Discovering the Deli: Cole Slaw

Some time in the fall, I decided my long-term goal would be to open my deli. I grew up on deli food and miss it so - the soft, seeded-rye; stinky chopped chicken livers; the dew on the windows from the corned beefs… corning; the grease-glazed knishes; mountains of yellow potato salad. Delaware is not a haven for such gastronomical delights beyond chicken ‘n dumplings and steamed crabs. My very indiscriminate love of good food was born of my experience with really good deli food. So, in seven years, I want to open a deli. I have never been good with the more subtle nuance of fine dining, am not very adept at any particular nationality’s cuisine nor do I know how to fling a pizza dough. I do enjoy really good deli fare and think many other people do, too. So, the goal is to bring my sunset years into focus flanked by two slices of that rye bread shmeared with spicy brown mustard and pastrami. Between now and then, however, I have to figure out how to do it without losing my shirt.

            The plan is to explore, in ridiculous detail, the favorites that make up the menu of classic delicatessens, legendary for blending the food of immigrants, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, with American appeal. I do not really need to delve headlong into the history of the deli as institution in this country; like the colloquialisms that bespeckle our geography, the food offered at delis varies from town to town. For that matter, the food can vary from street to street! So, knowing about the deli itself is not quite as important as knowing well what is contained therein. New York delicatessens are legendary, and for good reason. Katz’s Deli is a landmark, a shrine, to the cornerstone of what defines a quintessential delicatessen. Even the more touristy places like Maxie’s and Roxy in Times Square eloquently do justice by offering an array of classic deli dishes. Deli food is not limited, though, to the big island. While I haven’t yet visited every city in the country, I would guess that there are some respectable delis throughout the country. Certainly, Miami, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Atlantic City have all done me well when hankering for some matzoh ball soup and a Reuben. Some venues offer local specialties or eclectic tastes of the particular deli operator. New York delis often have the trademark, paper-thin pizza. Further west, pizza is in the pizzeria across the street from the deli. Up north, subs or hoagies are on the same menu next to blintzes and brisket. So it goes that flavors vary by locale. The classics, though, like Bach, Sinatra and The Beatles, may be interpreted differently, but are always on the playlist. Call them standards, call them ‘must haves,’ there are just some dishes that must be there to be called a deli

Chapter 2: Coleslaw

There is nothing sexy about coleslaw. It is brusque, messy and a bit funny looking. It is not a hybrid of super-premium ingredients and it is not served well with very costly enhancements. It is not schmaltzy. Instead, it is a give-away, heaped on tables at respectable delis, slathered on pulled-pork sandwiches and dropped along peppery fried chicken. While the (mostly anecdotal) evidence points to origins Dutch in nature, it calls the domestic deli its home.  Simply ‘slaw,’ it has many incarnations depending on the locale from which it hails. The Carolinas acidify their cabbage salad with an ample dowsing in vinegar, a complement to the smoky-sweet of real barbecue. The coleslaw of deli-land that I speak of is creamy and crisp and oniony. Spare the indignation and surrender that this is the coleslaw that abounds in my deli.

Cabbage is pickled, fermented, sweetened, braised and myriad more iterations. It has even come under fire as svelte-figure fighter for its bloating qualities; Iike skimping on the sauerkraut on a reuben is really not an option, cabbage has a righteous place on the deli table as a gas factory, or not.

For the coleslaw, it is shredded, chunked or minced. It is dressed with a subtly sweet, creamy dressing studded with minced onions and little bits of carrots for color, contrast and just a tap of flavor.  There is a great deal of care in proportions in this regard; the slaw is a finicky guy that needs extraordinary tasting, adjusting and due regard to make this slovenly fellow sing, dance and cha-cha-cha across the dining room table. It is the care in preparation, from the knife work to the creamy dressing that makes abundant, but oft-overlooked, cabbage become an integral part of the deli experience.

The vegetables:

7 Cups, green cabbage, minced, but not mush

1/3 cup, carrot, grated

1/3 cup, yellow onion, small dice

Mix the vegetables and set aside.

The Dressing:

¼ cup, granulated sugar

1/3 cup, white vinegar

½ cup, mayonnaise

¼ cup, buttermilk

About 1 teaspoon of salt and half that of pepper

Dissolve the sugar in the vinegar. Combine the additional dressing ingredients. Stir the dressing mixture into the vegetables. Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled. Sample and adjust the seasoning as needed.

This coleslaw works with… well, just about everything I love eating in a delicatessen. There is no mention of broccoli-slaw, oriental slaw or other variants of the creamy version offered above. Instead, we are manipulating a prolific vegetable to be something that it can easily become.

Sometimes food is better left unfettered and painted with the broadest brush; unambiguous, forthright and, maybe, just a bit opinionated. The coleslaw is big without being a shlemazl. It is fun to eat, easy to prepare and, above all else, just plain tastes good.

Next month in the deli: Corned beef