Earlier this summer, in Sun Valley, Idaho, I burned two racks of ribs. I’d made a dry rub with lots of brown sugar and cayenne pepper, sprinkled it all over the ribs, wrapped them in aluminum foil, and placed them in the oven for low-and-slow cooking. This, however, was an unfamiliar oven in an unfamiliar kitchen (we were staying with our friends Harry and Cris) and when the ribs came out, hours later, they bore a closer resemblance to King Tutankhamun than anything you’d actually want to eat.
Thankfully, there was coleslaw. Not just any coleslaw: my coleslaw. What can I say? I’m something of a coleslaw whisperer. It’s something that I ate often, growing up. My mom would buy cartons of coleslaw from the deli, along with macaroni salad (remember macaroni salad?) and she’d keep them both in the refrigerator next to a pitcher of Crystal Light lemonade.
My coleslaw is significantly better than the stuff you get at a deli and, yet, I can’t give you a recipe for it. It changes every time I make it.
On the night of the burnt ribs, I made it with a homemade mayonnaise which I whisked up because I forgot to buy mayonnaise at the store. I doctored the mayonnaise with lemon juice and cayenne pepper and it won great huzzahs from Harry and Cris, who were so enjoying the coleslaw, they ate all of their burnt ribs without complaint.
Coleslaw, for me, is about intuition, about feeling things out. You see what you have on hand. One thing you must have on hand is cabbage. Though I’m sure you could make a very daring experimental coleslaw with thinly sliced turnips and kohlrabi, let’s be real here: if it doesn’t have cabbage, it’s not coleslaw.
Ideally, it’s a mixture of purple and green cabbage. You want to slice them both thinly and add them to a bowl. After that, it’s up to you. Shredded carrots are nice, but not necessary. Some kind of onion always works; sometimes red onion, sometimes scallions. Don’t put garlic in there: garlic doesn’t belong in coleslaw. Radishes are good for crunch and color. Celery, maybe. But, come to think of it, celery is a terrible idea. Don’t put celery in your coleslaw.
The point is, once you have your raw vegetables sliced thinly, you have to dress them and that’s where my wizardry really kicks into high gear. You put a big spoonful of mayonnaise in there; store-bought is fine, though, as mentioned, I once made the mayonnaise myself and it blew my friends’ minds. (They even went back for more later in the night when there was leftover coleslaw in the fridge.)
After the mayo, you want a big dollop of mustard: whole grain works, spicy Dijon works. Lots of salt, lots of pepper.
If I give you any advice — and I’d really rather not, but here we are — you want a BIG glug of vinegar. Lately, I’ve been using white balsamic and that’s really launched my coleslaw into a new state of consciousness. But any white vinegar will work: white wine vinegar, rice wine vinegar. Just don’t use distilled white vinegar — it’ll be too harsh — so ignore that part about any white vinegar working.
You want the salt and vinegar to work their magic and bring your coleslaw to life. Some people add sugar. If you do add sugar, please don’t tell anyone about it. I certainly won’t tell you if I add sugar. You’ll just have to guess. But once you add the vinegar and salt and mayo and mustard, you want to mush everything together with your hands. Really work that dressing in there and then start tasting. Your eyes should bug out a bit and you should make an audible “whoah” like Joey Lawrence on Blossom. It should be that peppy.
Then you can add herbs. If you have cilantro, add cilantro. If you have parsley, add parsley. Any delicate herbs — tarragon, chives, fennel fronds — will work here. (Fennel fronds work especially well if you have fennel in your coleslaw. I approve of fennel in your coleslaw; you could even add fennel seeds to that version.) Just don’t add woodsy herbs: no rosemary. No thyme. Coleslaw doesn’t want that.
Refrigerate your coleslaw and when it’s time to serve, taste again. The vinegar and salt will have mellowed a bit, so best to add another splash and another sprinkle, to stir and to taste. You could add hot sauce too. You could add olive oil, which I sometimes do. In fact, I think I always add olive oil.
This is all hard to talk about. Coleslaw is very personal; reading my coleslaw is like reading my journal. I’d really rather you didn’t.
In fact, I think we should stop here. I didn’t want to talk about my coleslaw, and you made me. I’m not angry, but I’m not not angry.
Going forward, I just ask that you respect my need for privacy.
Don’t ask me about my coleslaw.