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Shabbat Cholent Recipe
© by G. Erdosh, 2001
As a child before the black hole of German concentration camps, I loved
Saturday mid-day meals
the times my mother served her great, almost weekly cholent. It was a little bit
of a Sabbath ritual for our small Hungarian Jewish family, my father still with us
before he was dragged to be in the German labor force to dig trenches and soon
perish on the Russian front.
The cholent ritual always started with the eggs. Each of us fished out one of the
whole eggs my mother often buried shell and all in the bean-barley cholent to
bake very slowly in that heady stew. Those heavenly ritual eggs were our first
course, with their shells that had turned the color of a New York water bagel,
and the egg white within tinted light caramel beige. The flavors and color
pigments of the cholent had penetrated the egg shells over the slow overnight
baking creating hard-cooked eggs with a complex, truly delicious flavor
nothing like your average hard-boiled egg. We peeled and ate them as is
it needed nothing to embellish, not even salt.
Egg plates gone, we dug into the deep, ancient cast-iron that held the cholent.
Sometimes my mother served it with her naturally brine-fermented garlic pickles,
sometimes with fresh sauerkraut sold by the kilo from a huge barrel in the
corner grocery store and in the summer simply with fresh uncooked market
vegetables of the season.
CHOLENT THEN AND NOW
Cholent is the most ancient and best-preserved of all traditional Jewish foods. It
survived for several thousand years, dating back to times when Jews buried the
cholent in hot embers in cooking pottery and let the flavors slowly meld and
marry overnight for the Sabbath meal.
Even though this is an old tradition evolved in the kitchens of many generations
of Jewish women to restrain from cooking on the Sabbath day, slow bean
cookery appears in most cuisines of the world. Some scholars argue that they all
evolved from the ancient cholent but that is a self-centered view. Dried legumes
are ideally suited for long, slow cooking with all sort of flavorings, creating
superb taste, yet in spite of the long cooking, nearly all legumes retain their
distinct identities if the cooking liquid is slightly acidic
they remain attractive on the plate with all the good flavors borrowed from the
liquid. Such easy-to-cook and well-received dishes must have evolved in many
cuisines over time, each one adding its favorite flavoring ingredient. Just think of
concoctions as the French cassoulet, Boston baked beans, chili con carne.
Legumes are very economical and even the poorest families could afford
serving it once a week, often preparing a vegetarian version when meat is
beyond their pocketbooks. And, fortunately, legumes are very nutritious, nearly
as high in protein as meats and offer complete proteins if eaten along with grain
or bread. The ancient cholent hardly differed from today's
beans and barley (the two oldest foods cultivated in the Middle East), meat and
flavorings. As Jews migrated to every corner of the world, they wisely adopted
their host country's available foods and modified their cholent. As a result, today we have dozens
and scores of ethnic-influenced cholent recipes.
Today's trend is to create new and alter old recipes partly to reflect our more refined
tastes and also to adopt them to our new, soft lifestyle. In 1998 they held the
first National Cholent Competition in Jerusalem with 131 entries, all different, not
unlike the chili con carne cooking contests in the U.S. Southwest and West. The
prize for the best Jerusalem cholent went to Esther Israel for a Tripolitanian
spinach cholent that included stuffed vegetables, chicken and beef, semolina
dumplings, onion, garlic and a mélange of herbs and spices. The various entries
included every imaginable ingredients. Only pork, horse meat, shellfish and any
other seafood not having fins and scales were fortunate enough to escape the
cooking pot -
the foods forbidden to observing Jews.
Today's Jewish cooks favor shortcuts open a can of beans, dump it into a pressure cooker or a crockpot with the rest
of the ingredients. Shortcuts in life, and particularly in the kitchen, rarely benefit
the final result. Instant coffee, prepared foods, bread machines and microwaved
meals are shortcuts but the results shortchange your taste buds.
The long, slow process of cholent cooking is a key for the best result.
I have not yet tested cholent cooked the traditional way against crockpot, I have yet
to taste crockpot-cooked food I enjoy as much as the equivalent oven-cooked
dish. Same with pressure cooker. Both tend to homogenize ingredients with baby
food results. Based on years of professional experience, I know you sacrifice if
you choose the easy ways. It hardly takes any more work to pop the dish in the
slow oven as our foremothers did. And never, ever open a can of beans for
cholent. When the word "quick" appears in the recipe title for cholent, give it a
pass. Quick and good are contradictions in cooking.
WHAT'S IN A GOOD CHOLENT
In the traditional cholent beans and barley are two key ingredients. Back in
ancient Middle East garbanzo beans and barley gave the body to cholent.
Garbanzo beans and barley were domesticated about 5000 years
ago. Today in a good cholent two, sometimes three different kinds of meat
provides the complex flavor, but in ancient time it was probably simply mutton or
goat, shortly before
natives in the Middle East attempted the first true agriculture.
In a contemporary cholent it is beef or lamb, possible a piece of smoked meat,
that provide protein and substance but a meatless dish is also excellent if found a
good recipe. In older cookbooks flanken is the preferred meat which is better
known today as short rib, in some butcher shops as seven-bone roast. For today's Jewish life style, short rib is a little too fatty and in this cut the meat is
interlayered with strips of fat that is hard to trim off. I would suggest another
equally flavorful but leaner cut such as beef brisket, flank steak or skirt steak.
They are all cut from the same part of the beef as the short rib, all lend a good
flavor to your cholent. If you can find a piece of smoked beef, smoked tongue or
bone, your cholent's flavor rises to a new level.
Choose whatever beans you like or have on hand
what kind you cook makes little difference in flavor. Navy beans, lima beans are
common but there is no law against using black beans, red beans or even fava
beans. Your cholent will gain in eye-appeal if you use two or three kinds of
beans with different sizes and color. (The only kind you should not use is canned
beans.) If your recipe includes acidic ingredient, such as tomato sauce, stir in
those ingredients only after the beans are fully cooked. In acidic liquid beans will
not soften and you may end up with a wonderful cholent but your family will
crack or break their crowns while attempting to bite through the beans.
Grains, the beans partner, should be barley or buckwheat. You also see recipes
with kasha which is simply toasted buckwheat. If you choose buckwheat, make
it kasha as toasting provides still another wonderful layer of flavor.
The best potato for cholent is a low-starch waxy potato that stays firm over the
long, slow baking, not the high-starch russet or Idaho baking potato. Choose red
or white (round or long) potato or yellow Finns (most popular in Israel), peel and
cut them into large chunks. Leave the onion coarsely chopped, too. Never use
sugar or any sweetener but be generous with garlic that you can leave whole.
Both garlic and onion have high enough sugar content to provide a slight
sweetness to cholent.
Traditional liquid in our foremothers' cholent was probably water but for a better cholent use beef stock or red wine
or a combination of both. Cooking dumpling (knaidel in Yiddish) in cholent is
it provides another filling food substance and introduces more starch into the
meal. The dumpling impregnates the flavorful liquid and it is almost a course by
SLOW, SLOW BAKING
The very slow baking process was a necessity in our foremothers' days. The Torah clearly stated: "You shall not burn fire in your dwelling places
on the day of the Shabbat." Small groups of Jews interpreted this ban literally
and they ate cold foods after the Sabbath service. Lucky for us, Rabbis re-
interpreted the law allowing fires to burn as long as not kindled after Friday's sunset. This permitted Jewish women to create their sumptuous, slow-baking
Sabbath meal that became the tradition for over two milleniums. Lucky for us,
too, that the slow cooking process marries and melds flavors of fastidiously-
chosen ingredients that results in flavors layered like a Bach orchestral suite.
Not so long ago central European Jewish women carried their heavy baking
dishes to the local baker on Friday afternoon instead of baking at home. The
back recesses of the bakers' huge brick ovens provided low, even heat for the absolutely perfect cholent,
heat that women with wood burning stoves could not maintain for 18 or 19
hours. Some women covered their dishes with a fresh dough that sealed the
content in. The dough became a crusty, chewy, golden brown bread that people
would fight over.
My mother did not use dough cover, it was not part of her tradition from her
mother and grandmother. Before we had a gas oven, it was my duty to take the
dish to the baker two blocks away but it was my sister who picked it up. We
waited for her on Saturday mornings like waiting for the Messiah.
INDIGESTION FOR THE SABBATH
Old Jewish tradition calls for a brisk, long walk or an extended snooze after a
the combination of beans, potatoes, barley and meat add a heavy burden on the
smoothest-functioning digestive system. Both bean and barley break down
slowly in the stomach and if you had a good size meat as well, you are likely to
suffer. The secret? Eat small portions. A good cholent can turn irresistible but
you must defy large servings or seconds.
People who eat beans regularly develop digestive enzymes and resident bacteria
to break down the tough legumes but those that eat it infrequently suffer. What
causes the problem are some starches in legumes for which our guts don't have microorganisms and enzymes for complete breakdown. You can attack
the problem with a commercial product called Beano. It is an enzyme that
breaks down the problem starches completely in your digestion. It works for
most people but not for all. In 1995, research at the University of California at
San Diego showed that Beano reduces "flatulent events" in most stomachs by
about a quarter. Too bad, but Beano is only available in United States
pharmacies. It also helps to eat legumes often to establish the friendly little
Here is a traditional cholent updated to reflect today' more sophisticated taste and using easily available ingredients.
- 1 ¼ cups dry mixed beans
- 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 200 g (8 oz or one large) onion, coarsely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 ½ Tbsp Hungarian paprika
- 1 ½ tsp salt
- 1 ½ tsp pepper
- ¾ cup barley
- 1 ½ lb (700 g) potatoes, peeled, cut into large chunks
- 1 chunk (about ½ kg or 1 lb) beef brisket
- 1 smoked beef bone or marrow bone
- 6 eggs in shell, washed
- . You may use one kind of beans or mix several kinds. For eye-appeal, I like to
mix small white navy beans and large red kidney beans or black beans. Rinse
beans then soak for 5 to 8 hours in enough water to have three finger-deep
water over top of beans. When soaked, drain.
- Heat oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat and sauté onion until
transparent. Add garlic, stir for several minutes over heat then add paprika, salt
and pepper, and continue to cook for a minute. Remove from heat.
- Combine beans, onion mixture, barley, potatoes, brisket and bone in a large
baking dish or dutch oven with a tightly-fitting lid. Carefully slip in raw unshelled
eggs and bury them under cholent mix. Add water to cover.
- Place tightly covered pot in oven (seal lid with aluminum foil if not absolutely
tight) and bake at 100 degrees C (200 degrees F) for at least 6 hours and up to
18 hours. Check liquid level occasionally to prevent cholent from drying out and
replenish if needed.
When ready to serve, dig out eggs, shell them and serve in quarters as first
course with fresh raw vegetables or crackers.
Remove brisket and slice. Serve brisket and cholent family style on serving dish.
The best accompaniment with cholent is an assortment of good pickles and
Yields 6 to 7 generous servings.
© G. Erdosh, 2001
from the December 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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