There have been way too many Fourth of July gatherings where the coleslaw has been limp, soupy and utterly ignored. So often it is picked up at the grocery store deli at the last minute, a big mess of dressing with bits of cabbage shrapnel folded in.
No wonder it's the last food standing on the buffet table.
It doesn't have to be that way, especially if you make a bowl of slaw yourself with fresh ingredients, including summer's best fruit. The trick is to make it at the last minute so there's still plenty of crunch in the cabbage and the fruit hasn't released all of its juices and turned the melange into a cold soup.
Besides sturdy pineapple and apple chunks, consider mango, grapes, papaya and pitted cherries. Even dried fruits — raisins, cherries and cranberries — are a good addition. Fruit adds sweetness and flavor, plus just the right amount of pizzazz for a party dish. These particular fruits play nicely with other flavors, including puckery vinegar, creamy mayonnaise, earthy nuts and even tangy cheeses and, of course, the sturdy cabbage.
Coleslaw lends itself to endless regional tinkering. Add shredded chicken and barbecue sauce and make it Southern. Creole mustard in the dressing gives it a Cajun accent. Go Asian with sesame dressing, fresh shredded ginger and peanuts.
Like America itself, coleslaw is an immigrant's story. The Dutch who settled in New York grew cabbage in the Hudson River Valley and by the late 1700s had started making cabbage salad. The name itself reveals its Dutch roots, kool meaning cabbage and sla translating to salad. Cabbage had been eaten in ancient times in places around the world, but cabbage salad as we know it today wasn't born until mayonnaise came along, also in the 1700s.
Today, making coleslaw couldn't be much more convenient because of the availability of shredded cabbage mixes. Use them in a pinch if you must, but you'll get more flavor and crunch if you shred or thinly slice the vegetable yourself.
I've never been a fan of Carrot-Pineapple Slaw — must be bad memories from my school lunchroom days — until I tested the recipe for this story. I shredded the carrots on a handheld grater, which was a chore. I've got a food processor but chose to work out some aggressions by doing it by hand. It also tested my reflexes and attention. Watch those knuckles as you get close to the grater blades.
The sweetness of the carrots shines through in a way I'd never noticed before. I imagine it next to barbecued chicken, the sweetness playing nicely with warm, tomato-y sauce. An earthy portobello burger would also be a fine accompaniment, too.
You'll like the results even more if you whisk the sauce together yourself, rather than relying on something from a bottle. Use fresh lemon juice and plump raisins. The ingredients make all the different in this one.
Grape-Goat Cheese Slaw brings yet another spin to traditional coleslaw. Honey, which often accompanies goat and blue cheese on a platter, makes an appearance in the dressing, its sweetness seamlessly adding depth. The recipe calls for Napa cabbage, the curly, lacy counterpart to green cabbage.
I like this slaw because the dressing is olive oil based, which means there's less chance for it to go bad as it sits on the potluck table. The cabbage is roughly chopped and stays quite crunchy.
I am lucky to have several mango trees in my yard and they are quite productive this summer. To make Mango Slaw With Cashews and Mint, I need to get to them, however, before they get overripe. For this recipe, you'll want to select firm mangoes that yield slightly to the touch without feeling mushy. An overripe mango will fall apart in the salad and produce lots of unwanted liquid.
Like the Grape-Goat Cheese Slaw, it's best to mix this mango salad just before serving, stirring in the freshly sliced mint at the end. This is another slaw without mayonnaise and it has very little oil so the fat content is greatly reduced.
All slaws, and especially those with fruit, become wetter as the produce releases its juices. Resist the urge to pour on more dressing because the salad looks dry. Give it 15 minutes, stir and you'll find you've got plenty of liquid to coat the ingredients.
Remember, you want your slaw to be a star this year.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.