Monday, April 30, 2007

Koo-Koo for Koosala

The undercooked prawns
Quickly cause gastric distress,
But you get the blame.

-Disheartened diner

I had a cabbage epiphany, a slaw about-face standing in my kitchen mindlessly flipping through a cookbook one early summer afternoon. Like most conversion stories I was ready, soft beam of light focused upon me--underneath the surface, changes gently mounting for months before. I had wastefully spent years of my youth snubbing befuddled and undignified sops of cruciferous matter benched on the side of my plate segregated within its own shallow saucer. I hardly felt bad about it, while its presence seemed required at every barbeque, picnic or party centered on a buffet table, I have never seen anyone fawn or fuss over koolsala.

But Vegetarian Planet by Didi Emmons had me rethink this salad which I spent years avoiding. Super sized tubs of macaroni salad, coleslaw, and potato salad, the holy trinity of deli sides daubed with a yellowish film greasy and aged, never did much to excite me. Nor did the milky pool of humiliation which surrounded and suffused shreds of wilted cabbage and carrot arouse much more than sympathy. Can anyone eat something looking so pitiful and forlorn? Shall we burden the dish further with the factual reality that cabbage is both relatively inexpensive and durable and a quick rumble with a pair of uncouth hands translates into crude cheap chew?

A pickle slice draped
Across its curvaceous peak
Fails to seduce me

-Loveless and lonely

Emmons explains that coleslaw liberated from its cloying mayonnaise base is a wholly different and exciting breed. Her suggestion is to lighten up the dressing and think outside of the Brassica oleracea box. Consider-- a heavy handed dose of mayonnaise is about as becoming as showing up on a date with a face thickly covered in cold cream. Interesting initially perhaps, but quickly the mask obscures and finally detracts, leaving the other party uninterested and more than a little indifferent. Yet a romp with a light brisk dressing, a splashy shimmer of oil, lime juice and herbs conveys a more liberal and carefree tone. It might be equivalent to wearing a thin sheer bodysuit, inviting and revealing the shape and taste underneath.

In this Dionysian spirit, the color, taste and texture of ingredients is celebrated and glorified: radiant ribbons of radicchio bewitch a glad celebration of carrot confetti infectious with the charismatic crunch of jicama dancing the lively tango with ruddy red cabbage. Plucks of caper, jots of parsley, mint and chive, and a slow pucker whine of lime, festive little party favors entangled within this veritable vegetal jubilee.

And the enjoyment is contagious. First the making of slaw is artful improvisation at its best. A food processor fitted with a shredding blade literally makes the process almost too quick to digest. I would actually recommend saving it for at least your third time, so that you can properly sink into the hypnotic ribbon making rhythm. Select your most beautiful bowl preferably low, wide, and broad like a pair of generous welcoming arms. Equip yourself with a heavy sharp knife, steady cutting board and all the colorful crisp vegetables that strike your fancy. Remember a little goes a long way, particularly when it comes to hacking something solid into a bunch of bits.

Size matters. This absolutely translates into texture, mouth feel and how the dressing distributes over the ingredients. The difference between a cabbage strip one-quarter of an inch thick, an eighth, or a sixteenth is considerable. Hair thin cuts gives an admirable crunch but with a delicacy that enables the diner to work less for their meal. All focus can then be applied towards taste and appreciation, effort to a minimum. I pay attention to length- too long and pieces dangle distractedly out of one’s mouth, too short and the vegetable becomes a stub which is decidedly too inelegant to be considered. I also shy away from cubes which is better suited for a toy box rather than this salad.

After all of this fancy knife work is completed and a small colorful mountain remains, it is time to consider the dressing. I have found that this is a time to amplify the intensity; the hard vegetables can handle it. In fact they need it. Of course you can fall back upon a simple mustardy balsamic dressing, but I encourage you to explore and own your slaw. I actually like to whirl mine up in a blender, taste and tweak style. I am particularly fond of blurring up jalapeno, cilantro, mint, shallot, fish sauce, lime juice, brown sugar, apple juice and oil. After the dressing passes the taste test, drizzle all over the slaw, toss and wait.

By now you might be breathless from excitement: the relaxed but concentrated chopping, the artful dressing composition, the slivers luxuriating, steeping and in fact beautifying within its marinade. This salad is irrepressible joy and shiny health- I have yet to serve it to a friend without at least a mini slaw conversion occurring. To boot, it is addictive. I end up sneaking it into omelets, sandwiches, and on top of soups and salads, even colorful hanks as a snack. Don’t be surprised if it steals the show from your main course. It is a magnificently easy way to eat your vegetables and beautify your world at the same time. Who knows you just might become a little koo-koo for Koolsala too.

Make-Your-Own-Coleslaw: I hope this doesn’t provide too much grief to just produce a list. I guess when it came down to it, I had a hard time deciding which type to write down, so I let you decide. I tend not to use much more than 4 ingredients for the slaw. The dressing I tweak a bit, depending on the mood, a little sweet one day, more savory the next. It is all unscientific, adding a bit more of what is needed. Just dress little by little like a regular salad (no big puddles) and let it rest for at least two hours. The list is meant to broaden the scope beyond the typical cabbage, apple, carrot, mayonnaise, vinegar and mustard. Just cut as thin as possible and dream up the possibilities. Fennel, pear, red cabbage and golden raisin? Celery, radicchio, jicama and blue cheese? Green cabbage, apple, snap peas with a curry dressing?

Possible Slaw Fixings:
Green cabbage
Red cabbage
Celery Root
Sugar snap peas
Water Chestnut
Bean Sprout (avoid alfalfa which tends to get soggy)
Basil, mint, parsley, cilantro

Olive, flax, grapeseed, walnut oil
Balsamic, apple cider, champagne vinegar
Dijon, honey mustard, wasabi
Apple juice
Honey, maple syrup
Tamari, fish sauce
Lime juice, lemon juice, pomegranate molasses
Peanut butter, avocado, coconut milk, yogurt, mayonnaise (a spoonful can give the right body sometimes)
Curry powder

Capers, chopped olives, toasted coconut, sesame seeds, currants, blue cheese


Lydia said...

Oooh, I have Didi's book sitting in my library, and haven't opened it for years. Looks like now is the time to get back to it! Cole slaw is one of my favorites and, though my husband doesn't crave it like I do, I still make it almost every week in the summer.

Mimi said...

What fabulous art!!!!

HipWriterMama said...'ve got me smacking my lips right now. I love hot or cold slaw.

I make my dressing with apple cider vinegar, olive oil, cilantro, a smidgen of sugar and some crushed red pepper. Then I'll either lightly saute the slaw or serve it up crisp and cold.

If I'm need a more comforting hot slaw, I'll fry up a bit of bacon, take out the bacon, saute the slaw in the bacon grease, add some balsamic vinegar, crushed red pepper, salt and sprinkle the crispy bacon all over it. Yum...

Callipygia said...

lydia- Unfortunately I gave the book away when I moved, I liked the spirit of it and it had the best whole wheat pancake recipe! So you're koo koo for koosla too.

mimi-Good to see you here- thanks!

hipwritermama- Both of those sound so good, I like the warm one w/ the bacon.

Gattina said...

oh mine, every word and every sentence you wrote make me ecstatic! Now I just have to control myself not to bit my neigbhor's decorative cabbage after reading your post :P And size matters, how true is that!!!

Freya and Paul said...

Why are you not yet a published writer? I could spend hours pouring over a book of yours!

Callipygia said...

Gattina- How funny I also have a penchant for decorative cabbage!

Freya and Paul- Aww thanks- that truly made my day.

Nancy said...

This week my companions in a yoga immersion and I are experimenting with eating raw. The idea being that whole foods contain all the nutrients and enzymes, so we should feel better. You can eat all you want of fresh fruits and veggies, cooked brown rice or other whole grains, raw milk (unbelievably delicious!), plenty of water or herbal tea, and judicious amounts of roasted fish or meat -- just make sure of the animal's source. No caffeine, no fermented or processed anything. The caffeine has been the hardest part, since most everyone is a heavy user, but the education about food has been great. So I've been doing a lot of shopping at Dan's Produce, always passing the cabbage by. Why?
Cabbage stands alone in my kitchen -- for me, whenever it goes "in" with something else (in a salad I mean, unlike borscht) it demands full attention. Thanks, Callipygia, for the "heads" up!

Callipygia said...

Nancy- Hmm I love that you think cabbage demands full attention. It certainly deserves more than it gets. Go rah, I mean raw!

Lis said...

I had no sleep last night. I got home later than expected today. I unpacked, kissed & cuddled the kids and then went to bed at 6:30. I woke at midnight. I've taken this silent time to catch up on my favorite blogs.. imagine my surprise (NOT!) to be completely over taken by a craving for - of all things! - slaw.

That had to be one of your best posts ever. I'm a cabbage fan, but NO ONE has ever made me almost teary because I don't have any in the crisper. My God.

I'm not sure of the dressing yet.. I will give a lot of thought to your list of ingredients.. but as for the salad? You had me at "pear, fennel, red cabbage & golden raisin".

Watch my blog.. you will definitely see this (maybe paired with luscious cheese balls?) in the near future.


sher said...

What a post! "radiant ribbons of radicchio bewitch a glad celebration of carrot confetti infectious with the charismatic crunch of jicama dancing the lively tango with ruddy red cabbage." My goodness you are an artist with words too. Brava!

Callipygia said...

lis- of course, I remember how much we both love the kraut and the slaw is just more of the same cabbage goodness in its most primal form!

sher-I literally could see those elements getting down in the bowl! Vegetables make me so happy.