit such as apples. Chow chow usually includes cabbage.  But what all three pickles share is that they are a mixture of fall vegetables with plenty of sugar and vinegar and some assertive spices.

I learned to eat "piccalilli" that was made by the parents of family friends.  We were gifted with a jar each fall as the senior Whitworths cleaned out their fall garden and the green tomatoes, peppers and onions went into the mix. I came to love this mixture as a child, especially on hamburgers.  Later, I combed through recipes until I found one in Joy of Cooking that seemed to match my memory. (The elderly gardeners were long since dead and gone.  The lesson is, always ask for the recipe.)

Use enough red bell peppers to add a color note.
The first challenge is to find the green tomatoes.  If you have your own garden, this is easy.  Traditionally, it was made from the garden leftovers just before the first frost.  But I have been known to grow tomatoes and harvest the first flush of fruit to make this pickle.  It is surprisingly hard to get commercial growers to supply you with them.  Hope for good friends with good vines.  You can use green tomatoes of almost any size, though I don't recommend the tiny ones.  As a rule of thumb, I might choose medium-sized green tomatoes not yet at full growth potential.  At least, make sure that the tomatoes have not begun to ripen.  It will make them too mushy.

Sliced, salted, drained vegetables
Plan for two days to make the pickles.  The vegetables are sliced (I use a food processor) and layered in a crock with pickling salt. (It is very important not to use iodized salt.  If you can't find pickling salt, use kosher salt.)  This will create a brine.  The crock is covered and left overnight (12 hours).  Then the vegetables are drained and rinsed, to avoid a highly salty pickle.

The next step is to place them in the pickling mixture to cook until they are transparent.  Then they are ready for canning.  Some people might keep them in slices, but I put them through a food processor briefly to make a relish.  (Be careful not to purée them.)

Measurement note:  tomatoes are often sold in farmers' markets by volume rather than by pound.  A peck (8 quarts) is about 16 pounds.  I find that a half peck makes enough relish for several years.

Green Tomato Relish
One-half peck green tomatoes (about 8 lb)
12 bell peppers, about 1/3 red or as available
5 large onions (less if Spanish onions, which are larger)
1 large garlic bulb or about 8 cloves of garlic

In a crock:
Layer these sliced vegetables with about 1/2 cup pickling salt; add scant teaspoon to finish as needed.
Push  a clean plate down over the vegetables until brine covers them.  Cover the crock and set in cool corner overnight.   Drain and rinse after 12 hours (approximately).

Pickling mixture:   (Heat in resistant pan, enamel or stainless steel)
1 1/2 quarts cider vinegar
2 lb light brown sugar
1 T plus 1 t powdered ginger
1 T plus 1 t dry mustard
In infuser bag or wrapped in cheesecloth
2T whole cloves
2 sticks cinnamon
1 T celery seed 

Add vegetables and simmer until translucent.  Try to avoid a heavy boil.

Can these in pint jars for 15 minutes (hot water bath canning).

Pickles can first be chopped in a food processor, taking care not to purée the relish.

Allow pickles to mellow for 1 month before using.