Coleslaw confused me as a child. The soggy pile of shredded cabbage and carrots sitting in a puddle of watery, too-sweet dressing was hardly appealing. Next to the potato salad and macaroni salad (which had certainly been touched by the hands of a grandma or auntie), coleslaw seemed more of an afterthought at the cookout — something someone picked up from the grocery store in lieu of cooking a side dish. A table filler, as I liked to call it, right next to the sad platter of baby carrots and celery. Begrudgingly, I ate my coleslaw, at least until I was old enough to exercise my American right to not add it to my plate at all.
Food historians know ancient Romans ate shredded cabbage salads dressed with vinegar, eggs and spices — perhaps the earliest nod to the eventual inclusion of mayonnaise, which was not invented until the 18th century. While slaws can be found all over the world, it is Dutch settlers who brought cabbage to the New World and first developed the coleslaw Americans grew to love. The Dutch coined “koolsla” as a literal translation for cabbage salad. In “Travels in North America; The English Version of 1770,” Peter Kalm writes about “an unusual salad,” which “tastes better than one can imagine … cabbage … cut in long thin strips dressed with oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper, well mixed to evenly distribute the oil.”
Today in the United States, there are as many varieties of slaw as there are salad dressings, with some distinct regional differences. In Lexington, N.C., cabbage is tossed in a spicy red vinaigrette made with ketchup. Yellow mustard is popular in slaws made in South Carolina and Alabama. In other parts of the South, mayo-based dressings sometimes incorporate buttermilk. And then, there are differences in the way the cabbage is cut, with some folks preferring classic shreds while others demand a rough chop. You are certain to see coleslaw offered at fried chicken restaurants or piled on dishes from hot dogs to corned beef sandwiches. But in my experience, slaw really gets to shine alongside barbecue.
It was not until I became a food blogger and needed to develop recipes for summer’s grilling season that I revisited coleslaw. By then I had also cut out most processed food from my diet, so store-bought dressings and deli sides gave way to homemade vinaigrettes and freshly shredded cabbage. Sometimes I incorporated slivers of julienned apples and shaved fennel, and at times I replaced the cabbage entirely with kale, collards, broccoli or even Brussels sprouts. These slaws — technically, you can still call them coleslaw because “cole” refers to the whole family of brassicas — changed the way I felt about an oft-overlooked side dish. As a curious home cook with a growing appreciation for the necessity of acidity on the plate, the lightbulb had finally turned on.
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I hadn’t discovered anything new, of course. Acidity, or sourness, can create the sensation of cutting through fat while balancing sweet and salty flavors. As Samin Nosrat writes in “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat,” acid “grants the palate relief, and makes food more appealing by offering contrast.” We tend to eat a lot of fattier meats off the grill at cookouts, often basted in sweet sauces. By the time you add bread, chips and heavy sides such as potato salad or macaroni and cheese, you’ve got a plate that is screaming for acid. Enter a properly made slaw, with its vinegary dressing and crisp, cool crunch. Whether served on the side or used as a barbecue sandwich topping, slaw is the unsung hero of cookout season. Forkfuls of slaw in between bites of meat not only balance those other rich flavors but also can make them taste better. Without acid, our palates would not be able to appreciate the nuances of smoke, fat and spices that make grilled meats so delectable.
While the convenience of picking up a ready-made container of coleslaw from the store is alluring, a homemade version is simple to put together — and you can easily make it your own by customizing the ingredients to your taste.
Any variety of cabbage will do, but I’ve found that regular green cabbage stays crisp the longest and is the most economical choice. If the thought of shredding slivers of cabbage by hand with a chef’s knife stresses you out, grab a mandoline — you can also use it for razor-thin slices of onion, carrot or any other veggies you decide to incorporate. Salt all the vegetables before tossing everything with your dressing of choice.
As for the dressing, don’t overthink it, and don’t use too much of it, as the cabbage will release moisture the longer it sits. Equal parts neutral cooking oil and vinegar, whisked with a dollop of Dijon, goes a long way, though you can adjust those proportions to your liking. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and add a pinch of celery seeds if you’re feeling fancy. Ordinarily I sing the praises of all things involving mayonnaise, but I’m partial to vinaigrettes in the summer because so many other mayo-based side dishes tend to end up on the cookout table. That said, you can easily create a creamier dressing by thinning out mayo with vinegar or lemon juice, and then seasoning to taste. Sour cream and Greek yogurt are also fine additions to creamy slaws.
Slaw doesn’t have to be sweet unless you like it that way, but just a spoonful of sugar or honey in a dressing or vinaigrette can balance the bitterness of cabbage. Give the flavors 15 minutes or so to meld before serving, or chill in the fridge for a couple of hours before your event. My favorite recipe, which appears below, incorporates fennel for extra crunch and apple for natural sweetness, and is a perfect accompaniment to anything smoked or grilled.
Trust me: Nobody will consider it a table filler.
A great slaw is light and crisp with a dressing that’s tangy enough to cut through the richness of grilled and smoked meats. The addition of fennel and apples make this slaw particularly appropriate to serve alongside pork.
1 small green cabbage (about 1 pound), shredded (about 5 cups)
1 small fennel bulb, thinly shaved (about 1 cup), reserve the fronds for garnish
1 small red onion, thinly sliced (about 3/4 cup)
1 tart-crisp apple, such as Granny Smith or Honeycrisp, peeled, cored and julienned
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup neutral oil, such as grapeseed or canola
Juice of 1 lime (about 2 tablespoons)
2 teaspoons honey, or more to taste
1 teaspoon celery seed
1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1/2 cup loosely packed chopped fresh cilantro, mint, basil or a fresh tender herb of your choosing
In a large bowl, combine the cabbage, fennel, onion and apple. Season with the salt and toss to combine. (The cabbage may need more salt, so taste as you go.)
In a small bowl or jar, whisk together the vinegar, oil, lime juice, honey, celery seed and pepper. Taste, and sweeten with more honey, if desired, and season with a small pinch of salt. Slowly pour the vinaigrette over the slaw ingredients, using just enough to lightly coat all the cabbage. (You may have some left over.) Toss the slaw to evenly distribute the vinaigrette, then fold in the cilantro.
Sprinkle with reserved fennel fronds, if desired.
The slaw can be served right away, but is best after about 15 minutes of rest. The cabbage and onions will absorb the flavor of the dressing the longer the slaw sits.
From Detroit-based digital cookbook author and private chef Angela Davis, who writes about her recipes at The Kitchenista Diaries.
Tested by Ann Maloney; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Calories: 73; Total Fat: 5 g; Saturated Fat: 0 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 135 mg; Carbohydrates: 7 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugars: 5 g; Protein: 0 g.