Years ago, during my event planning days, I helped a client plan a lovely riverside party, with a good old-fashioned fish fry. This client was very particular. About everything. But particularly about slaw. He insisted on vinegar-based slaw, not mayonnaise dressed. The caterer took copious notes on his slaw pronouncements and produced what I (and everyone else who ate it) thought was a lovely slaw. The client was not pleased however. He insisted it had mayonnaise in it. It had a creamy texture, but no mayonnaise. The caterer explained exactly how it was made – with a vinegar dressing – but he refused to believe there was no mayo. The rest of the evening was, to say the least, tense.
But all the talk of slaw led to a discussion of slaw preferences among the event staff back in the kitchen. Everyone had an opinion – mayo, no mayo, no vinegar, carrots, purple cabbage, green cabbage, bought pre-shredded or handcut. I was not a real slaw aficionado, so I had no idea there were this many opinions. Everyone was swapping ideas, writing down notes on napkins and this is the one I wrote down. The lovely lady that shared this told me, “Honey, this’ll keep crispy in the fridge for weeks.” I’ve never left it around for weeks, but it will stay nice and crisp through a long weekend. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I call this picnic slaw, as opposed the ubiquitous creamy barbecue slaw served in every barbecue joint in Memphis. Because of the vinegar dressing, this slaw holds very well in a cooler or on a picnic table. The salt water soak keeps the vegetables crispy and mellows the bite of the onions and the dressing is sweet-tart with the tang of vinegar and mustard seeds.
Crisp Picnic Slaw
I buy the ingredients for this at the farmers market, and when I saw the purple peppers I knew it would add a nice touch of color, but feel free to use only green.
1 medium head green cabbage
2 bell peppers (green and purple are my choice)
1 medium onion
2 Tablespoons salt
1 ½ cups cider vinegar
1 ½ cups sugar
½ Tablespoon mustard seeds
½ Tablespoon dill seed
Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage, cut it in half and remove the core. Cut the halves in two, then shred the cabbage on a mandolin or in the food processor using the slicing disc. Remove the seeds and thick ribs from the peppers, cut into quarters, and slice thinly like the cabbage. Peel and quarter the onion and finely slice like the cabbage and peppers. Toss everything together in a very big bowl.
Dissolve the 2 Tablespoons of salt in 8 cups of water. I find table salt dissolves best. Pour the salted water over the vegetables in the bowl and stir to distribute everything. Soak the vegetables for 3- 4 hours, stirring occasionally. Leave the bowl on the counter while doing this.
Meanwhile, stir the vinegar, sugar and seeds together in a saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Boil for two minutes, then set aside to cool.
Drain the vegetables, shaking out as much water as possible. Transfer the mix to a clean tea towel, roll it up and ring out as much water as possible from the cabbage. Rinse and dry the big bowl, then return the cabbage mix, separating it and fluffing it up with your hands. Pour over the vinegar dressing and toss to coat all the vegetables. It may look like a lot of dressing, but that’s fine. Cover the slaw with plastic wrap and refrigerate. The slaw can be eaten as soon as it is cold, but will stay crispy in the fridge for several days. Serve with a slotted spoon to drain off excess dressing.
This makes a good amount of slaw, and will serve 8 nice big side portions, but many more smaller helpings.