I feel like everything I write about here is kind of a project – I guess I like complications. Which is all fine and well, until it stops me from sharing the simple recipes I make all the time.
Like this coleslaw.
It’s one of the first recipes I remember deliberately setting out to create just for myself. I was making fish tacos for my family at the lakehouse, and I knew I wanted to top them with slaw – but there was a tiny problem.
I don’t really like slaw.
The problem with coleslaw
Humans have been making cabbage-based salads since at least the time of Ancient Rome (and probably earlier – we have a recipe for a cabbage salad dressed with honey vinegar and spices recorded by Mnesitheus, an Athenian medical writer, sometime during the 4th century BC). And Irma S. Rombauer records at least six different recipes for slaw in The Joy of Cooking – and the only common thread between them is the inclusion of raw cabbage.
So why do I feel like most coleslaw we eat today so boring?
It’s all the same, more or less – a sweet, heavily mayonnaise-based dressing, sometimes vaguely acidic but most times not, soggy, limp cabbage, and, if I’m lucky, a few bits of shredded carrot or onion to perk things up.
Addressing the dressing
Let’s start by fixing the dressing. I have never much cared for mayonnaise – and especially not the stuff that comes in jars. It’s so heavily processed-egg-tasting, and it never has the bright, acidic zing I hope for. Homemade mayo is tolerable, but I’m not crazy enough to ask anyone to make their own mayonnaise for something that’s intended to be a quick side. Especially when I’m not willing to do it myself.
Fortunately, sour cream and lime juice can solve pretty much any problem.
The sour cream mellows out the eggy richness of the mayo, adding some bright tang and acidity without losing the creaminess that cole slaw needs. But, uh, that mixture by itself is real thick. We need to thin it out some and add some excitement.
Traditionally, we would thin the dressing with buttermilk, which would add some lactic tang. But I almost never have buttermilk in my fridge, and I hate buying a whole quart just for the three tablespoons I would need for one recipe of slaw.
I do, however, almost always have limes.
I grated the zest into the bowl (why leave flavor on the table?) before adding the juice to thin the sour cream and mayo mixture. I loved the result – incredibly bright and zingy with a clear citrus character, but with enough creaminess not to be completely foreign.
After sneaking a quick taste, I did think it needed grounding, however, and so I added a spoonful or two of cumin, along with salt and ground pepper.
Why cumin? Originally, I chose it because it complimented the spice profile of the batter I used in the fish tacos, but I’ve kept it over the years because I think it’s the perfect compliment to the lime. It’s earthy and savory, which grounds the acidity in the dressing, but it’s got a kind of fruity, citrus-adjacent aroma thing going on, which I love with the sweet grassiness of the cabbage.
Modifying the mix-ins
If I’m going to make a salad, I want it to be as colorful as possible – so I can never resist including red cabbage in my mix. I usually go about 50/50 with green cabbage, but it mostly depends on what I have in my fridge and what else I’m cooking with that week.
I’m particular, but not particular enough to buy a whole extra head of cabbage I don’t have plans for just so my salad is pretty.
I also love just a hint of spice in my slaw – I find that little surprise pops of heat are the perfect way to break up what could otherwise be a monotonous blend of cabbage and dressing. I achieve this in two ways – one, by tossing in a minced jalapeno for spice, and two, by adding shreds of thinly sliced yellow onion, which, by itself isn’t necessarily spicy, but adds a sweet heat that serves as the perfect counterpoint to the sharper chile.
All that’s left is shredded carrot – I love the color, and they add too much texturally to forgo the inclusion, even if I don’t think they really contribute much in the flavor department.
I know I haven’t wandered too far from tradition – you could honestly add a diced jalapeno to a bag of pre-shredded coleslaw mix and you’d probably come out fine – but I’m picky about my veggies. The whole point of coleslaw is crunch, and I want to make sure my salad is as fresh as possible.
A lot of recipes advise serving cole slaw immediately after mixing – the longer the salad sits, the more time the sugar and salt in the dressing have to pull liquid out of the veggies and turn the whole thing sloppy and soft. I like to buck convention a bit here – there’s not a huge amount of salt in my dressing, and I think the tougher red cabbage benefits from a little bit of time to pickle and soften.
The final result is a coleslaw I actually love – bright and creamy, with pops of heat and a grounded, earthy acidity from the cumin and lime. It’s my go-to grilling side, and a great back-pocket option when you need something to take to a pot-luck in a hurry.
TANGY CUMIN-LIME COLESLAW
- 2 limes, zested and juiced
- 4 ounces (1/2 cup) mayonnaise
- 4 ounces (1/2 cup) sour cream
- 2 teaspoons whole cumin seed
- 1 pound (4 packed cups, or about half a small head) shredded cabbage, preferably a mix of red and green, but don't worry about it too much
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and shredded on the large holes of a box grater
- 1 small yellow onion, quartered and sliced thin perpendicular to the root end
- 2 jalapeno peppers, seeds and ribs removed, diced fine
- salt and pepper to taste
- In a dry pan set over medium heat, toast the cumin seeds until they are lightly browned and extremely fragrant, 2-3 minutes (on my stove – your mileage may vary). Remove the seeds from the pan the moment they have finished toasting – spices burn incredibly easily. Using an electric spice grinder or a mortar and pestle, grind the toasted seeds into a powder. Set aside.
- Zest and juice the limes into a large bowl, then add the mayo, sour cream, and ground cumin. Stir well to combine, then taste and add salt and pepper. You want the dressing to be just a little saltier than you think it needs to be – it has to flavor all the vegetables too!
- Add the cabbage, carrots, onion, and jalapeno to the bowl with the dressing and toss to coat. Taste again, and add more salt and lime juice to your taste.
- Refrigerate at least 30 minutes before serving.
- This coleslaw will store, covered, for 3-4 days in the refrigerator – though it is important to note that the cabbage will get softer and softer the longer it sits. Depending on how you feel about super crunchy slaw, this could be a pro or a con.