While mapping out menus during a weeklong lake retreat many summers ago, a chef friend and I had no trouble keeping things amicable until the subject of slaw preparation came up. I liked it creamy; she was all about the vinegar and hold the mayo, thank you very much.
After some heated discussion, I gave in and admitted later that her version -- shredded red cabbage and carrots dressed with rice wine vinegar, cilantro, jalapeno pepper, scallions and sesame oil -- was quite tasty. I have since changed camps.
That scene came to mind a couple of months ago when someone suggested I try the Singapore Slaw at chef Susur Lee's Zentan restaurant in Washington.
"It's got 19 ingredients in it," the server gushed, promising that my companion and I would love it. I found the price offputting: $16 for a starter. But we got the slaw anyway, intending to eat just a few bites because we had ordered so much other food.
Out came a wide bowl piled high with ingredients. In the dimly lighted room, it was hard to make out what they all were. I noticed micro greens, colorful flowers, fried rice, noodles and what looked like shards of fried onions; shallots, in fact.
After the server poured salted-plum dressing over the stack, we identified cucumbers, carrots, jicama, daikon radish, ginger and toasted sesame seeds; matchsticks of fried taro root were less obvious. Toasted hazelnuts, something I ordinarily dislike, were prominent and strangely pleasant. The crunch, the sweetness and saltiness, the tart ting of the dressing and the sheer mass could have added up to overkill, but instead they blended into blissful harmony. Each bite yielded a different flavor combination, leading me to continue eating the dish long after I wanted to stop, until none remained.
There was no cabbage, the one ingredient most Americans associate with slaw. But a slaw is nothing more than a salad. The word coleslaw is derived from the Dutch "koolsla," meaning cabbage salad. Presumably, Dutch settlers introduced coleslaw to America in the 18th century.
Other standout variations include pitmaster Steve Adelson's North Carolina-style coleslaw. It's zesty, flavored with ketchup, brown sugar and crushed red pepper flakes. "It has a clean taste and no mayonnaise, so that makes it healthier," said Adelson, who serves the slaw alongside the North Carolina-style barbecue he sells at farmers' markets in suburban Maryland.
Now, about the work factor: Slawmaking involves a good deal of shredding and chopping. But a mandoline and a food processor with a shredding disk can lighten that workload considerably. On the plus side, especially in the heat of summer, none of these recipes requires much, if any, cooking.
Adelson, of Ole Smokey Barbecue, says this slaw recipe is simple, clean-tasting and healthful. The tang of the vinegar, the sweetness of the ketchup and brown sugar, the heat of the cayenne pepper and the slightly softened crunch of the shredded cabbage complement the flavors and texture of pulled pork. Adding the dressing while it is hot improves the texture of the slaw and speeds the marinating process, he says.
>North Carolina-Style Coleslaw
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup ketchup
1/4 cup light or dark brown sugar, or more to taste (may substitute molasses)
5 teaspoons salt, or more to taste
3 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes, or more to taste
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1 large head (about 2 pounds) green cabbage (loose or discolored outer leaves removed), cored and shredded (about 8 cups; may substitute red cabbage)
Combine the vinegar, water, ketchup, brown sugar, salt and peppers in a medium nonreactive saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar and ketchup are thoroughly incorporated. Reduce the heat to medium or medium-low and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally; do not let the mixture come to a boil. Transfer to a heatproof container. The yield is a scant 3 cups.
Place the shredded cabbage in a large, nonreactive bowl. Pour 1 cup of the warm dressing over the cabbage and mix to coat thoroughly.
Let the slaw cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate it for several hours or overnight. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Per serving: 45 calories, 2 g protein, 10 g carbohydrates, 560 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar.
>Travis Timberlake's Fennel Slaw
1/4 cup unseasoned rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large bulbs fennel (cores, stalks and outer layers removed), cut into long, thin strips (julienne; about 2 cups)
1/2 small red onion, halved and cut into julienne ( 2/3 cup)
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into julienne (about 1/3 cup)
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped chervil
Whisk together the vinegars, sugar and oil in a large bowl until much of the sugar is dissolved. Add the fennel, red onion, carrot, parsley and chervil; mix well.
Cover and refrigerate for several hours before serving.Per serving: 140 calories, 0 g protein, 13 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, no cholesterol, 30 mg sodium, 2g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar.