Crisp, cool slaw should be the official side dish of summer. Bright and refreshing, it's the dish to turn to as the weather turns hot. Made with just a few ingredients, slaws are straightforward and simple. And they're fast and easy to assemble -- no cooking required.
When you think slaw you might think cabbage, or maybe you've even gone so far as to try slaws made from broccoli or carrots. But there's a big wide world of slaw possibilities out there, particularly in the summer, when so much produce is at its prime.
And even though the options might sound endless, slaws are essentially simple things: Take a main ingredient cut into shreds, dress it lightly with something tangy, and finish it with the little touches that add color and crunch.
Start building your slaw by looking for a crisp central player -- a slaw is defined by its "crunch" factor. Summer is loaded with options, including squash, root vegetables, even fruit. Now cut them into shreds. The easiest way is to use a mandoline; they're widely available, and an inexpensive model should set you back only about $20. Or try a box grater, though the blade isn't as sharp and the shreds won't be as pretty. Or you can even go the longer route and slice everything by hand -- a sharp knife will take a bit more time and elbow grease, but it also allows you more room for creativity.
Now dress the slaw, but keep it light -- you don't want to weigh down your salad with a heavy mayonnaise-based dressing. Instead, use a vinegar- or citrus-based dressing, or even yogurt -- the bright tang will complement the slaw's components, highlighting the other flavors, not covering them up.
When you dress it can matter almost as much as what you dress it with. Many slaws can be made a few hours, up to a day, in advance, giving the flavors time to develop. Some slaws actually benefit from a little advance preparation; this gives the vegetables time to slightly "pickle" and allows the flavors to develop more fully -- try this with tougher vegetables and roots.
Other slaws work best assembled just before serving: If you're using fruit, you can shred it a few hours in advance, but you should dress it at the last minute to keep it from going soggy before serving.
So now that you know how slaws are built, what are you going to make?
Zucchini are great cooked, but they can be just as wonderful raw -- light and crisp with delicate flavor. Shred a couple (or more) pounds of zucchini. Dress it with a light sherry vinaigrette -- it's a bright vinegar with a lighter flavor that won't overpower the zucchini. Add some diced tomato; not only is the color vivid, but the soft tomato really emphasizes the crispness of the zucchini. And it's perfect served simply, with a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts and fresh-shaved Parmigiano.
Or try crisp peppers. Few vegetables can match the vivid shades of bell peppers, and they make a perfect slaw with their mild, almost sweet flavor. Use a more assertive dressing for this because the peppers are so sweet. The earthy cumin and smoky chipotle pepper deepen the flavors. Finish the slaw with bright sweet corn kernels and chopped cilantro for a decidedly Southwestern feel.
Because daikon is so bland, the choices of dressing and garnish are even more important. Combine the shredded radish with thinly sliced red onion and diced snow peas. Dress it with a rich but tangy sesame oil and rice vinegar dressing. Finish it with a sprinkling of black sesame seeds; the seeds' matte black finish is beautiful against the glossy white sheen of the dressed radish. Try tossing in some crunchy toasted peanuts, or even spicy wasabi peas.
It may sound a bit unusual at first, but the right fruit can make a wonderful slaw, particularly in the summer. Melons are a perfect example. When they're ripe, cantaloupes are rich and sweet and meltingly soft; slightly underripe, cantaloupes are more delicately flavored with firmer flesh -- perfect for slaw.
Base the dressing for this slaw on yogurt, a tangy and more refreshing alternative to mayonnaise, which would only flatten the flavor. Season the dressing with a dash of curry powder. It takes only a very small amount to emphasize the savory aspects of the flavor.
Or leave out the curry powder and throw in some fresh berries to make a colorful sweet slaw that's perfect as a dessert.
Slaw for dessert? It really must be summer.