Article on Slaw

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Master Chef
Jan 4, 2005
Savannah, GA and Somewhere near Lexington, NC
Article on Slaw from the Charlotte Observer

Crazy for coleslaw

Want a primer in eating Carolinas-style?
Forget that whole "east vs. west" barbecue discussion. Skip the issue of whether it's livermush or liver pudding.

Instead, look at our coleslaw.

You won't have trouble finding it. In the rest of the country, coleslaw may be next to the potato salad at today's Fourth of July picnics.

But here in the Carolinas, coleslaw is something else. You could say it's everywhere else.

It's on top of your hot dog. It's inside your burger. It's nestled so close to pork barbecue that you could call the pairing a common-slaw marriage.

Everywhere else, it's a side dish. Around here, it's elevated to condiment status. It adds crunch and spice that contrasts with the softness of minced pork barbecue or chili dogs served in steamed buns.

Sometimes, Carolina coleslaw is yellow with mustard. Sometimes it's red and spicy.

"Coleslaw is a stranger beast in the Carolinas than it is in the rest of the South," says John T Edge.

Founder of the Mississippi-based Southern Foodways Alliance, Edge has spent more than a decade chewing over Southern food.

In the first edition of his 2000 book "The Southern Belly," the index cited 34 page references for coleslaw, more than the number of references for biscuits, collards, corn bread or iced tea and exceeded only by the references for "chicken, fried."

A new, revised edition of "The Southern Belly" was released last month. Edge says his coleslaw research definitely expanded.

"I took another tour around the South to update and expand `Southern Belly,' " said Edge. "It did bring into relief the prevalence and the diversity of coleslaw."

The Carolinas aren't the only place that puts coleslaw on a barbecue sandwich. Edge found that in Mississippi and Memphis, Tenn., too.

"But it's integrated in the Carolinas. I see a high preponderance of slaw dogs in the Carolinas. I see French fries dipped in slaw in the Carolinas."

Then there's the slaw that the rest of the country can't even imagine: The strange slaw-sauce of R.O.'s Barbecue in Gastonia.

A soupy mixture of mayonnaise, ketchup, hot spices and a little minced cabbage and relish, it's slathered on sandwiches and served in cups with a spoon. People buy it by the quart for everything from hot dogs to chip dip.

"It's like the bastard child of McDonald's special sauce and bloodshot coleslaw (red slaw)," says Edge.

Who knows how the many coleslaws of the Carolinas got started? Cabbage is cheap, a little cabbage makes a lot, and it keeps for several days.

But the Fourth of July seems like a great time to salute the Carolinas' unique tastes in coleslaw.

Call it a metaphor for a melting pot nation: People united by difference.

Observer-tested recipe


Serves 6 to 8. From "Seasoned in the South," by Bill Smith (Algonquin, 2006). Yes, most places that serve mustard-based slaw probably use mayonnaise, not cream. But this version from Smith, chef of the Chapel Hill restaurant Crook's Corner, is a change worth making.

1 small green cabbage, about 2 pounds

1 large carrot, peeled

4 tablespoons yellow mustard

1/2 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon whole celery seeds

REMOVE tough or damaged outer leaves from cabbage. Quarter cabbage and cut away the inner stalk. Remove thick, tough inner leaves if desired.

CHOP cabbage finely to make about 8 cups, using a knife, slicing blade on food processor or large grater. Place in a large mixing bowl. Grate carrot into the cabbage.

WHISK together remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Pour over the cabbage and stir to coat thoroughly.

LET stand 15 minutes and stir again. Taste and add more sugar and salt if needed. Let stand 15 minutes longer and serve, or refrigerate, covered, for 2 or 3 days.

Observer-tested recipe


Serves 8. Adapted from "Peace, Love, and Barbecue," by Mike Mills and Amy Mills Turnicliffe (Rodale, 2005). The key to Lexington-style slaw is the texture. It needs to be more finely chopped than most slaws because it is served right next to or on top of North Carolina's finely minced pork barbecue. See our note at the bottom on an easy way to do it.

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup ketchup

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt or slightly less table salt

5 to 6 cups finely chopped cabbage (see note)

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 tablespoon hot sauce, preferably Texas Pete

WHISK the vinegar, sugar, ketchup, salt, pepper and hot sauce in a small bowl until the sugar dissolves.

PLACE the cabbage in a large bowl. Add the dressing and stir until well-combined. Taste and adjust seasonings. Refrigerate about 1 hour before serving.

NOTE: Restaurants and large community barbecues usually use a food chopper or mill to chop the cabbage. To replicate it at home, we've found a two-step process using a food processor. First, remove the rough outer leaves of a head of green cabbage. Quarter the cabbage, cut away the inner core and pull out some of the thick leaves if desired.

SET up a food processor with a slicing blade. Feed the cabbage quarters through the feed tube to create long shreds. Place in a work bowl.

CHANGE the food processor to the standard metal blade. Working in two batches if necessary, place the shredded cabbage back in the processor and pulse several times until finely chopped. Don't overprocess, or you'll get mush.

Observer-tested recipe


Makes 6 to 8 servings. From "The Glory of Southern Cooking," by James Villas (Wiley, 2007).

1 small green cabbage, about 2 pounds

1 large or 2 medium carrots, peeled

1 small onion, peeled

1 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar

1/2 teaspoon celery seeds

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

3/4 cup mayonnaise

REMOVE and discard the outer leaves of the cabbage if necessary. Quarter the head. Cut out and discard the hard center core. Pull out and discard some of the thick parts of the leaves if desired.

CUT quarters into thin shreds and place in a large bowl. Shred the carrot into the bowl using the large holes on a box grater. Grate the onion into the bowl, then mix it all together.

COMBINE the vinegar, celery seeds, salt, pepper and mayonnaise in a small bowl and mix until blended and smooth. Pour over the cabbage mixture and toss until well-blended. Cover and refrigerate 2 hours before serving.

Observer-tested recipes


Serves 12. Not all coleslaws are loaded with fat. Mayonnaise-haters will like this one.

1 small green cabbage

1 large green bell pepper, seeded and cut in thin strips

1 medium carrot, peeled

1/2 medium sweet onion, cut in thin crescents

1/4 cup white vinegar

3 tablespoons honey

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/8 teaspoon celery seed

1 tablespoon canola oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

REMOVE any damaged or tough outer leaves from cabbage. Cut in quarters and remove tough inner core and the thickest inner leaves. Shred thinly with a knife. Place shredded cabbage in a large bowl. Add green pepper strips.

SHRED carrot on the large holes of a box grater. Add to cabbage.

COMBINE vinegar, honey, ginger, turmeric and celery seed in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the honey. Remove from heat and whisk in the oil.

POUR hot dressing over the cabbage and toss until well combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

COVER and refrigerate 4 to 24 hours before serving.

Observer-tested recipe


Serves 4 to 6. From "Kingsford Complete Grilling Cookbook," by Rick Rodgers (Wiley, 2007). It's not as hot and spicy (or distinctively smelly) as the traditional Korean dish of fermented cabbage. But this makes a light, lively slaw for a cookout.

1 (4-inch) piece of fresh ginger, peeled

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon hot or sweet paprika

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/3 cup vegetable oil

2 tablespoons dark or toasted sesame oil

6 cups (about 1 1/4 pounds) cored, shredded Napa cabbage

4 green onions, white and green parts, chopped

2 teaspoons sesame seeds

Salt to taste

GRATE the ginger on the large holes of a box grater. Squeeze the grated ginger in your fist over a mixing bowl to yield about 2 tablespoons juice. Add the vinegar, sugar, paprika and red pepper. Whisk in the vegetable and sesame oils.

MIX in the cabbage, green onion and sesame seeds. Season to taste with salt.

COVER and refrigerate at least 1 hour and up to 8 hours.
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