Love and Coleslaw - No. 37
How to slay boring slaw and make it more interesting
IN YEARS PAST, we’d be heading to a Labor Day potluck this weekend and toting - what else? - cake and slaw.
The two are not flavor partners as much as they are recipes that have come to define us, or more importantly, are what people expect us to bring to a party. In that photo of the happy couple, I’m holding the cake, and he’s cradling the coleslaw.
How do you know when you first meet someone that someday they’ll obsess about making slaw from fresh cabbage?
In Camp Slaw there are rules like don’t use a slaw kit
Over the years, I’ve savored the benefits of his homemade slaw in the fridge, and for the best slaw, I now know to make it a day ahead and chill it to allow the flavors to mix and mingle. That’s rule one.
To me, slaw is anything but boring. I look for it at the potluck. Which means I’ve wholeheartedly joined Camp Slaw and no longer buy a bag of pre-shredded cabbage or something called a “slaw kit.” We make it from a head of cabbage. That’s rule two.
Those “kits” might look easy, but have you ever wondered how long ago the cabbage was chopped and packed? And sitting inside that bag for God knows how long? It’s like smelly socks in a gym bag.
Believe it or not, cabbage is a naturally sweet vegetable.
The sweet story behind slaw
According to Appalachian food historian Mark Sohn in his book, Mountain Country Cooking, the Dutch word “koolsla” was first used in 1785 to describe a “cold cabbage salad.” The word “kool” meant cabbage and “sla” meant salad.
In rural America, up and down the East Coast, throughout the Midwest, as well as in the Texas Hill Country with its Germanic roots, coleslaw became a daily food because of the abundance of cabbage, which grew well in cool climates and higher elevations.
A lot of that cabbage went into fermented sauerkraut to last all winter or into fresh slaw to feed a crowd. Before commercial mayonnaise, slaw was dressed with what’s called a “boiled dressing.” It started with two beaten eggs, 1 cup sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 cup cider vinegar, and a tablespoon butter whisked in the top of a double boiler and cooked until thick. You let it cool, then fold in 1/2 cup heavy cream.
In one of my favorite Pennsylvania Dutch cookbooks, The Art of Pennsylvania Dutch Cooking, author Edna Eby Heller shares slaw recipes with diced apples and raisins, as well as a green pepper coleslaw and a turnip slaw, substituting grated turnips for the cabbage.
The Pennsylvania Dutch ruled slaw improv. They gave us slaw dressed with a mix of sour cream and mayo, slaw with crumbled bacon on top, a colorful Harlequin Slaw with red and green peppers, and even slaw made from sauerkraut.
How do you slaw?
What is it about slaw that triggers opinions?
Is it regional or the way your mama made it? I do think it’s a bit of both.
Here in middle Tennessee, our barbecue joints serve a cool, sweet and vinegary slaw without carrots to accompany hickory-smoked ribs or pulled pork. In North Carolina, there’s no method set in stone, says cookbook author and state food guru Sheri Castle. “We have creamy from mayonnaise, red from barbecue sauce, and a few marinated versions. The style tends to be dictated by its use…hot dogs, barbecue sandwich, fish camp plate, etc.” But in South Carolina, she adds, slaw is flavored with mustard. “South Carolina seems to add mustard to everything.”
My friend Susan just vacationed in upstate New York and came home talking about a hot dog with something called “Canadian slaw” - finely shredded cabbage with lots of vinegar. Over in Atlanta and Nashville, Eddie Hernandez of Taqueria de Sol restaurants makes a refreshing slaw with lemon juice and pickled jalapeños to pile on his Memphis-style barbecue tacos.
So, to me, slaw is anything but boring. You can swap out the cider vinegar or pickle juice in a recipe for rice wine vinegar. You can use Napa, or Chinese cabbage, as well as Bok choi, which is Chinese white cabbage. You can add grated fresh ginger, even blue cheese crumbles. Slaw is a blank canvas just waiting for your artistry.
Finding a rhythm on slaw day
On slaw day, we start with a big bowl and an old-fashioned box grater. We wash the head of cabbage, remove any of the outer leaves that are wilted or torn, and cut out the core. Then we cut the cabbage into halves or quarters depending on the size. I find it’s easier to grate cabbage from a piece that is large enough to not fall apart as you grate it, but the right size to fit into the palm of your hand.
Or, use your food processor, absolutely. I just find slaw is so easy to make and there is a good rhythm to grating it yourself, and fewer things to wash with just a grater and a bowl. Do leave in some chunky bits that aren’t completely shredded. They add a nice visual texture, plus everyone will know you took the time to shred your own cabbage!
And in spite of those monochromatic slaws of my region, I prefer a vibrantly colored slaw, full of vitamin A! Peel and trim the carrots then grate them on top of the cabbage. Add some onion, not a lot, either grated or finely minced. And some sweet bell pepper, finely minced, if you like. And grate in a couple of radishes. That’s the secret! They add color and a peppery bite.
We don’t so much make a dressing to pour over slaw as we just start adding ingredients to the bowl, like vinegar or pickle juice, a little mustard or garlic, some chopped fresh parsley if we’ve got it, maybe a crumbled dried hot pepper from the garden. We add sugar, too, just enough to balance the acidity of the pickle juice. And at the last we add a spoonful or two of mayo. I tend to add less mayo than my husband, but we agree the mayo is just to make the slaw creamy. Much like the earliest slaw makers added a touch of cream.
And what you get is a slaw that is fresh and crisp and cool with just the right balance of flavors and textures to snuggle up to any main dish.
It’s reliable, season-less, and as suitable at home this year with fried chicken in front of Netflix as it is all dressed up for the big Labor Day potlucks of years past.
THE RECIPE: John’s Homemade Coleslaw
Serving sizes have more to do with how you’re going to serve this slaw - as a side to a main dish or as a topping for hotdogs, chili, or barbecue sandwiches. Vary the cabbage, change up the pickle juice to rice wine vinegar or cider vinegar. Add mustard seeds or any seasonings you like. And the mayo is just a ballpark - you may want to omit it! I won’t tell John.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
Prep: 20 to 25 minutes
1 small head of cabbage (1 1/2 pounds), trimmed, cored, and quartered
2 large carrots
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1/2 cup finely chopped sweet red, yellow, or green pepper
3 tablespoons pickled relish or chopped sweet pickle
3 tablespoons sugar, or more or taste
1 teaspoon seasoned salt like Lawry’s or Creole seasoning salt
1/4 cup sweet pickle juice
1/3 cup, or more as needed, mayonnaise
Coarsely ground black pepper, to taste
Rinse the cabbage in cold water and let it drain well in a colander. Using a box grater, shred the cabbage into a large mixing bowl. You will have about 8 cups. Trim and peel the carrots and shred them into the mixing bowl. Trim the radishes and shred them into the bowl. Add the onion and bell pepper and stir to combine.
Add the pickle relish, sugar, salt, pickle juice and enough mayonnaise to pull the slaw together. Taste for seasoning, and add the black pepper, if desired, and more sugar, if needed. Here is where you can toss in a few mustard seeds or a teaspoon of minced garlic. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge overnight before serving. Garnish with chopped fresh parsley or leave it au naturel.
THIS WEEK in Subscriber Thursday - Let’s Make Pesto!
If you’ve got basil in the garden or at your nearby market, now’s the time to harvest it and turn it into pesto for freezing or just gobbling up now. I share my favorite method for making pesto, how to improvise with different nuts and flavors - lemon zest! - then freeze it, plus a wonderful pesto-covered appetizer recipe. And I share the name of the winner of the Lodge cast-iron fluted pan from our August Subscriber Giveaway! Don’t miss the pesto or any of the Between the Layers recipes and cooking tips. Join us!