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Ode to coleslaw

(article, Nathan Krishnamurthy)

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Three things can ruin a picnic: rain, ants, and bad coleslaw.


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Only the coleslaw can we do anything about. But we seldom bother; after all, the typical offering usually features store-bought blandness and either the bitter crunch of dry cabbage or the watery bleakness of old vegetables swimming in sauce. 

For a dish we regard as necessary at every cookout, why do we treat coleslaw as such an afterthought? Too often, coleslaw is relegated to the status of convenience food, served inconveniently from plastic bags and Styrofoam cups.

America craves coleslaw for good reason. Crisp cabbage, cooling dressing, and fresh seasonings make the perfect warm-weather dish. Delicious, refreshing, and healthy, true coleslaw is greater than the sum of its parts, seamlessly mingling ingredients and flavors into creamy harmony. Whether bound with fresh egg mayonnaise or a simple vinaigrette, slaw offers variety, versatility, and palate-cleansing freshness. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Nathan's Creamy Tangy Coleslaw"]Coleslaw is a medieval food with roots in imperial Rome. Apicius, the famous Roman cookbook author, describes a dish of shredded cabbage dressed with eggs, vinegar, and spices. The name itself is Dutch; koolsla simply means cabbage salad. The early Dutch settlers of New Netherland — modern-day New York — grew copious quantities of cabbage up and down the Hudson River. Coleslaw quickly became a favorite in the colonies, and though its popularity flourished and withered among highbrow gourmands, its roots in blue-collar cuisine dug deep.

Coleslaw today is still a dressed cabbage salad, but the rules end there. Sweet or savory, mayonnaise or vinegar, naked or garnished — the choice is yours. As a rule of thumb, a good coleslaw has four elements: cabbage, dressing, complements, and seasonings. Get to know each, and you just might find yourself experimenting.

Cabbage: The traditional choice for slaw is green cabbage, with smooth leaves and a crisp texture. But the sprawling cabbage family offers many varieties, each with its own benefits. 

Red or purple cabbage lends aesthetic diversity, although some find it bitter and tougher than other varieties. (It also tends to stain everything pink.) Savoy cabbage, with its crinkled leaves and embossed veins, provides a mild, sweeter alternative. The light green leaves of napa cabbage grow from thick white stalks that provide a hearty bite with delicate flavor. More distant cabbage relatives, such as Brussels sprouts, kale, bok choy, and kohlrabi, all make their own unique slaws.

Choose heads of cabbage that feel heavy for their size. With the exception of napa, cabbages should have tightly packed leaves. Avoid heads with yellow, bruised, or spongy surfaces, although you can peel away the outer shells as needed. Store cabbage in a loose plastic bag in the refrigerator, where it will stay fresh for several weeks. 

To prepare cabbage for coleslaw, first remove the outermost leaves. Quarter the head lengthwise — that is, make each cut through the stem – then remove the stem from each quarter with a slanting cut. Lay each section flat and slice as thinly as possible in long strokes, letting the knife do the work of shredding. (You can always use a food processor or grater, but neither achieves quite the same texture.)

The final step is the key to perfect slaw: purging the cabbage. Place the shredded cabbage in a colander or strainer and toss it with a healthy dose of kosher salt, then let it drain for two hours. The salt extracts moisture and bitterness from the cell walls of the cabbage. After salting, soak the cabbage in cold water to remove residual salt and crisp up the leaves. Finally, strain or spin-dry the cabbage. 

Dressing: The simplest dressing for slaw is a vinaigrette: one part vinegar and two parts oil, often steeped with a garlic clove and pepper and whipped together at the last minute. 

But the more common, modern variation is mayonnaise. Homemade mayonnaise is easy, and will always beat store-bought in the freshness department. 

Buttermilk, sour cream, crème fraîche, and yogurt — either the regular or the trendy Greek variety — can all make deliciously tangy dressing alternatives. 

And a creamy dressing requires at least one acid: vinegars like balsamic, red wine, or apple cider; lemon, lime, or orange juice; or pickle juice, relish, and the like. Don’t hesitate to combine several ingredients.

Complements: Any number of vegetables, fruits, cheeses, and nuts can complement coleslaw. Cut fruits and vegetables into matchsticks, or grate them with a box grater. (It's better to skimp on the knife work here than on the cabbage.) 

Traditional vegetable complements include carrots, sweet peppers, and red onions, but pimentos, scallions, zucchini, cucumber, fennel, and root vegetables like radishes, parsnips, and celery root can all make interesting additions, as do shoots and sprouts. 

Fresh fruits like apples, pears, peaches, and berries are delicious, but nearly any dried fruit works as well. Sliced almonds, chopped walnuts, peanuts, and pine nuts can all add crunch, while blue cheese, feta, and ricotta are a treat for the cheese lover. 

Almost anything works, but avoid wet or easily squashed ingredients, like tomatoes, bananas, and avocados; they will turn your coleslaw into muck.

Seasonings: Like most savory foods, coleslaw should be seasoned to taste with salt and pepper, but the seasonings don’t end there. Dry seeds, such as caraway, sesame, celery, and mustard, will all introduce plenty of flavor. You can also add chile powder and red-pepper flakes for a Southern-style slaw. 

If fresh herbs are available, use them. Parsley, cilantro, chives, and dill bring fresh summer flavors, while thyme and rosemary present heartier aromas. 

Lastly, some enjoy their coleslaw on the sweeter side, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Brown sugar or honey should do the trick.

Finishing your coleslaw is as easy as folding everything together in a bowl and adding the dressing, but remember: coleslaw is dressed, not sauced. Add just enough dressing to ensure that everything is bound together in creamy consistency. 

Coleslaw often benefits from sitting in the fridge for a day or so to mingle flavors. After that, it will keep for a week or more, unless it contains raw eggs from homemade mayo.

When you make coleslaw at home, you preserve an American tradition that began with the settling of New York City and the Hudson River Valley. Coleslaw shouldn't be just a prepared food; rather, it's a food that should be prepared. So for your next warm-weather meal, make your own coleslaw. It'll go from afterthought to star attraction.

p(bio). Nathan Krishnamurthy earned a culinary-arts degree at the French Culinary Institute and cooked professionally at Bouley Restaurant in New York City. Find him on Twitter: @nathankrish.

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