It seemed like our hot summer kitchen actually got cooler when my mom made coleslaw. She conjured it completely from scratch, starting with the scrubbed carrots and a head of pale, crunchy cabbage and finishing with a sweet, creamy milk dressing she shook up in a jar.
Her aim, texturally at least, was a little different than most slaw makers. Rather than thick shreds and strands of veggies, she blended up the carrots, cabbage and a little onion to a very fine confetti in her old blender, then strained out the excess liquid through a fine-mesh sieve.
The dressing was something she threw together, without measure. Milk or cream, some mayo, salt and pepper, a little apple cider vinegar, sugar and that essentially key ingredient, celery seed.
The end result was something snowy and edible with a spoon; delicate, but still mound-able, crunchy and flavorful, sweet and slightly spicy.
It was a cool, fresh bite that complemented whatever else was on the plate, whether it be hot fried chicken, mashed potatoes and steaming green beans or a hamburger or hot dog and fresh-from-the-oven baked beans.
But what coleslaw has always paired with best is summer, an easy, make-ahead chilled salad that requires no cooking and that almost always gets better the longer it sits.
The term “coleslaw” comes from the Dutch “koelsla,” combining the words for “cabbage” and “salad,” according to “The Oxford Companion to Food” by Alan Davidson (Oxford University Press; 1999). Over the years, a misunderstanding of the term led it to be sometimes referred to as “cold slaw,” which one can find on recipe titles in many older cookbooks.
In recent years, the shortened “slaw” has been the name covering not only the traditional creamy cabbage version of the salad, but a host of other variations made up of anything and everything other than cabbage. If you are looking to play it cool in the kitchen and expand your slaw repertoire, there are endless colorful and crunchy options and ideas to consider.
For the salad ingredients, look beyond cabbage: Cabbage, of course, has been the king of any slaw, with its sweet flavor and substantial crunch holding up to any duration of dressing, but with so many veggies (and fruits) out there, why not make slaw out of carrots, celery, broccoli, zucchini, apple or kale? Add flavor and texture elements, such as green onion and chive, sweet snap peas and red onion and red pepper. You can even add nuts or seeds — sunflower, almonds, cashews, pecans — to bring some rich crunch to your slaw.
For convenience, buy pre-shredded mixes: Sure, you can break out your grater, blender or food processor, cut up heads of cabbage and other vegetables and shred away, or you can peruse the bagged salad section of your grocery store and see what’s available for a shortcut. You might find shredded cabbage, grated carrots, broccoli slaw mixtures and spiral strands of zucchini or butternut squash to consider for your slaw. Another time saver? Make the dressing up to two days ahead and keep it in a jar in the refrigerator.
For the dressing, think outside the mayo: Creamy dressings define what we know as coleslaw, but it doesn’t have to be the only way. Try something tangier, with a mustard base, or go vinaigrette (red or white wine/balsamic) for something saucy — and less precarious in warm temps — for a light, yet flavorful slaw. An Asian take on dressing with ginger, garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil brings something unique and appealing to a slaw. Even a squeeze of lemon or orange to a slaw vinaigrette adds bright, fresh flavor.
One coleslaw conundrum: Slaw actually gets better the longer it sits, as all the flavors of the ingredients and dressing marry, and the cabbage and other ingredients soften slightly. But the flip side of that is watery or soggy slaw. Since salt draws the water out of cabbage and other vegetables, one tip is to salt the veggies first and allow them to drain in a sieve or colander for an hour or two to draw out excess liquid before dressing the slaw.
Think about slaw as a topper: Rather than a standalone salad, slaw, providing that desirable cold-meeting-hot sensation, is a great topping for hot dogs or hamburgers and also lends flavorful crunch to tacos, fried fish, barbecue chicken or pulled pork sandwiches.Confetti Coleslaw with Creamy Buttermilk Dressing Carrot Slaw with Tangy Mustard BBQ-Spice Dressing Asian Broccoli Slaw with Ginger-Sesame Dressing