Anatomy of a Classic

Jezebel Sauce: The South’s Relish

Serves 4

Spicy-sweet and a little bit tart, Jezebel sauce—done right—is a cook’s best friend

photo: Johnny Autry


Prepare to hate me for this, but Jezebel sauce—traditionally a base of apple jelly and pineapple preserves tricked out with horseradish and yellow mustard—is one of the weakest links in the Southern culinary canon. People love it because they grew up with it—the way they love ambrosia, for instance, or green bean casserole with mushroom soup.

Granted, this staple of community cookbooks and grandmothers’ tables has helped many a baked ham over the decades, but spooning it over a block of cream cheese, adding a few crackers, and calling it a party snack is just taking a so-so thing and making it worse.

Tandy Wilson, chef at City House in Nashville, feels my pain on this point. Like many Southerners, he grew up eating Jezebel sauce and fighting over where it was invented (multiple states, including Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi, all lay claim to it). “Mom’s was the best,” he says. “It was always in the fridge.”

But as Wilson began to cook professionally in California and Italy, his palate matured. He distanced himself from Jezebel and other Southern classics whose defining characteristic is sweetness. “You get away a little bit from what you grew up with, and you forget about the sweet flavors that you loved,” he says. “But some of these sweet things are still good in moderation. I mean, sweet tea is still pretty damn good.” So when he came home to Tennessee to cook in 2005 and then opened City House a couple of years later, he began to rework Southern classics in his own muscular way.

One result is a take on Jezebel sauce so good it has become a regular in my kitchen. Wilson starts with red onion that has been caramelized on the grill, then mixes in grainy mustard and freshly grated horseradish. The sweet characteristics come from lemon preserves (peach works nicely, too) and sorghum, which adds a certain depth. Lemon juice offers a tart edge. Wilson is partial to chicken, and the sauce takes well to thighs seasoned with lemon zest and roasted in a cast-iron pan. “Those juices get down in there with that sauce,” he says. “Man, that is heaven.”


Ingredients

  • Red Onion Jezebel with Pan-Roasted Chicken Thighs 

    • 4 chicken thighs, bone-in and with skin

    • 1 lemon

    • 2 medium red onions

    • 2 tbsp. whole-grain mustard

    • 2 tbsp. fresh horseradish, grated

    • 2 tbsp. lemon marmalade

    • 1 tbsp. sorghum

    • Peanut or vegetable oil

    • Salt and pepper


Preparation

  1. The day before serving the dish, zest lemon (and set aside the fruit). Season chicken thighs with salt, pepper, and zest. Cover and refrigerate at least four hours or overnight.

  2. Meanwhile, prepare a charcoal grill, or heat a gas grill. Cut the top and exposed root off of the onions; then peel and quarter from top to bottom. Brush onion quarters with oil and season with salt. Grill on cut sides until well caramelized. Alternatively, roast onions on a baking pan in a 400-degree oven, cut side down, until browned on the bottom. Let the onions cool; then chop into small pieces.

  3. To make the Jezebel sauce, mix together mustard, horseradish, marmalade, sorghum, and juice from reserved lemon. Fold in the onion, season with salt and pepper, and refrigerate overnight, along with the chicken.

  4. When ready to cook, remove the chicken and Jezebel sauce from refrigerator to take the chill off.

  5. Place a 12-inch cast-iron skillet in the oven and preheat to 425 degrees. When the pan is hot, remove it and add two tablespoons of oil and then the chicken, skin side down. Roast for 15 to 17 minutes, until the skin is crispy and the meat is just cooked through.

  6. To serve, place a quarter cup of the sauce on a plate, add a piece of chicken, and then top with another spoonful of sauce.

Meet the Chef: Tandy Wilson

Current RestaurantCity House, Nashville, Tennessee
Hometown: Nashville
Kitchen utensil he can’t do without: A beat-up pair of twelve-inch tongs he “borrowed” from Tra Vigne when he was a cook there
What he listens to in the kitchen: Delta blues
Dinner when he’s not at work: “It usually has something to do with the Weber and chicken.”

Note: There will be plenty of leftover Jezebel sauce. Just refrigerate in a jar for up to two weeks—it gets better with time.


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