As I was wandering the internet the other day, I saw a horrific thing, a scandalous thing, a thing that shocked me to the core. I won’t post it here, but I’ll describe it. On a white featureless background sat a perfectly innocuous dish of coleslaw. Above the dish, in bold black letters, was written “How to eat coleslaw,” and below the heinous sentiment: “throw it in the trash.”
To quote the Dude, this aggression will not stand, man.
Because here’s the thing: coleslaw is perfection on a plate. Sweet, fresh green cabbage. Tangy dressing. Some other vegetables thrown in for color and flavor if you feel like it, or classically pure. As a side, on a bun, whatever; it’s one of the best, easiest salads there is. Now to be sure, there are lackluster coleslaws: watery and bland, old and sodden, agèd and bitter. It happens. But you don’t hear people throwing out hamburgers just because some fast food patties are indistinguishable from coasters, do you? (You do not.)
A good classic coleslaw is well-balanced, riding the line between tangy and sweet. Many recipes do this by combining mayonnaise with vinegar and sugar, and that can be great, but my personal favorite tack is to use mustard as the souring agent. Not only does it bring an acidic tinge into the mix, it also gives the slaw a yellowy glow that pulls you in and says “Eat me! I’m delicious!” I go a step further by mashing a clove of garlic into a paste so that the dressing has both a mild mustard heat and a mild garlicky kick. It’s nothing that will scare a dinner guest, but it’s enough to add another layer of excitement to one of summer’s greatest foods.
Bring this slaw to a picnic and you’ll turn some heads, I guarantee. But it goes well other places, too. Try it on a sandwich. Eat a big bowl greedily and then claim to your family that you never made any coleslaw, ever. Even go my favorite route (which is admittedly an outlier) and have some on a bowl of warm rice with spicy Chinese pickles. But whatever you do: don’t throw it in the trash.
Classic mustard coleslaw
To me, there’s really nothing that’s as perfectly satisfying as a solid, classic coleslaw. I like to make mine with mustard instead of vinegar; it brings a very mild mustard heat to the dish, as well as an eye-catching color. Add in some carrots and scallions and a clove of mashed garlic, and you’ve got a party.
8 c shredded green cabbage, from 1 small cabbage or half of a medium cabbage
1 c grated carrot, from 2 large, peeled carrots
3 scallions, sliced into thin rounds
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 clove garlic
1/3 c mayonnaise
2 Tbsp prepared yellow mustard
1 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp sugar
Combine the cabbage, carrots, and scallions in a large bowl; set aside.
Work the garlic and salt into a paste. There are two common ways to do this: First, you can use a mortar and pestle, if you have one around. Second, you can use a chef’s knife (and this is so fast that I do it this way even though I have a mortar). Basically you mince the garlic, then use the back of the knife to smear it along the cutting board until it breaks down. Watch Jacques Pépin do it; it’s hard to describe but easy to do.
Combine the salted garlic paste with the remaining ingredients in a small bowl, and whisk to combine. Pour the dressing over the cabbage mixture, toss, and serve.
I often like a bit of something spicy in my coleslaws, whether it’s a few dashes of hot sauce, a dollop of chile paste, or a finely minced hot pepper. Go easy, and think about serving time: especially with minced hot peppers, the heat starts very concentrated in the little nubbins of chile, and over time permeates the whole bowl. If you taste it right off the bat and it seems too mild, you may end up making a bowl of fire if you add more.
On a related note, service: common wisdom with coleslaw (and, really, any dressed salad) is to serve immediately, lest it wilt. Which is fair, I guess, but cabbage really will stay crunchy for a long time: I never worry about it. It can hold a few hours without any discernable loss of texture, and even after a couple days it’ll be softer, but still good.