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04 January 2010

Cholent

Other than the religious requirement that the seventh day should be a day of rest, it makes quite of lot of pragmatic sense.  After a knackering week it's quite nice knowing that you can't do anything and should have a day of rest.  A cynical glutton might note that after a plate of cholent you're not good for much. 

Cholent, the Ashkenazi take on the mother of all stews is a bowel-thoughtful combination of beans, potatoes and meat cooked from Friday afternoon until it is eaten at Saturday lunch.

There's not a bad run-down of its history and derivations on Wikipedia, but my favorite history is Claudia Roden's in her seminal Book on Jewish Food.  Suffice to say it is a peasant dish that is open to some, but not vast interpretation.  The long cooking to abide by the laws of the Sabbath mean that robust ingredients that can stand-up to a prolonged simmer are ubiquitous.

I would like to be able to regale you with tales of my family's recipe and how it dates back to Heime Silverbrow, who like his descendants after him was a slave to his stomach, so despite fleeing the latest pogrom the Pale was throwing at him, he refined his cholent to a sublime dish.  How it had been passed down from bubbe to spoiled brat until it landed in my lap, and thence on to my table.  But it would be nothing more than a myth.

I did not grow up on a diet of cholent, I think it's fair to say its lack of refinement and the fact we didn't observe Sabbath meant it wasn't a regular on our familial table.

But things have changed and now it does get an outing, but the recipe is my own, based on others I have tasted and recipes I have read.  I had a bit of a disaster when I last made it, it was the first time in a new oven.  I've now got the recipe to a level I'm happy with.  It's a great dish, but does require a day of rest once eaten.

Serves 8

A crucial part of the recipe is what you cook it in.  I have only ever used one dish, a Le Creuset Casserole.  I know they're not cheap, but you want something with some heft if you're subjecting it to 18 hours of cooking.  In particular you need something with a lid that seals well if it is not to dry out.  The old-skool way of ensuring it didn't was sealing the lid with dough that would be baked into a seal as the dish cooked.  I've never tried it and don't intend to start.  Especially as I like to take a peek through the cooking process to check whether a top-up of water is required.

A word on the ingredients.  There is flexibility in what you include but beans of some sort and pearl barley should definitely be included, as obviously should meat and potatoes.  I'm not too militant on the beans I use, usually they're a mix of kidney, pinto, borlotti and the like.  The addition of wine is a modern affectation I quite like for flavour.  I used hot spicy paprika because it was all I had to hand.  I wonder if those of Hungarian stock might be more inclined to use a sweeter one, but the spicy kick from the hot paprika is quite invigorating I find.

UPDATE: As further proof of the flexibility of the ingredients for this wunder dish, it's worth noting that both Simon in the comments below uses beef shin as does Esther Walker's fiance and he knows a thing or two about food.  You couldn't get much further from the beef cheek I use. 

  • 250g beans - soak the beans the night before you use them, don't use tinned, they'll turn to mush
  • 50g of pearl barley
  • 750g stewing beef cubed
  • 500g beef cheek cubed
  • 5 large potatoes peeled and cut into large chunks
  • 1 large onion, cut into large dice
  • 2 carrots, peeled and cut into large dice
  • 5 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 3 sprigs of thyme
  • 2 bay leaves (use 1 if bay is dried)
  • 1 tsp of smoked hot paprika
  • 200ml red wine - I used a Barbaresco most recently
  • 1.5l water - or enough to cover the contents of the pot

The cooking time is exceptionally long - that is afterall the point. I reckon that for the fully authentic Shabbat experience, you need to start cooking approximately 18 hours before you plan to eat - this excludes bean soaking time, which should be the night before you start cooking.

Lightly fry the onions, carrots and garlic in vegetable oil in the pot you're cooking the dish in.

Add salt and pepper liberally.

Drain the beans and add them and the barley on top of the vegetables.

Add the meat and the rest of the ingredients next. Add more salt and pepper, I favour being heavy handed with both.

Cover the lot with a cartouche.  If you've no idea what I'm talking about, go and watch this super-dry Aussie to learn.

I then put in the oven at 100°F and leave it.

I do check on it at various points, in particular just before I go to bed and then in the morning. If it needs a bit of a top-up of water, then add it. Bear in mind that the consistency of the dish should change significantly over the course of cooking. It will start as quite a watery stew but should end up as thick, deep rust coloured (or is that Titian red?) and gelatinous. Not gluey, there should be some moisture in it, but the end product will look very different to what you started with.

I'm quite partial to drinking it with a decent single malt.  The smokiness, even of something quite smooth, not too peaty, works well.  I've even been known to cut to the chase and empty a shot over my portion.

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I think you made a typo there, Anthony...shouldn't that be 'eaten at *Saturday* (i.e. Shabbat) lunch'? I've always found cholent to be somewhat dry, but cooking it until Sunday might be a bit much, I reckon lol! ;-)

@Sheri, many thanks for that, you're absolutely right. Typo now corrected.

A perfect winter warmer - whether for Shabbat or not - I love the pairing of single malt with the dish too, though not sure I'd be brave enough to empty a shot over my portion of cholent!

@scandilicious, try the single malt on top, even a dribble, it's pretty good!

Cholent is a great dish for shin of beef, one of the cheapest cuts of meat that needs a long cook to tenderise. I'll try the whisky suggestion this weekend (whilst the wife/kids are not looking) -s sounds great.

@Simon, go for it. If they ask what the smokiness is, blame it on the paprika. I haven't used shin, but you're in esteemed company if you do.

Dude - cholent requires brisket of beef. The fat melts into the meat as it cooks and provides the perfect texture. I actually make mine in a crock-pot (slow cooker) and follow my mum's recipe which includes lima beans and her secret ingredient - golden syrup. No wine.
Once you rock around to winter again in the northern hemisphere, give it a try.

Golden syrup?  Now that is one I've never heard of, but that's the beauty of cholent, there's no definitive recipe.  It really is a case of each to their own.

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