It's lunchtime, and I'm standing in front of a delicatessen showcase eyeballing an assortment of cold salads, wondering which would best complement my pork-barbecue sandwich. Coleslaw, of course. But I pass.
The slaw looked tired and unappealing - teeny bits of limp green cabbage drowning in a creamy dressing. I couldn't help but think Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps could cut a respectable backstroke through the stuff.
One word describes that kind of coleslaw: passe.
Crunchy coleslaw bursting with new and exotic flavors is replacing the kind served in little white paper cups, alongside fried seafood platters and packed in plastic containers at the grocery store.
Coleslaw has embraced the concept of diversity via the taste buds. Caribbean, Asian, Southwestern, Mediterranean and Hawaiian-themed slaws are as likely to show up at neighborhood cookouts, office gatherings and potlucks as a package of hot dogs or Jell-O salad.
Think lime juice, cumin, cilantro, jalapenos and jicama for a south-of-the-border slaw. Capture the Orient with sesame oil, ginger or five-spice powder and replace the green cabbage with a Chinese, napa or savoy variety. Create an island atmosphere with a coconut-laced coleslaw studded with maraschino cherries and pineapple.
Cabbage - the foundation of coleslaw - tends to be like tofu. It takes on whatever flavor you throw its way.
"Coleslaw is a great carrier for flavor, and a way to highlight a new flavor," says Laurie Harrsen, director of public relations at McCormick & Co. in Hunt Valley. Because the basic ingredients in coleslaw do not have much taste to begin with, the salad is a natural dish for experimentation, she adds.
Test kitchens at McCormick have devised some interesting spinoffs of the classic: Old Bay Coleslaw, Wasabi Slaw and Sweet and Sassy Vanilla Slaw are a few.
Coleslaw - not coldslaw as some mistakenly call it - comes from the Dutch name kool sla, which means cabbage salad. It was brought to the American Colonies by the Dutch, who could never envision the smorgasbord of different slaws circulating today.
But cabbage is the backbone of any coleslaw recipe. Inexpensive and packed with fiber and vitamin C, it should be shredded, chopped or rough chopped into varying sizes - not teeny pieces like the deli slaw that sent me running. Crunchy is the desired texture. Don't shy away from tossing in red cabbage for color or using napa or savoy cabbage in your recipe.
Other vegetables or fruit, spices and a dressing - usually based on a mayonnaise mixture or tangy vinaigrette - finish the dish. This is where your mix-and-match possibilities come into play. Once, I tossed coleslaw with a Key West spice blend. Another time, I sneaked fresh horseradish into the dressing. A roadside smokehouse in North Carolina I visited added a shot of barbecue sauce to flavor its popular cabbage side dish.
Maryland celebrates its regional coleslaw personality by adding a few teaspoons of Old Bay seasoning to the mix. The recipe is a favorite on McCormick's Web site. Cooks in Chesapeake country are known to sprinkle the seasoning on top of their coleslaw before bringing it to the table.
"There are now so many different ways to make coleslaw ... Cajun, New England, which is pretty bland, and Chesapeake Bay or Eastern Shore - all depending on the region and the spices you want to put in it," said chef Rudolf Karson, an instructor at the Bay Atlantic Club in Baltimore.
When Karson was a youngster, he learned to make an outstanding regional slaw from a fleet of Eastern Shore cooks who worked at his parents' Baltimore restaurant, Karson's Inn. "I've had to make some coleslaw in my day," he said.
When it comes to his coleslaw, Karson is a traditionalist. He likes the dish simple and always with a dash of celery seed, a widely used slaw ingredient in this region. But as a chef, he also understands the public's desire for new taste sensations and the ever-changing food trends that guide them.
"People are trying to put their own style into it, and your spice companies have made a contribution to this," he said. "Look at the racks and you will see all these blends of new products that like the cabbage."
While coleslaw is an easy dish to prepare, chef Rudolf Karson provided a few important tips to keep in mind:
Cabbage is neutral and takes on most flavors as long as the correct combinations are used.
The first seasoning is what the cabbage absorbs. If you want a sweet coleslaw, add the sugar first.
Always try to color your coleslaw with freshly chopped parsley, red cabbage, carrot or green pepper.
Store coleslaw in a stainless-steel or Plexiglas container. Do not put the mixture in aluminum because it will take on a metallic taste.
Coleslaw lasts a week in the refrigerator.
Coleslaw With Apples, Roquefort and Sherry-Walnut Vinaigrette
Makes 8 to 10 servings
1/2 cup walnut oil
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1 small head green cabbage (2 1/2 pounds), cored and thinly sliced (8 packed cups)