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Vegetable relish giardiniera attracting more fans
By Deborah Pankey | Daily Herald Food Editor

Greg Frederick of Lisle show off a sandwich with giardiniera.


Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

Italian beef with giardiniera


Mark Black | Staff Photographer

Greg Frederick of Lisle makes a sandwich with giardiniera at his home.


Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

Giardiniera works outside the bun. Greg Frederick uses it on shrimp scampi, front, and a Dagwood sandwich.


Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

Greg Frederick of Lisle and his That Pickle Guy product line at his home in Lisle.


Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

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Published: 6/24/2009 12:02 AM

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Italian beef and giardiniera go together like hot dogs and mustard.


OK, if I say hot peppers - that spicy blend of vegetables that's a staple at area beef stands - you catch my drift.

Giardiniera's not an easy word to say (jar-din-air-ah), or spell, for that matter, but it's pretty easy to make, easy to use and easy to become addicted to.

Just ask my husband. Right now in our refrigerator and pantry there are six jars of varying sizes and styles.

When he started this obsession a few years ago I didn't realize there was so much to this condiment. Now I'm finding it has a cultlike following of fans who have definite ideas about what constitutes the perfect batch in terms of heat, texture and vegetable composition.

Venture too far from the Windy City and you get quizzical looks as you ask for the spicy vegetable relish on a sandwich.

"If you take giardiniera outside Chicago, people don't know what it is," says Greg Frederick, a Lisle giardiniera enthusiast. "Even in Peoria."

That baffles Frederick, founder of That Pickle Guy line of preserved and pickled vegetables, and others.

I haven't been able to pin down giardiniera's beginnings. Given its association with Italian beef sandwiches (also a decidedly Chicago thing) it's safe to assume that Italians have been preserving garden vegetables and peppers in olive oil for centuries. Considering the large Italian population in the suburbs and Chicago, it's not a far leap to see how the condiment has taken hold here.

Hispanic cultures have a similar condiment, usually preserved with vinegar, and in France the term a la jardiniera means garnished with vegetables.

Chris Ayukawa, sous chef at the tony Niche restaurant in Geneva, counts himself in the cult. He remembers his first encounter with giardiniera in a small Mexican restaurant.

"I put it on my burrito, then I started putting it on everything," Ayukawa says who prefers his mixture with large chunks of crispy cauliflower.

"I like the mouth feel, the hot, the spicy," he says. "The vegetables are not quite raw, not mushy."

He says he's tried making it at home, but would rather leave it to the experts.

"It's a comfort food for me, so when I go out and enjoy it, I want to enjoy it. I don't want to over-think it."

Frederick, on the other hand, now makes his living by thinking about giardiniera.

He started making his own giardiniera when he was transplanted to the Gulf Coast and couldn't find it in the stores. Muffuletta, a Louisiana olive relish, was the closest thing.

Back in the suburbs, he started selling (and still sells) his products at farmers markets and now is in Whole Foods Markets and smaller grocery stores.

At the grocery store, you'll most likely find it the aisle with other Italian products like marinated artichokes and roasted red peppers rather than in the aisle with pickles. Head into Chicago and you'll find homemade versions at Italian delis.

Depending on where you shop, the selection will vary from mild to hot, chunky to finely chopped. Everyone's tastes are different, so you might go through a few bottles before hitting the recipe you like. Racconto is tops at my house, where the chunky blend, with a good helping of cauliflower, finds its way into wraps, on top of pizza and stirred into Spanish rice. The finely chopped mixture also is good in pasta sauces and gravies.

"My favorite way to eat it is just on a sandwich. Anything I cook in a crockpot, I put a little giardiniera in there," Frederick says. "It's a great additive to bland foods."