According to Cook’s Illustrated, mayonnaise’s bad reputation is undeserved. You’re more likely to contract Bacillus cereus and Staphylococcus aureus from the soil and dust on unwashed produce.
Okay, Cook’s Illustrated, you’ve got me: I just don’t like coleslaw that much.
Coleslaw might be the least popular third of mayonnaise-based summertime salads’ holy trinity: potato, macaroni, cabbage. We like potatoes, we like pasta — but cabbage? Sure, it’s low in calories, high in vitamin C and anti-inflammatory glutamine, and has a proven power to heal peptic ulcers. But spend an hour in a diner watching burger platters fly back and forth and you’ll see a dozen dishes of coleslaw return to the kitchen untouched on otherwise empty plates.
But, having recently inherited some cabbages, I thought it time to give coleslaw another try. I emailed Liz, my first friend from college, a coleslaw connoisseur. She’s from New England, Land of the Lobster Bake, and lives in China, the world’s number-one producer of cabbage, with 36 million tons annually — over seven times its closest competitor, India. So she’s an expert twice over.
She writes, “Coleslaw is essential to most delicious summer foods, like pulled-pork sandwiches and lobster dinners (the cheap ones by the Maine coast where you eat at a picnic table). There are many secrets to good coleslaw. First of all is you must have an acid. Lemon juice is my favorite but white vinegar is also okay! The reason everybody thinks coleslaw sucks is because usually it’s just wilted cabbage drowning in mayonnaise, and it has no flavor. However, you can improve these insults to coleslaw by dumping lots of black pepper in.”
Liz’s tips for crisp, flavorful coleslaw are as follows:
1. Don’t dress the cabbage far in advance of serving. If you want to prepare the components the day before, keep the dressing separate.
2. To avoid sogginess, always put in less dressing than you think you need,.
3. Grate your own cabbage. (“However, buying shredded carrots in a bag is not a sin,” writes Liz.)
4. Liz’s husband, Dan, adds Miracle Whip. (Liz responds: “I actually thought Miracle Whip was just low-fat mayo, and I am surprised to learn it’s not. What is the miracle then?”)
Finally, her biggest secret: “As for the recipe, I just use the Hellmann’s website one, but I think I reduce the sugar and up everything else. But also I wrote it down in a notebook and told everyone it was my mom’s.”
I have no doubt that Liz is as inspirational to her students in China as she is to me.
I immediately headed to the kitchen to try my hand at coleslaw. Three slaws later, I have a few tips of my own:
1. Use a mandoline for uniform texture. Slice your cabbage by hand and you may have to affix “chunky” or “rustic” to your dish’s title.
2. No type of cabbage is necessarily superior. Green cabbage will give you a traditional slaw. Other good options are Savoy, Napa and red cabbage. Adding a handful of red shreds to any variety creates beautiful contrast.
3. Like red cabbage, carrots add contrast — as well as a welcome sweetness.
4. If you’d like to include celery seed, make sure you didn’t throw the once-used bottle out to make room in the spice drawer before you start assembling your slaw.
1 egg yolk
1/2 t. water
pinch of kosher salt
1 c. olive oil
1/2 t. apple cider vinegar (optional)
1 medium green cabbage
1 small red cabbage
1 small red onion
2 T. apple cider vinegar
salt & fresh-ground black pepper (to taste)
celery seed (optional)
Place egg yolk and water in a medium bowl; add pinch of salt. Using a whisk or hand mixer with whisk attachment, beat on low speed until incorporated. Add olive oil in a very slow, steady stream, while continuing to beat. Mixture will become viscous. Whisk in whatever oil remains and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. If too thick, thin with water or, if desired, a half-teaspoon of apple cider vinegar. Add salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate mayonnaise.
Remove the outer leaves and rinse cabbages. Cutting through the stem, quarter the green cabbage. Remove the stem quarters. On a mandoline, slice cabbage into eighth-inch strips, directly into a large mixing bowl. Repeat procedure with red cabbage and onion. Peel and grate carrots on large holes of a box grater; add to cabbage. Add apple cider vinegar, salt, pepper, squeeze of lemon juice and mix. Stir in a scant half-cup of fresh mayonnaise (amount should be barely perceptible on cabbage once mixed) and celery seed, if using. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.++