We tend to think of coleslaw as a summer picnic dish, but the truth is, cabbages and carrots are best when the weather is nice and cool, like it has been this winter.
In grocery stores, both are inexpensive no matter what time of year you buy them, but local organic carrots are exceptionally crisp and sweet right now and come in a rainbow of colors.
In fact, the first winter slaw I made this year was all carrots and no cabbage. Tossed with a few thinly sliced red onions and a stark olive oil-and-vinegar dressing, the carrot slaw added a perfect crunch to a taco that I made from – I kid you not – leftover fish sticks from my kids’ lunch one weekend afternoon.
That carrot slaw revived the years-long conversation I’ve been having with anyone who will listen about the nuanced differences between a salad and a slaw. Sometimes, the line is so thin, I can’t tell them apart myself.
Some will say that using a leafy lettuce or spinach is the primary difference, but not all lettuce-free salads, like one made with tuna, potato or pasta, are slaws.
Thin, uniformly cut and dressed slices are a key indicator of a slaw, which is also why they can take a little more time to put together than a salad, which can be comprised of chunky, roughly chopped ingredients and dressed at the end.
And this brings us to cabbage. Red, green, napa, savory or any other branch off the Brassica tree, including Brussels sprouts and broccoli, are ideal for standing up to tangy, vinegar-based dressings. Just how sweet and creamy said dressing has to be is entirely up to you, and some of us prefer oil-and-vinegar slaw over the mayonnaise-laden ones found at fast-food restaurants and in the prepared food aisle of the grocery store.
The best part about making slaws at home is that you can suit your tastes, which means if you’re not a fan of mayonnaise, you can still make a creamy slaw with Greek yogurt or sour cream. Don’t like cabbage at all? Experiment with other hearty vegetables, such as radishes, broccoli (including the stalks), fennel or Brussels sprouts or even something totally unexpected, like endive.
The addition of fruit and nuts to any savory dish can polarize a crowd, but apples, pears, bell peppers, dried fruit and/or toasted nuts can really brighten up an otherwise too monotonous side dish.
A few additional tips on making your slaw spectacular:
Start with a sharp knife. It’s good to have your knives sharpened by a professional at least once a year. Don’t learn the lesson the hard way while trying to chop carrots into matchsticks.
If you have one, put your food processor or mandoline to work to thinly slice or shred the ingredients.
For the dressing, start with a ratio of one part oil to one part vinegar and let your tongue be your guide on additional salt, sugar, fat, tang or even spice, like ginger or chili paste.
Don’t dress your slaw if you aren’t going to eat it within the next few hours. Once coated in vinegar and oil, the ingredients will start to lose their crunch. That doesn’t mean you can’t eat leftover slaw; it will just be less of a star on the plate and more of a condiment as it breaks down.
Some people will insist on salting and then rinsing cabbage to let it release some of the liquid before proceeding with a recipe, but I’ve found that to be an unnecessary step. Rinsing the cabbage introduces so much extra water that even after blotting with a towel, it seems to defeat the purpose. Besides, I like my cabbage with a little extra crunch.
Slaws aren’t just for picnics! No matter what kinds of vegetables you make them with, slaws are a healthy accompaniment to so many lunches and dinners, and some are even hearty enough to stand on their own as a light lunch. You can make a big batch on a Sunday and then eat it with roast beef or pork for dinner, on tacos or sausage rolls the next night and on top of a quesadilla on Day 3.