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What on earth do you do with a bunch of green tomatoes at the end of the growing season? A hard frost is coming and your vines still have a ton of unripened fruit. It seems a waste just to let all that potential food be useless after it freezes. So,what do you do?
You make chow-chow of course.
Now there are lots of things you can do with those hard, green things that don’t have a single hope of ripening and really can’t even be classified as tomatoes in my book. Most folks instantly think of fried green tomatoes. But I’m not crazy about fried green tomatoes. So that is NOT a good answer to the question in my house. Maybe if I’d grown up eating them, I might feel differently. But they are just not my favorite.
Enter stage right: Green tomato chow-chow
When I was in high school, my Aunt Ruth invited me over one Saturday afternoon in October to help her make chow-chow. She had given us a pint a week or so earlier and I absolutely loved the the stuff. It had a wonderfully sweet, yet spicy taste and was perfect on sandwiches. Since I devoured it so quickly, she asked me to help her with the next batch.
Aunt Ruth used a recipe that had been handed down in her husband’s family from one Aunt Ada. She had a lot of green tomatoes that year and decided to dig out the recipe so all the “green things” wouldn’t go to waste. I guess green tomatoes classify as food. But they do need a little help.
She had one of those old fashioned, cast aluminum food grinders that you clamp on the edge of a counter and has a hand crank. We washed and cut up all the tomatoes, onions, and peppers then put them through that high-tech food processor of the day. We boiled the sugar, spices and vinegar and then added the ground up mush.
What an aroma!
I know, I know. I should have held my camera horizontally!
If you have ever pickled anything, you know the knock-out effect of boiling vinegar and sugar. The aroma is over-powering. Personally I love that pungent smell bubbling up from the big porcelain basin used to cook it in. My wife can’t abide the smell and thinks I’m crazy. She insists that I make chow-chow only when she will be gone for the day. And I have to promise to open the window to get rid of the “awful smell.”
When the chow-chow was ready, we carefully ladled it into sterilized canning jars and then put on the lids and rings. We canned about 24 pints that afternoon, as I recall. She gave me four jars to take home and I thought I was in chow-chow heaven.
Since then I have made chow-chow using Aunt Ada’s time-tested recipe. And several times when Aunt Ruth wasn’t growing a garden anymore, I took her some of the jars I made. You would have thought that nothing could have delighted her more. She was “tickled PINK’ she kept telling me. Of course, she was delighted to get the chow-chow, which she “relished.” But I think she was especially touched that I used the family recipe she had shared with me so many years before.
I love to make this green tomato relish. There’s something very satisfying about taking food from your garden and preserving it for the coming year.
But I have to tell you a funny story.
Many years ago when I was visiting my fiancée in New York City, I took her a jar of my homemade chow-chow. What a special gift I thought. Everyone I knew really loved it. Months later, once we were married, when we returned from our honeymoon, to my dismay I found the jar of chow-chow unopened in the refrigerator. I was shocked. My wife still does not like it.
Oh well, it doesn’t stop me from making and sharing it with those who do appreciate it.
So, in honor of Aunt Ruth and Aunt Ada, I share with you this time-tested family recipe for green tomato chow-chow.
You’ll notice from the picture of the recipe card above that the ingredients are simple and the directions very sparse. I guess everyone was just supposed to know how to can stuff back then. There are no instructions for the canning process, how to sterilize the jars, lids and rings. You just knew how from watching you mom–or your Aunt Ada– and doing it yourself so much. Scroll down below the instructions for a photo gallery of the process.
Disclaimer: You’ll also notice there is no hot water processing time. You just put the hot chow-chow into the hot, sterilized jars. I have spoken to a modern canning expert who has told me that the reason this works is because of the high acidic content of the tomatoes. But this is not always true with some of the sweeter varieties. And you can’t can this way with other vegetables. In all the years I have made chow-chow in the manner described below, I have never had a problem. But that is not a guarantee for you. I highly recommend you always follow the USDA approved guidelines for canning and the specific instructions for a given recipe.
I will include the directions Aunt Ruth gave me verbally. When we made this back in the 1970s, most people never thought much about using organic vegetables. But I highly recommend using all organic ingredients in this recipe.
Your green tomatoes may be long gone depending on where you live, but there may be some local farmers who still have some. If you live in warmer climates, you may still have some on the vine.
Aunt Ada’s Green Tomato Chow-chow
2 quarts (8 cups) ground green tomatoes (about 5-6 lbs.)
3 large onions
3 red peppers
4 green peppers
1 to 3 small hot peppers
3 cups white vinegar
4 cups sugar (sometimes I cut it to 3 1/2 cups)
2 TBSP whole mustard seed
1 TBSP celery seed
2 tsp turmeric
1 1/2 TBSP salt
Wash the tomatoes and cut out all bad spots. (And of course save all the trimmings for your compost pile.) Cut in small chunks and pulse 3 or 4 times in a food processor then let it run for 15 -20 seconds or until the tomatoes are reduced to a small mince. Think of how small the bits are in relish. That is what you are aiming for. Only put in approximately 2 cups of tomato chunks at a time so they will be evenly chopped. You can use one of the old fashioned (or new) food grinders if you prefer. The hand crank method is fun but takes a LOT longer.
Cut and process the onions and peppers the same way. Make sure to remove the seeds from the peppers.
Wash 1 dozen pint size canning jars, lids and rings in hot soapy water. Rinse thoroughly.
Place the jars on a damp dish towel (one that you don’t mind getting discolored) on a baking sheet and place in the oven preheated to 200˚F. This will assure that the jars are sterilized. Leave them in this very slow oven until the chow-chow is finished cooking.
Place the lids and rings in a large pot covered with water and keep at 180˚F until ready to use. Do NOT boil this water. Follow the instructions on the lid package if they are different from this.
In a LARGE enamel basin used for making jelly, add the sugar, spices and vinegar. Set on a burner to “high” and bring this mixture to a boil, then add the tomatoes, onions and peppers.
Bring to a boil, then continue boiling for 15 minutes. You will hear a change in the sound of the boiling concoction. It will turn a darker color and the liquid will thicken a little and become more syrupy. Stir occasionally as you cook the relish and if there are any large chunks that evaded the food processor blade, fish them out so your relish will be uniform looking. Hey, I guess you can leave the chunks in if you like, but I always get rid of them so the finished product looks pretty.
Remove the jars from the oven very carefully and place near the stove top. Place a wide-mouth canning funnel in the top of the first jar (see photo below) and quickly ladle in the hot chow-chow. Leave about a half inch at the top. Quickly fill all remaining jars. You may not have enough to fill all 12 jars depending on how juicy the tomatoes were. If there is not enough to fill the last jar to the top, that’s okay. Just stick it in the refrigerator after it cools and use it first.
As soon as you have filled all the jars, take a piece of paper towel and rubber band it to a fork. Dip this into the hot water with the lids and rings. Use this to wipe the inside edges and top rims of the jars. You must do this quickly and very carefully. The idea is to get all little drips of juice off the jars’ rims so the lid will seal properly. (This is how Aunt Ruth taught me to do it. You may have your own technique.)
If you want to offer more up to date suggestions of how to process the jars in a steam or hot water bath, please do so.
Use a pair of metal tongs to retrieve the lids from the pot of hot water. Place a lid on a jar and then fish out a ring and put it in place. The lids and jars are piping hot so be careful when you screw them down. Use a pot holder or a kitchen towel. Tighten just a bit at first. Then put a lid and ring on the next jar, tighten slightly and then go to the next jar until all jars have lids and rings.
Go back to the jars and tighten them again until they are very firm. They are still hot, so be careful. As the jars cool, the little bulge in the top of the lid will pop down and be indented instead of poking up. Sometimes you will even hear a popping sound. This means the jar is sealed properly.
Leave the jars on the counter to cool completely. Make sure the lids are tight. Then wash the jars with a damp towel.
NOTE: If you are making more than one batch of chow-chow, as I have often done, you can do things in stages. In the pictures here you can see that I ended up with 36 pints. Wow is right. The first night I worked on this, I processed all the tomatoes, peppers and onions, then put them in zip-lock bags in the fridge. So I had three bags with tomatoes (8 cups per bag) and three bags with the right number of chopped peppers and onions for a batch. That way I made the prep mess only once. The next day I canned everything, making three batches. I only had to clean up once from this mess too.
Here are some pictures of some of the process:
There are so many ways to enjoy chow-chow. I like it on sandwiches. My friends eat it on crackers, in beans and right out of the jar. And it makes great gifts for friends and family. But make them promise to give it back to you if they don’t like it. You don’t want good chow-chow to go to waste.
If you decide to give this recipe a try, let me know how it comes out. And I thank you in advance on behalf of Aunt Ada and Aunt Ruth for carrying forward this wonderful family recipe.
Here’s to all the great family recipes in YOUR kitchen,
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