Monday, June 4, 2007

We LIke Our Slaw Dry

Heads turned when I pulled up to the check-out stand with a grocery cart loaded with 12 pounds of green beans and 18 pounds of cabbage.

"I'm making barbecue for 100 people," I explained, as I plopped the vegetables onto the conveyor.

"One hundred people?" the clerk asked, her eyes growing wide.

"Uh-huh," I replied.

That got a bagger and a security guard interested as well. Pretty soon we were on the topic of the cabbage. "How do you fix your cabbage?" the checkout lady wanted to know.

And so I explained what I think is the best technique ever invented for Southern cole slaw.

I cannot take credit for this. I first heard about this exquisite slaw from Scott Peacock, in the book he wrote with Edna Lewis, The Gift of Southern Cooking.

Everyone knows the main drawback to cole slaw is the pool of liquid you always end up with in the serving bowl. It hardly matters if you wait to the very last second to dress the slaw, invariably it will be swimming in a swamp of watery mayo by the time guests are served.

The reason, of course, is that the salt, or vinegar, or whatever you've seasoned the dressing with draws all the water out of the cabbage and makes it a very wet mess. The solution, as described by Scott Peacock, hit me like a thunderclap. Of course!

"The key to (the slaw's) texture is salting, resting, and squeezing the shredded cabbage to get rid of excess liquid," Peacock writes. "Then you toss the shreds with a hot vinegar-sugar syrup, which softens and flavors them, and fold in sweet and sour cream."

It makes perfect sense. Essentially, you salt the shredded cabbage as if you were making sauerkraut. Let it sit overnight to draw all the water out of the cabbage. Then give the slaw a good rinse, squeeze it to remove that last bit of water, then dress it and you have a perfect slaw without any of the swamp at the bottom of the bowl.

Peacock describes squeezing up to 100 pounds of cabbage when he was chef for the governor of Georgia and cooking for large crowds. It does give the arms a workout and leaves the hands a bit raw.

What I do is load the salted and rested and rinsed cabbage into a tea towel, then twist the daylights out of the towel over the kitchen sink until just about every drop of moisture has been squeezed out. You may be shocked how much water you can wring out of a handful of cabbage.

To make slaw for 10 to 12 persons, cut a large head of green cabbage into quarters, remove the core and damaged outer leaves and slice the cabbage very thinly. (For my barbecue for 100, I cheated and used the Cuisinart, as you can see in the picture above. Normally I use a sharp chef's knife and cut it by hand.) Peel one large cucumber, slice in half lengthwise, remove seeds and slice very thinly. Add that to the cabbage.

Shake a generous amount of kosher salt all over the vegetables. Don't be afraid. You're going to rinse it off later. Cover and allow to sit overnight. The following day, rinse the vegetables in a large colander. In batches, place the vegetables in the middle of a tea towel, fold the towel and twist it tightly over the kitchen sink to squeeze out all the liquid. Keep twisting until your hands hurt.

For the dressing, bring 1/2 cup white vinegar, 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt to boil in a saucepan, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Boil for 3 minutes, then whisk in 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard and 1/4 canola oil. Pour the hot dressing over the slaw and stir to blend. Adjust seasoning to taste.

You can do this a day ahead and serve it cold or room temperature. The people we serve it to are usually bowled over. "What did you do to this cole slaw?" They ask. And we are always glad to bring a few more converts into the dry cole slaw fold.


Kevin said...

The salting and squeezing make a world of sense. I'll remember to try that next time.

Christa said...

Oh, gosh, I can't even imagine squeezing water out of 18 pounds of cabbage! I want to try this, though (with one cabbage) and see how it turns out. I am always looking for good vinegar-based coleslaw recipes. I don't like the mayo-laden kind.

Ed Bruske said...

Kevin, I think this will change the way you approach cole slaw.

Christa, it's not that hard. Do one head of cabbage. You will have the smoothest cole slaw you've ever eaten.

Caitlin said...

Growing up, I used to watch my grandmother make coleslaw for crowds. She wasn't one for new-fangled (in her mind) kitchen gadgets like a Cuisinart, so she used a tin can with the rim cut off to shred head after head of cabbage in a large bowl. This method meant that the cabbage's shred-size varied from piece to piece, from tiny specks of cabbage to pieces about 1" long. There was something about the varying textures that gave it better mouthfeel. Now that I make coleslaw on my own, I often use her tin-can shredding method and sub a non-creamy dressing (simple syrup, vinegar, salt, pepper and several dashes of red hot pepper sauce such as Tabasco) for a great, low-fat burger and BBQ topping. Enjoy the slaw!

-Caitlin Vaughn
Bethesda, MD

Ed Bruske said...

Caitlin, that's brilliant. I'm going to try your grandmother's technique next time I make slaw. We may be re-writing the whole book on slaw.

Maureen said...

A friend taught me a long time ago to use a special pillowcase with a zipper at one end, fill it with just washed lettuce and in case of cole slaw - cabbage - zip it shut and toss it in the washer on spin just long enough to remove the water. It's fast and easy and works every time.

Ed Bruske said...

maureen, I will have to try that sometime. At first blush, I'm skeptical that a washer even on ultra-spin would remove as much liquid from the cabbage and squeezing the dickens out of it with two hands. But it would be fun to try...