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Coleslaw: You Could Be a Star

Coleslaw has lost its way. Relegated to a side dish, it is an afterthought and frequently forgotten until the very last moment of picnic, barbecue or beach blanket prep.

At that point, a bucket of something white and listless is grabbed from a grocery store shelf, and set out aside a spread of carefully prepared food where it is largely ignored.

But it wasn't always this mundane. Its origins can be traced back as far as the ancient Romans, who served a dish of cabbage, vinegar, eggs and spices. The Dutch who founded New York state grew cabbage around the Hudson River that they used in a shredded cabbage salad they called koosla (kool means cabbage and sla is salad).

Both the vinegar- and mayonnaise-based varieties of coleslaw appear to have a long history in this country. A recipe in The Sensible Cook: Dutch Foodways in the Old and New World, made by the author's Dutch landlady in 1770, mixes thin strips of cabbage with melted butter, vinegar and oil. Since mayonnaise was a mid-18th-century invention, coleslaw as we most commonly know it is only about 250 years old.

By my own tastings — and hoo boy, have I tested a lot of coleslaw this summer — there are a lot places where modern-day coleslaw can go awry. Often, it is sopped with such a heavy helping of dressing, the cabbage flecks are left to swim in their sauce rather than be mellowed into a cohesive flavor by it. This situation is worsened by Slaw Flaw 2, in which the salad ingredients are left too long in their dressing, and become soggy and limp.

With rare exceptions (such as the pickled slaw below, where a long lead time is best), coleslaw does not get better with age, rendering almost all store-bought varieties inferior to the crunchy, bright flavors from the home kitchen.

Not only did we stop making coleslaw at home, we stopped innovating when we did. Today, you are equally likely to be invited to a Korean, Southwestern or New American-style backyard barbecue. Even the potato salad at these parties will be updated with olives, radishes or curry powder. But we're still just mulching cabbage and carrots with unseasoned mayo for the coleslaw.

It doesn't have to be this way. The average U.S. supermarket has up to four, if not more, varieties of cabbage: the featherweight Napa, its rounded sister Savoy, the classic green — which is dense and actually white inside — and purple and white mille feuille-ed "red" varieties. When you're looking to step up your next slaw, try a different type of cabbage, but don't stop there.

Add matchsticks of seasonal fruit to freshen up a classic slaw; try pears in the fall or sturdy peaches in the summer. Herbs — fresh thyme, rosemary, dill — can bring a classic slaw into the modern age with ease.

Even unusual extras such as nuts, dried fruits, spices or hearty lettuces such as iceberg and frisee can transform a dull slaw with minimal effort.

And whether you choose crumbles of Cabrales, cubes of ricotta salata or coarse gratings of Parmesan, nobody complains when you update a dish with cheese.

There are also innumerable ways to refocus a slaw in homage to a worldly cuisine. Add some cilantro, cumin and green or jalapeno pepper for a Tex-Mex style party. Coriander, fennel seeds, curry powder and onion would be perfect for an Indian potluck. Glass noodles, seedless cucumber and firm-ripe mango with a cayenne, lime and rice vinegar dressing could transform an ordinary slaw into something resembling an inside-out Vietnamese summer roll. Or try dill, slivers of new pickles and minced garlic for a slaw that plays on Eastern European flavors.

Forgettable coleslaw, your days are numbered.

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Deb Perelman