Cool Slaw

Crisp summer salad has many variations

July 28, 1999|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

Summer is the prime season for coleslaw, a deceptively simple dish that has almost as many incarnations as there are cooks to prepare it.

There's slaw with scallions, slaw with hot peppers, slaw with bell peppers, slaw with crab meat and slaw with citrus zest -- and those are just a few of the variations. Coleslaw recipes pop up around the world -- from Baltimore to Latin America and from France to Russia.

It seems almost every culture has a version of this crispy dish, probably because cabbage -- the traditional ingredient -- is among the oldest foods cultivated by mankind. It keeps well, and it can be found in virtually every climate.

"Cabbage grows everywhere, and it's cheap," says Steven Raichlen, the Miami-based author of "The Barbecue Bible" (Workman, 1998, $18.95 paperback) and "Healthy Latin Cooking" (Rodale, 1998, $29.95).

Cabbage is a humble member of the brassica family, which includes broccoli, cauliflower, mustard, radishes and turnips. It can be cooked for dishes like sauerkraut or stuffed cabbage. Or it can be used raw, as in coleslaw and other salads.

Slaw, in particular, seems to have universal appeal. "It's cold. So it's nice to serve with hot food," Raichlen says. "It's refreshing."

That makes it "pretty constant" along the world's barbecue trail, he says.

Food scientist and cookbook author Shirley Corriher of Atlanta says many people are attracted to coleslaw because of its texture. "It's so crisp and fresh," she says.

Everyone seems to have a favorite variation.

"People love our coleslaw," says Rose Cernak of family-owned Obrycki's restaurant in Fells Point. "We've always made our own. A lot of slaw is too sweet for me, and a lot of it is too watery."

To avoid sogginess, the restaurant salts the cabbage, then lets it sit before draining it well. "The most important thing is doing the cabbage separately," Cernak says.

Coleslaw dressings are divided into two camps: mayonnaise-based or vinegar-based.

Raichlen says mayonnaise-based dressings are unheard of in Europe. "The only place you find mayo-based coleslaw is in North America," he says. And even here, "creamy coleslaw is more of a Southern tradition."

The T. Marzetti Co. of Columbus, Ohio, which makes a creamy slaw dressing, concurs. In terms of consumption, creamy dressing sales follow a curving line from Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky to Georgia and the Carolinas, says Schrade Radtke, senior marketing manager.

He says the company's dressing, which is based on an 1896 recipe by Theresa Marzetti of Columbus, Ohio, sells all year long, but sales spike at Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day -- "the peak picnic holidays."

Raichlen says the first American recipe for coleslaw appeared in "American Cookery" by Amelia Simmons, which was published in 1796. It was one of the first cookbooks written for women for domestic use.

"What made the book remarkable," Raichlen says, "is that [the author] included recipes for things like cookies and coleslaw -- which shows there was a developing American cuisine."

But the words we use for coleslaw have a Dutch origin: kool (cabbage) and sla (salad). Dutch immigrants brought the dish to the American Coloniees around 1627, according to "The Good Housekeeping Step-by-Step Cookbook," edited by Susan Westmoreland (Hearst Books, 1997, $30).

The book has tips for slicing cabbage and other vegetables. It advises using a stainless-steel knife to avoid discoloring vegetables and not slicing vegetables until they are needed to avoid a loss of vitamin C.

If you must shred in advance, the books says, tightly seal the shredded vegetables in a plastic bag and keep them in the refrigerator. Also, to shred vegetables, you can use the coarse side of a grater, an adjustable blade slicer (called a mandoline) or a food processor with the shredding disk.

Although almost all slaw recipes call for cabbage, it isn't required. Some people use apples, broccoli or brussels sprouts. Also, coleslaw dressing can be used in other dishes, such as chicken salad and potato salad, Radtke says.

In addition to being paired with barbecue meats, slaw also works well with fish. New York chef and restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten of Jean Georges, Vong and Jojo likes to use his version of slaw as an accompaniment to grilled tuna or swordfish.

But no matter how it is served, Radtke says, "It's a summer standard."

Obrycki's Coleslaw

Serves 8

1 1/2 pounds cabbage, finely shredded

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup white vinegar

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 tablespoon minced onion

1/4 cup grated carrots

Combine cabbage and salt; let sit for 1 hour. Squeeze out the liquid. Combine with all remaining ingredients and chill before serving.

Central American Slaw

Serves 8

4 cups green cabbage, thinly shredded

2 carrots, shredded

2-4 jalapeno peppers, minced (see note)

4-5 tablespoons white vinegar

1 tablespoon salt, plus more if desired

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

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