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Recently a staple of traditional Chicago cuisine was featured in the New York Times. Giardiniera, featured here in 2010, started as an Italian Beef, Italian Sausage, and Combo sandwich condiment, but bled into pizza – it is my favorite topping at Pequod’s, even more recently drifted into the white tablecloth dining scene, and finally New York recognized it (only a step away from coopting it). There were many reactions to seeing the feature from Chicago food folk, one of which was that it was curious timing given none of the vegetables featured in the pickled condiment are in season anywhere near New York or Chicago. The comment made be think about what was available recently which led me where things are still growing, it led me South.

For those of you following on Twitter, you know that I am headed to Charleston in a few weeks. Heck, if you don’t follow me on Twitter, and you should, you would know by some of the dishes that I have been making lately, that I have a more than slight obsession with Lowcountry culture. I have not been in years and never been outside of the sweltering Low Country summer visits. Needless to say that with reservations to Husk and McCrady’s and a planned visit to Cypress, I am excited.

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With Charleston on my mind and collards already boiling away with a few slices of jowl tasso, pig tail, and a confited pig’s ear, I sat down to figure out how I would adapt the recipe to bring Lowcountry ingredients to a Chicago favorite. Staring at the counter, I saw something that I have never used and was pleased that I had not tossed them yet. Ingredient one would be collard stems. The next ingredient was something that I wanted to be similar to cauliflower, but Southern. The peppery turnip fit the bill both color and flavor-wise. Finally, an old standby, the venerable okra. Featured prominently in Lowcountry stews, okra brings both flavor and texture, more specifically slime.

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Using the basic recipe that I used last time with a few substitutions, I got started by salting all of the non-okra vegetables in a brine, then draining the mixture and adding in sliced okra, fresh oregano, and garlic.

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Finally I added the vinaigrette and sealed up the jars for a few days for the mixture to come together. When I opened up the jar, the flavors and textures were fantastic. The peppery turnip is actually an improvement over the mighty cauliflower in both texture and flavor. The okra created the typically slimy texture that I love. It is incredibly viscous. The collard stems are not bitter as I expected them to be, but rather super-crunchy and mild flavored. The mixture could use a little more heat due to the viscosity and next time, the Thai bird chilies will be all over in the jar, but that is really my only complaint.

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At this point, I was dying to use the stuff and I had started on some ideas on the same night that I cooked the collards. The gelatin in the jowl, ear, and tail created a really great texture to the potlikker. As discussed in the nose to tail greens and peas, my favorite part of both of those dishes is the resulting cooking liquid. Since we had tons at the bottom of the pot, I decided to take one for the team and experiment a little. I reduced the potlikker from 3-4 cups worth into a nearly opaque, sticky few tablespoons of amazing foodstuffs. After cooling in a jar, the deep brown disc had completely solidified.

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Looking at the disc, I immediately thought of how sorghum was similar in appearance and slow moving in texture as the reduced potlikker was while warm. And what goes better with sorghum than buttermilk biscuits. While sopping up the potlikker with a biscuit sounds appealing, but I went in a slightly different direction while sticking with buttermilk. I went with buttermilk ricotta.

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Not knowing whether a firm ricotta or a loose ricotta would work, I made both. Making a batch by adding buttermilk to milk and heating, a few days before and squeezing the water from it, essentially turning it into a wheel of semi-hard cheese and making some right before serving, I had two textures of the same food.

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Topping the homemade cheese with molten caramel-y potlikker, the Lowcountry Giardiniera, and adding a serrano cracklin’ for substance (and scooping) on the side, we shared each of the appetizers. The warm and loose ricotta suited the giardiniera and the rich, sticky, porky reduced potlikker better in both proportion and texture.

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The warm, smooth ricotta combined with the acidic, crunchy giardiniera, the sticky, savory reduced potlikker, and the crunchy, salty serrano crackin was a great dish to start a lovely dinner at home. It was fun to step outside of my comfort zone and create a little plate of food that is based on a few classics and expresses my excitement for a family trip to a part of the country that I love.

Lowcountry Giardiniera

  • 2 melrose chiles diced
  • 3 fresno chiles diced
  • 2 jalepenos diced
  • 1 thai bird chiles sliced
  • 1 bunch collard stems, peeled and sliced
  • 1 small carrot diced
  • 1 medium turnip, peeled and diced
  • 1/3 cup kosher salt
  • water to cover
  • 1 cup okra chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh oregano roughly chopped
  • 2 turns black pepper
  • 3/4 cups canola oil
  • 3/4 cups cider vinegar

Step one: Combine first 9 ingredients in a bowl and set soak overnight. Drain.

Step two: Add okra, garlic, oregano, and pepper. Scoop into jars looking to minimize pockets where there is no veg.

Step three: Fill jars with mixture of vinegar and oil. Top jars immediately and refrigerate.

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