Coleslaw and variations grace July 4 buffets

  • By Karol V. Menzie / The Baltimore Sun
  • Tuesday, June 29, 2004 9:00pm
  • Life

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. And it seems there always at least one version on the menu for the Fourth of July.

It seems almost every culture has a version of this crispy dish, probably because cabbage, the traditional main 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,” said Steven Raichlen, the Miami-based author of “The Barbecue Bible” and “Healthy Latin Cooking.”

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 said. “It’s refreshing.”

That makes it “pretty constant” along the world’s barbecue trail, he said.

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 said.

Everyone seems to have a favorite.

“People love our coleslaw,” said Rose Cernak of family-owned Obrycki’s restaurant in Fells Point, Md. “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 said.

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

Raichlen said mayonnaise-based dressings are unheard of in Europe.

“The only place you find mayo-based coleslaw is in North America,” he said. And even here, “creamy coleslaw is more of a Southern tradition.”

Raichlen said 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 said, “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 America about 1627, according to “The Good Housekeeping Step-by-Step Cookbook” edited by Susan Westmoreland.

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 said.

In addition to being paired with barbecue meats, slaw also works well with fish. Famed 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 said, “It’s a summer standard.”

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