A few weeks ago I met a friend for dinner at The Bagel. The menu at this classic Chicago deli is basically food for the Not Your Bubbe’s Recipe fire. I’m talking noodle pudding (otherwise known as kugel), liver and onions, and kasha varnishkes. While what I ordered—a tuna melt with fries—is no stellar example of flavor or nutrition, I’d just like to highlight my friend’s dinner: the salad sampler. Whitefish salad, salmon salad, potato salad, and coleslaw. As he described it, “It’s a plate of mayonnaise.” This, by the way, is essentially Joan Nathan’s menu for a lunchtime brit milah.
Mayonnaise is the bane of my Jewish foodie existence. I can’t think of a better way to ruin a nice, crisp salad or chicken. It’s gooey, flavorless, strangely buoyant. It comes in a jar. What is in Hellmann’s anyway? If you make it yourself, add a little garlic, and call it aoli, maybe I’ll eat it. Maybe. But let me be clear—mayonnaise is not salad dressing.
More than anything, the problem with mayonnaise is that it goes on dishes, like in the salad sampler, and just sits there, slowly eating away at the freshness that once was. Take coleslaw. Both of our dinners at the Bagel came with a little black cup crammed with white, lifeless cabbage with the occasional flash of orange from now-limp carrots. Having been doused in shelf-stable mayo, the white cabbage, which might once have had flavor of its own, is now simply a vehicle for the bland condiment that coats it. The fact that delis typically serve it at room temperature just makes me start mentally running through my food sanitation checklist.
Coleslaw apparently comes from the Dutch word kool salade, meaning cabbage salad, which later became koolsla. As one of the oldest domesticated and most easily cultivated vegetables, cabbage has often been associated as a poor man’s crop that could be prepared in a variety of simple, filling, and nutritious ways. So, to bring us back to the roots of this simple cabbage salad, I’m taking out the mayonnaise. You can serve these vegetables in their raw state as-is with no dressing for a crunchy, fresh topping (my personal favorite: on top of an open-faced taco). But in order to give you an actual recipe and not just a list of vegetables, I’m going to share my go-to slaw technique that I use almost every time I host a Shabbat dinner to provide a little extra raw-veggie goodness.
Sprinkling the cabbage with salt before serving releases the moisture so that you don’t end up with soggy slaw. If for some reason you have leftovers, you’ll be happy you pre-salted since this salad is a delicious leftover even dressed, unlike lettuce. Letting it sit with a bit of sugar and vinegar gives it a tangy, pickled flavor that distinguishes it from the rest of the meal and especially from the soft mush served at diners.
Not Your Bubbe’s Cole Slaw
¾ head of red cabbage, shredded
1 carrot, grated
2-3 tablespoons salt
1-2 tablespoons sugar
¼ cup vinegar
3 scallions, ¼ inch slices
1. In a bowl, mix cabbage and carrot. Sprinkle salt and sugar over the vegetables and toss with vinegar.
2. Let the slaw sit under a weight for 30 minutes to 24 hours.
3. Toss the slaw and add the scallions.
Other Not Your Bubbe’s Recipes:
(image via Shutterstock)