Coleslaw, as we know it, is an odd, slightly deviant dish. Historically, it is based on cabbage, and the name is said to originate with the Dutch koolsa, or “cabbage salad.” First adopted by Americans during the Dutch era of early New York, it’s still a cabbage salad, but its current use denies the seasonal connection we often have with traditional dishes. Cabbage is a vegetable of cool fall weather and even cold winter weather, because it keeps very well in cold storage. But modern coleslaw is the salad of summer barbecues, fish fries and picnics — maybe because it doesn’t wilt in the heat, and travels well.
A typical coleslaw might be made up of shredded green cabbage, a little sliced carrot, celery seed, onion and vinegar — plus gobs of mayonnaise and sugar. Recently I got to thinking about how it could be improved. I started with the idea that other cole crops might be used besides cabbage.
It is a family that also contains mustard greens, broccoli, turnips, kale, collards, arugula, Brussels sprouts and most Asian vegetables. Most are derived from a wild maritime cabbage of northern Europe that looks like a somewhat scraggly collard. The name cole is from caulis, the Latin word for stem. I’ll buy that. Ground-hugging ball cabbages might not be stemmy at all, but I once grew some heirloom collards that outstripped my 5-foot-3 self.
This week there was one little red cabbage left in our root cellar, but a cole crop prowl led me to some beautiful, tender, young baby bok choi plants in our unheated greenhouse, and to some Tuscan kale. I thought the dark red cabbage, light green bok choi and deep blue-green kale would make a bright montage, and that the softer texture of the bok choi and kale would temper the cabbage’s hearty crunch. I sliced them all as thinly as possible and mixed them in a bowl. I enjoy mayonnaise as much as the next person, but I don’t like the way it masks the colors in a salad, so I made a runnier dressing of half mayo and half vinaigrette, in which I’d steeped a bit of finely chopped onion.
I drew the line at the cupful of sugar you often find in coleslaw recipes, but I wanted just a little sweetness, so I tossed in a handful of dried cranberries, the kind that come pre-sweetened with concentrated fruit juice. (Raisins would have been good, too.) The result partnered well with roast chicken and potatoes, for a hearty midday farm meal.
Often a dish that’s become a cliche needs a new direction, and I’m certainly not the first cook to give coleslaw a redesign. But for me, that means starting with ingredients inspired by the season rather than a mind-set in which anything goes. I try to avoid what I call Hawaiin pizza syndrome. Contrary to what you might think, crushed pineapple does not go with everything.
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Tomato seedlings can still be started for transplanting out in May. Tomato vines should not be planted until the threat of frost is long past and the spring soil has warmed up. April is a good month to acquire stakes and cages for the tomato season, but wait until May to plant them. — Adrian Higgins