Thin, tender root vegetable shreds
Mix of colors, textures, and flavors
Fresh, complementary dressing
Just because cabbage is the traditional choice for coleslaw doesn’t mean it’s the only option. I suspected that root vegetables like beets, carrots, celery root, and kohlrabi would stay just as crisp once dressed, and their distinctive flavors would enliven a slaw. And while mayonnaise-based dressings are a common choice, I liked the idea of pairing my shredded root vegetables with a tangy vinaigrette.
With their deep, rich color and earthy-sweet flavor, beets seemed like a great starting place for my testing. But unlike cabbage, which succumbs to a sharp knife with little effort, dense beets would take more elbow grease to turn them into shreds thin enough to be palatable raw. A mandoline could do the job, but I ruled it out since it’s not a tool that everyone owns. Fortunately, I found that both the shredding disk of a food processor and the large holes of a box grater made relatively quick work of the task.
We typically pretreat cabbage to remove much of its abundant water; otherwise, you’d wind up with a slaw that’s a waterlogged mess. I had hoped I could skip this step for beets, but one test confirmed that they contain enough water to cause problems. Plus, while the shreds were thin, they were still too woody for tasters. Some sort of pretreatment was a must.
Tossing a vegetable with salt and letting it sit is a common way to pull out water. I worked my way up to using 1 teaspoon of salt with the beets before I had to put on the brakes—any more and the slaw was too salty. It also took an hour, which was too long to wait. Luckily, salt wasn’t my only pretreatment option. Just as it does with fruit, sugar can extract liquid from vegetables. It isn’t as effective as salt at the task—how quickly water gets pulled to the surface is determined by how many dissolved particles are in the solution, and sugar remains one molecule when dissolved whereas salt breaks down into two ions—but the combination of the two would speed up the process. And I liked the idea of the contrast that the sweetness would provide against the tangy vinaigrette.
I tossed a new batch of shredded beets with 1 teaspoon of salt plus ¼ cup of sugar and let the mixture sit. By the time I’d finished prepping my other ingredients (which took about 15 minutes), they were sufficiently wilted; I gave them a quick spin in a salad spinner, and they were ready to go.
Now I just needed a few complementary ingredients and a dressing. I settled on endive since its bitterness would make a nice foil to the sweet beets. For another layer of texture and some floral sweetness, I added some pears. And finally, for contrasting color and another layer of flavor, I tossed in some cilantro.
As for the vinaigrette, sherry vinegar offered an oaky complexity that complemented the beets, and adding plenty of Dijon mustard punched up the flavor and lent the dressing body.
From here, it was easy to create a few variations based on the formula. I paired celery root with celery, earthy carrots with peppery radishes, and sweet kohlrabi with bitter radicchio. Changing out the pear for apple and swapping in different vinegars—rice, white wine, or cider—and alternate herbs helped give each slaw a unique profile. And with so much texture, flavor, and alluring color, these slaws were sure to appear on my dinner table throughout the year.