A Harte Appetite: Coleslaw goes perfectly with many summer meals

Jun 24, 2019

The comedian Buddy Hackett used to tell the story about a man who didn't know anything about farming but who bought a farm anyway. A friend asked him what he was going to plant. "Razor blades and cabbages," the would-be farmer told him. "What could you possibly get out of that?" his friend asked. The landowner replied, "Coleslaw."

You can't blame that man for experimenting with "cutting-edge" agricultural methods. After all, coleslaw is the perfect accompaniment to grilled meats, chicken, and fish that so often are the mainstays of summer meals.

The term "coleslaw" comes from the Dutch "koolsla," a combination of the words "kool" meaning cabbage and "sla" meaning salad.

The fundamental ingredient in coleslaw is, of course, cabbage. It's been around so long that legends and myths have sprouted up with it.

The ancient Greeks, for example, believed that Zeus was responsible for the origin of the vegetable. He worked himself into a sweat struggling to reconcile two conflicting prophecies and from that sweat sprang cabbage.

Another legend gives the credit to King Lycurgus, who driven mad mistook his son for a vine stock and cut him to pieces. Cabbages grew from the sand where his tears fell.

Regardless of which myth that they subscribed to, the ancients regarded cabbage as health food. Some have even linked cabbage to fertility. In France, where, perhaps not coincidentally, folklore maintains that babies are found in cabbage patches, it is customary to bring just-married couples cabbage soup the morning after their wedding night.

With all that's going for it, you'd think cabbage would be revered, but it never has been, except, perhaps, in Russia where it is the national food and possibly in England where, as Walter Page once quipped, they have only three vegetables-and two of them are cabbage.

Today there are 400 varieties, enough to get you thinking, with apologies to Lewis Carroll, that in the vegetable kingdom cabbages are kings.

+++++ Coleslaw Variations +++++

As the "Joy of Cooking" says, there are probably as many versions of coleslaw as there are cooks. Here are three trendy variations adapted from Bon Appetit Magazine.

4 cups cabbage
2 tablespoons oil
3 tablespoons vinegar

Slice cabbage thinly. Toss with vinegar and oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.For Mexican Coleslaw use green cabbage and add 1 thinly sliced red bell pepper, 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro, 1 small seeded and minced jalapeno chili, and 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin; increase oil to 3 tablespoons and substitute fresh lime juice for vinegar, reducing amount to 2 tablespoons.

For Asian Coleslaw use Napa cabbage and add 1 tablespoon sesame seeds, 1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions, 1 tablespoon peeled and minced fresh ginger, 1 teaspoon sugar, and 1 teaspoon sesame oil; use peanut oil and rice vinegar. For Italian Coleslaw use red cabbage and add 1 trimmed and chopped medium fennel bulb, 1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley, 3 tablespoons drained capers, and 2 minced garlic cloves; use extra-virgin olive oil and substitute fresh lemon juice for vinegar.