With summertime nearly here, it's time to start talking about that contentious issue: coleslaw. This is one of those fun ones to discuss because everybody has some little secret that makes it great, and everyone has some great aunt Lulu who makes the best coleslaw you ever had.
There is a long and auspicious history to this humble dish, dating back to the Romans at least, because we know Apicius wrote of a dish made of shredded cabbage with vinegar, eggs and spices. But the name we know today comes from the Dutch word koolsla, which simply means "cabbage salad."
It was well known in colonial America and it didn't take long for some to twist the term into "cold slaw," which of course eventually led to people creating "warm slaw." One recipe I dug up from the quaintly titled Kentucky Housewife (by Lettice Bryan, 1839) suggests that one should "Cut them as for cold slaugh; having put in a skillet enough butter, salt, pepper, and vinegar to season the slaugh very well, put it into the seasonings; stir it fast, that it all may warm equally, and as soon as it gets hot, serve it in a deep china dish; make it smooth, and disseminate over it hard boiled yolks of eggs, that are minced fine." I love old recipes; they word things so oddly.
Mayonnaise is an 18th century concoction, so the coleslaw we know today can't be much more than 200 years old. Still variations are endless, and the key argument is often over whether the slaw should be sweet or savory. I fall into the latter camp, and cannot stand a sweet slaw. That said, I make many variations, some with a mayonnaise dressing and some with a vinaigrette. But before we get to any of those, there are two steps which should not be skipped if a truly memorable slaw is your goal.
After you've selected a firm, fresh head of cabbage (green, red, Napa, Savoy, whatever) and have removed the outer leaves and the core, slice it as thinly as you can possibly manage. I like the texture better this way, but if you prefer shredded, that's fine too. Place the cabbage in a large colander and toss it with plenty of kosher salt, then leave it to rest in the sink for at least an hour. The salt will leach out all the bitter juices.
Rinse the cabbage thoroughly and then toss it in a big bowl of ice water for an hour, or overnight in the refrigerator. This crisps the cabbage. Drain it thoroughly and get as much water out as you can - a salad spinner is handy for this.
Toss the cabbage with your choice of garnishing vegetables. This can include anything your imagination can dream up - if it sounds like it would be good, it probably would. Traditional ingredients include onions, carrots, celery and bell peppers. Less common but no less delicious are things like scallions, sliced snow peas, hot peppers and julienned tomatoes. Root vegetables, such as turnips, parsnips and rutabaga are also wonderful and add a new layer of crunch.
Toss it with my caraway slaw dressing and refrigerate over night so that the flavors can marry. Serve at your next picnic along with some good barbecue, or on top of some hearty toasted bread.
Caraway Slaw Dressing
1 cup mayonnaise (not Miracle Whip or other sweetened stuff)
1/4 cup cider vinegar
2 tablespoons caraway seeds, toasted in a hot dry skillet
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
salt and pepper to taste
water to desired consistency
Whip together all the ingredients and toss on prepared cabbage and vegetables. Allow to stand at least an hour, preferably overnight, refrigerated.
Yields enough for roughly 2 quarts of shredded vegetables.
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