Anything Goes With Relish: Start with a little history and add a hodgepodge of fresh produce

Have you heard the latest food writer complaint? The keyboard isn’t working because they type with relish. Ba-dum-bum. One more for flexitarians: “I ordered a hamburger with nothing on it, but I still ate it with relish.”

No, you don’t usually find corny jokes in a food magazine, but when you’re talking relishes, the rules get a little dicey. Webster’s New World Dictionary of Culinary Arts defines relish as “a cooked or pickled sauce usually made with vegetables or fruits and often used as a condiment.” There’s no “right” texture; coarse or finely chopped is the norm, but smooth is OK too. Sweet or savory, mild or hot – any of these are within the “rules.” One vegetable or a plethora, there’s no limit to the ingredients.

The sweet pickle relish that we love to slather over a plump stadium hot dog is probably the classic example of a single-veg relish. But over at Lucas Park Grille on Washington Avenue, it’s the grape tomato that’s currently in the spotlight. Executive chef Kyle Patterson offers a tart tomato relish as an accompaniment to grilled Norwegian salmon with an asparagus and artichoke butter sauce served alongside a crispy potato cake. “Grape tomatoes are always a little more ripe when tomatoes are first coming into season,” Patterson said. His relish is speckled with chopped arugula that releases a peppery-ness that harmonizes with the salmon. Home cooks, take note: Patterson said his relish would be equally fine with dense fish like swordfish, marlin or even trout.

Chefs and home cooks alike appreciate a recipe that calls for a hodgepodge of fresh ingredients. Two multiveg relishes – piccalilli and chow-chow – easily fit this category. A British piccalilli, like the one made by condiment manufacturer Crosse & Blackwell in the U.K., includes a variety of minced vegetables such as cauliflower, cucumber and onions plus mustard, tumeric and other spices. Other piccalilli recipes also include green beans and even lima and kidney beans. The length of time that the vegetables are cooked depends on the cook’s penchant for crunch or mush. Once it’s pickled with vinegar, salt and sugar, this thick, tangy sauce meets its match with sandwiches, meats and cheeses.

Chow-chow, a cousin to piccalilli, generally includes a mélange of produce like chopped green tomatoes, shredded cabbage, diced onions, hot peppers, sweet bell peppers, along with mustard seed and vinegar. Other garden miscellany – cucumbers, celery, carrots, beans, corn or cauliflower – might also make it into the mix.

“It’s typically an end-of-summer thing,” explained Kevin Willmann, co-owner and executive chef at Erato on Main in Edwardsville. Willmann works up his chow-chow when he has “a little corn left, a little bit of green tomatoes that aren’t going to turn yet, cabbages coming in from the fall.” His is generally a blend of green tomatoes, corn, cabbage, broccoli florets, banana peppers and cauliflower. “I put in some tumeric, pour pickling brine over it, and let it pickle for a bit. Though it’s good the next day, honestly.”

Willmann likes slot-serving this chunky catch-all with Southern-style blackened fish. “It also goes well if you want to do spicy chicken. It would complement sweet stuff too, like pulled pork or Carolina barbecue, which is not as heavily laden with barbecue sauce – it’s more like a vinegar sauce. You could toss chow-chow with chicken and make a reinvented Cobb salad that way.”

Chow-chow is often attributed to the Chinese who brought with them the notion of pickled vegetables in a seasoned mustard sauce when they came to California in the mid-1800s as railroad laborers. But Southerners also claim it as their own – and down South they do love their chow-chow. They eat it over pinto beans, and with black-eyed peas, turnip greens or collards. In fact, down South, the terms chow-chow and piccalilli are sometimes used interchangeably to refer to a sweet green tomato relish that may also include peppers, onion, cabbage, spices and even horseradish – depending on who’s cooking. “These are indigenous recipes,” Willmann said. “They are generational. They are distinguished between families, not just regions.”

Time-honored relish recipes are frequently the source for modish adaptations like the ones that chefs Wes Johnson and Brendan Noonan are whipping up at the recently opened Eclipse Restaurant at the Moonrise Hotel in the East Loop. Both chefs are avid collectors of antique cookbooks, including Joy of Cooking. “In early editions, there were all sorts of foods in the relish category – there was even a meat relish,” Johnson said. “Relish is one of those subjective terms. It’s a condiment. There is a blurred line between chutney, relish and salsa. You can really do some fun things and not stick to prescribed standards.”

Noonan’s pineapple relish is a colorful blend of pineapple, red onion and cilantro mixed with sweet and sour Asian flavors: rice wine vinegar, honey, chile pepper, sambal sauce and ginger. This raw fruit relish is an accompaniment to ginger-marinated shrimp served atop a bed of warm jasmine rice, and the entire dish is lightly drizzled with honey and soy. Noonan said the relish is flexible between Asian and Southwestern dishes and would be a fantastic accompaniment to chile-curry rubbed snapper, pork and even tofu.
Serving lobster beignets with a relish of curried Vidalia onion and locally grown sour cherries was Johnson’s idea for a retro summer appetizer. “When I make a relish, I go for sweet and a little tart at the same time. You get the sweet from the Vidalia onions and sour from the cherries.” Johnson lightly caramelizes the onions with Madras curry powder, then deglazes the pan with apple cider vinegar and folds in the super-sour pie cherries. The relish is on the dry side because the heat from cooking leeches out a lot of moisture. Johnson especially likes how the red-studded, lip-puckering condiment marries with the herby saltiness of the seafood fritters.

As the bushel basket overflows with beans and beets, corn, carrots and cukes, and peppers of every size and color, the time is ripe for practically any relish. Summer’s favorite yet simplest of foods – juicy burgers, grillicious fish, even cold pasta salads – reach pleasurable heights when topped with this delish condiment. Which flavors of the season will you relish? That’s your pickle.