In the 2005 romantic comedy The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, four BFFs collectively purchase a single pair of jeans because they perfectly fit each young woman’s figure despite their varying shapes. They share the jeans via the mail when they are forced to spend a summer apart; the pants travel separately to Greece, Baja California in Mexico, South Carolina and through an inaugural experience with grief. Somewhat like those miraculous traveling pants, slaw can be fashioned to go anywhere you need it to go this summer.
Etymologically speaking, the term “coleslaw” derives from the Dutch koolsla, with kool meaning cabbage and sla being an abbreviation of “salade.” The combination refers to the recipe for chilled cabbage salad with a creamy dressing that Dutch settlers brought with them to the area now known as New York in the late seventeenth century.
As more immigrants have converged in the US in the centuries since, “slaw” here has evolved to include a wider variety of vegetables and many more dressings. There are carrot slaws laced with black mustard seeds and asafetida powder on menus in southern Indian restaurants. Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Chinese slaws sport potent fish sauce-based dressings. Mexican Baja tacos feature a lime-dressed red cabbage slaw. Eco-minded chefs of all cultural backgrounds fight food waste with trendy plates of broccoli-stem, carrot-top, and kale-rib slaws.
Here, I offer slaw up as the answer to any summertime potluck invitation. Slaw is adaptable, easy to prepare, and travels exceptionally well.
Every slaw starts in the vegetable bin. Pull out that half head of Napa cabbage left over from taco Tuesday, the purple daikon that caught your eye at the farmer’s market, the gnarly kohlrabi from your farm share, the three radishes that got loose from the bag, and the cilantro and parsley leaves wrapped in a damp paper towel to stay fresh. Use a sharp knife, your food processor with the shredding attachment, a mandoline (with the guard attached, of course), or a julienne peeler to cut the vegetables in sticks thin enough to soak up dressing but thick enough to hold their crunch. You’ll need 1½ cups of shredded vegetables per person you want to serve.
To make the bowl of cut vegetables ready to travel, lay a damp cloth over them to keep them supple before placing an airtight cover on the bowl.
You can branch out of the vegetable bin to add protein or a different texture to the slaw: think toasted whole seeds or chopped nuts, dried or fresh fruit, and, of course, cheese—from cheddar matchsticks to goat cheese crumbles. These additions hold their texture best if they are transported to your picnic destination in their own containers.
Recipes for slaw dressings typically follow a standard vinaigrette ratio of three parts oil to one part vinegar with other sweet (honey, sugar, maple syrup, agave) and savory (mustard, fish sauce, hot sauce, herbs and spices) mixed in to suit your taste. In the end, you’ll need one tablespoon of dressing for every cup of shredded vegetables. Slaw dressing typically gets better as it sits, so make it the day before you want to serve it in a covered jar and give the jar a good shake before tossing with your slaw. Vegetable-based slaw with these dairy-free dressings can sit on the table for two hours at room temperature. If the mercury reaches higher than 90°F, the slaw should go back into the cooler on ice after an hour.
Apple, Aged Cheddar, Napa Cabbage, and Carrot Slaw
- 4 tablespoons neutral oil
- 1 tablespoon brown rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon toasted and crushed coriander seeds
- ¼ teaspoon toasted ground cumin seeds
- 2 Granny Smith apples, sliced
- 1 lemon, zested and juices
- 1 cup chopped kimchi
- 4 cups shredded Napa cabbage
- 2 cups shredded carrots
- ¼ cup cilantro leaves
- 4 ounces aged cheddar cheese, cut into matchsticks
- Place all ingredients in a mason jar and shake well.
- Combine sliced apples with lemon zest and juice in a large mixing bowl. Layer kimchi on top of the apple mixture. Add cabbage, carrots and cilantro. Just before serving, add dressing to bowl and mix well. Add cheese and toss gently.