When it comes to picnic and potluck contributions, almost everyone welcomes coleslaw. So, why is it that what lands on the table is often store-bought?
I contend the fault lies entirely with the cabbage. Unless you are serving the entire elementary school population, one square mile of a neighborhood or the largest-ever family reunion, an entire head of cabbage makes a heckuva lot of slaw. A lot. And if I want the charm of red and green shreds tangled together? Well, that's even more slaw or, worse, lingering half heads of red and green cabbage in the vegetable drawer, to accompany the containers of leftover slaw.
Let's turn this sad slaw story around by ditching the cabbage for the more interesting vegetables of early summer. In one: Radishes, pert and peppery, join forces with sweet snap peas and carrots. In the other, a cabbage cousin, kohlrabi, snuggles up to crisp fennel. Herbs complement the mix. These are two sturdy slaws that stay crunchy, even when tossed with a dressing.
We cannot deny what is required for homemade slaw: knife work. There will be a lot of chopping, which means it is worth extracting an appliance or specialty tool from the back of some lower cabinet. My grandmother made slaw with the chopping attachment for her stand mixer, and, while I have one of those, I prefer to use a manual mandoline (unless I'm dealing with several heads of cabbage at once). The slivered matchsticks are so pretty, and their squared structure means more of the dressing clings to each piece. This is slow and deliberate work, even meditative. To allay mandoline-phobia, you could invest in safety, cut-proof, mesh gloves.
When I'm not in a contemplative mood and simply need to get a slaw made, the grating disk on my food processor provides the muscle power. Put all the vegetables through the feed tube and they emerge similarly shaped, a riot of color. Cut the vegetables into equal-size chunks before processing to avoid long strands that dangle precariously from the fork. Similar shapes and sizes means every bite contains a bit of this and a bit of that, and it's easier to eat while juggling plate, glass and napkin.
In a pinch, a box grater gets the job done; the same safety gloves are useful for close work. The rule of (injury-free) thumb for chopping slaw vegetables is consistency: Keep the pieces a similar size. How to dress it is a matter of personal choice. There are mayonnaise-based dressings, of course, and the ensuing discussion (Duke's, Hellman's, Miracle Whip vs. homemade). I am not treading into that territory. Instead, opt for a sweet-and-tangy poppy seed dressing on one slaw and a citrus-and-chile dressing on the other.
Even a slaw made of sturdy vegetables should not be dressed too far in advance. The salt and vinegar will pickle the slaw mixture, wilting it slightly and extracting moisture from the vegetables. Too much time in a salty brine and that slaw is a kissing cousin to sauerkraut -- without the benefit of a slow, controlled fermentation. To avoid a pickled situation, I travel to the party with the undressed slaw in the serving bowl and the dressing in a tightly capped jar. As soon as I arrive, I'll toss everything together for the freshest, crunchiest slaw, entirely cabbage-free.
• Cathy Barrow is a Washington cookbook author.