The miracle of cole slaw

The classic L’il Abner comic strip had a recurring character called the Schmoo. To quote Wikipedia, “Shmoos are delicious to eat, and are eager to be eaten. If a human looks at one hungrily, it will happily immolate itself—either by jumping into a frying pan, after which they taste like chicken, or into a broiling pan, after which they taste like steak. When roasted they taste like pork, and when baked they taste like catfish. (Raw, they taste like oysters on the half-shell.)”

Shmoos are imaginary, but cabbage is almost as good and it’s real.

Here is a vegetable that is cheap, available everywhere year round, and prevents cancer. What more could you want, for God’s sake? You don’t even have to wash it; just peel away the top layer and you’re good to go.

Cabbage can be sautéed as a satisfying side dish; it can be made into sauerkraut; the leaves can be steamed and filled with any number of things. Burnt My Fingers will examine all these preparations in due time. But the noblest preparation of cabbage by far is cole slaw, and that is why I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to make my slaw the best it can be.

I have three standard preps: sour slaw, creamy slaw and vinegar slaw. Follow my recipes and you will have an easy, refreshing and reliable side dish that’s especially well suited for BBQ, fish and deli sandwiches. But add your own tweaks and you will be amazed at how minor modifications make a major flavor difference.

The first thing to remember about cole slaw is that it contains cabbage juice: an earthy essence that will be released at a time of your choosing. For sour slaw, we sweat out the juice and then discard it so the other ingredients can shine through. For other preps, the cabbage juice leaches out into the dressing so it becomes noticeably more liquid and flavorful an hour or two after it’s made. This is why I say you should never taste-correct your slaw in less than 1 ½ hours after preparation and certainly should not serve sooner than that.

Similarly, the way you cut your cabbage can make a huge difference. Coarse chopping, shredding or slicing each yields a very different texture and I believe these different textures make a difference in the way the slaw tastes: the larger the morsels are, the more they will taste of cabbage vs. dressing.

I don’t want to close this post on a negative note but there is one more thing I want to mention about cole slaw: the tendency of certain establishments (usually fast food places) to serve their slaw in an approximately 1/4 cup measure that’s akin to the specimen cup you might find at the medical lab. These establishments regard their menu as a set of abstract commodities rather than food, and they equate cole slaw with condiments like catsup or cocktail sauce or tartar sauce, which can fit easily in these small containers. But don’t stand for it. Next time you are offered one of these cups, look your server in the eye and tell them you expect a full serving of cole slaw, then hold up the line until the problem is solved. If enough of us do this, soon there will be abundant cole slaw for all.

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