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Crunchy Slaw, a Cool Foil to Robust Foods

Alongside burgers, ribs, or fried chicken, versatile slaw offers a fresh, crisp counterpoint

Two takes on slaw. Both traditional cabbage (front) and apple-fennel are crunchy and tasty.

by David Page, Barbara Shinn

fromFine Cooking
Issue 34

An oyster po’ boy got us thinking about cole slaw. Our version of the famous fried oyster sandwich (which hasn’t left the menu since the day we opened our first restaurant) cried out for a light, bright accompaniment. The crunchy texture and tangy flavor of a slaw made with julienned apples and fennel was the perfect balance to the sweet oysters and the rich basil mayonnaise that topped them.

Slaw with fried foods is a classic combination. But slaws also work their magic on all kinds of rich and full-flavored foods, from barbecued ribs to grilled salmon. Making slaw at home is actually quite easy—a matter of slicing or shredding vegetables and tossing them with a dressing. What results is a colorful salad full of fresh, crisp flavors that you can tailor to suit your taste and the meal.

Cabbage is traditional but not essential

Cabbage makes a wonderful slaw ingredient. In fact, cole slaw comes from the Dutch kool sla—a cabbage salad. The word kool actually means cabbage and is not, as many people who ask for “cold slaw” believe, a suggestion for the temperature at which the salad should be served (although most are indeed served cold). On the practical side, one head of cabbage makes a lot of slaw. We’re always amazed at how one compact head of cabbage can unravel into bowlfuls of shredded leaves. And fresh raw cabbage has a subtle, spicy-sweet flavor and a pleasing crunch.

We usually use Savoy cabbage (the one with the ruffled bluegreen leaves) in slaw, mainly because it’s what the farmers seem to be growing out on the North Fork of Long Island where we live. Savoy cabbage has a more delicate flavor than other cabbages, and its leaves are tender yet crisp. Regular green cabbage, also called Dutch white, is great in cole slaw and is what’s traditionally used. Although we seem to cook red cabbage more often than we serve it raw, it also works in a cole slaw (though its bright purple color can be a little overwhelming).

  • A chef’s knife works best for cabbage. Cut it in quarters and then into 1/4-inch slices.
  • A simple box grater can shred carrots. A food processor with a shredding disk will also do the trick.
A mandoline cuts precisely. A fancy metal one is nice; the authors also use an inexpensive plastic model.

Whatever variety you choose, look for firm, tightly packed heads with no signs of browning. They should feel heavy for their size.

To soften sturdy cabbage, we either soak the shredded leaves in salted water or cook them lightly, as in our Warm Cabbage Slaw with Country Ham. Salt and heat help break down the fibers of the plant, making the leaves more supple.

But don’t limit yourself to cabbage-only slaws. Other vegetables, and even fruits, can make wonderful slaws, either in addition to cabbage or on their own. The only rule regarding what makes a vegetable or fruit a good slaw candidate is that it should hold up well once it’s tossed in its dressing; slaws are meant to last a while, which is why they’re great picnic food. For a refreshingly different kind of slaw, try our Apple & Fennel Slaw.

Dress your slaw, and then let it sit

The dressing, which can be a simple mix of oil and vinegar or made creamy with the addition of mayonnaise, sour cream, buttermilk, or yogurt, holds the slaw together, giving it flavor and character.

Vinegar is a traditional dressing ingredient for slaw. Aside from adding its own sharp flavor, the acid in the vinegar softens the vegetables, allowing the other seasonings in the dish to permeate them.

The best flavor emerges over time. If you’re in a hurry for a side dish, you can toss a slaw together and serve it right away. But if you have the time, allow the slaw to marinate in the dressing. The vegetables will become a little softer and the flavors deeper.

Improvise a slew of slaws

We’re always making up different slaw combinations—fennel and tangerines one season, artichokes and turnips another. We even feature a slaw-like appetizer made with shredded ­apples, and jícama, tossed in a tangy buttermilk dressing and finished with smoked trout. What does this mean to you? It means you should have fun and experiment with slaw using your own favorite flavors. Here’s how:

1. Choose your vegetables. While there are countless rec­ipes for cole slaws fea­tur­ing cabbage, there are also infinite ways to make slaw without it. We often use crisp, tart apples in slaws; they’re great with cabbage, as well as with jícama, carrots, and fen­nel. Other good slaw can­di­dates include onions, peppers, pears, celery, radishes, string beans, snap peas, and very thinly sliced root vegetables.

2. Consider other flavorful additions. Cured or smoked meat or fish, sections of citrus or pineapple, nuts, raisins, and other dried fruit can add flavor and texture to your slaw.

3. Toss in a dressing. The dressing can be as simple as a lemon juice and olive oil vin­ai­grette or a more involved butter­­milk or mayonnaise-style dressing. Try some of your favorite salad dressings.

4. Season with herbs and spices. Spices, such as caraway seed, celery seed, mustard seed,  and poppy seed, and fresh herbs, such as parsley, chives, mint, dill, and tarragon, can all add pizzazz to a slaw. And don’t forget ample salt and freshly ground pepper.

Photos: Steve Hunter

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