My dad told me that every Friday my grandmother cooked two meals in tandem — Shabbat chicken, or brisket, or “gadempte fleische,” on one side of her tiny counter and, in her big, black, speckled roasting pan, another dish made of all kinds of things.
The “things” she put in her big black speckled pot would go in the oven and begin cooking on Friday then continuing all night until lunchtime the next day. The result would be a delectable mélange of meats, beans, potatoes, root vegetables, and lots of garlic. There was always the lingering flavor of gribenes and sometimes her homemade stuffed “hoelzel” or kishke. Sadly, my grandmother never wrote down a recipe, so I have no idea how she made this dish that I can still taste today.
According to Gil Marks, z”l, cholent is a completely Jewish food, born out of the necessity to serve a hearty, hot meal in the cold winter months and not cook or light a fire on Shabbat. Famed cookbook author, Joan Nathan, said in “Jewish Cooking in America,” that “for centuries, on Friday mornings [Jews] would assemble [their stews]. The dish was covered with a cloth or mixture of flour and water to form a crust. It started cooking on Friday before sunset and [was] left to warm all night over coals in a hot [communal] oven.” The wife would pick up the cooked food after shul and, once home, would crack open the hard, baked cover and serve the steaming bean and meat stew to her family and guests.
The ingredients of this hearty dish were different in every country because Jews have always cooked with local ingredients, making universally Jewish dishes distinctly regional in flavor. In addition, the herbs and spices and even the meats used, were always location dependent. Cholents were made with lamb or beef, duck, or chicken. All used beans and some added potatoes.
In Germany and parts of Eastern Europe, cholent was called schalet, close to the French cassoulet, which more closely translates to kugel than to stew. The German-Jewish-Yiddish schalet eventually diverged into two roads — one towards sweetness and noodles and the other towards savory, heartier dishes. German schalets were often made of potatoes and onions, while other kugels used apples and pears and sometimes bread or noodles. All were descendants of the cholent of centuries past.
But whatever the individual characteristics of the dish, the focus and purpose have always been the same; to create a nutritious, hearty and delicious meal that will feed all the unexpected guests, and will survive — and even taste better because of — the long, slow cooking required.
Overnight French Cassoulet Inspired Cholent (Meat)
3-1/2 to 4-1/2 lbs. boneless short ribs, cut into 2-3 inch pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
4 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, more if needed
4 to 5 marrow bones
2 large onions, coarsely chopped
3 celery stalks, sliced
1 to 2 large leeks, white and light green parts only, washed and thinly sliced
4 to 6 carrots, peeled and sliced
3 to 6 garlic cloves, finely minced
2 tbsp. tomato paste
1 cup white wine
3 cups white beans, such as cannellini, soaked in water overnight
Optional: 3/4 lb. smoked duck or turkey breast or kosher sausage
3-1/2 to 5 cups chicken broth or stock
1/2 tsp. any of the following: tarragon, rosemary, herbes d’Provence; dried chives
1 tsp. kosher salt, to taste
1/2 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 225 degrees.
Pat the beef ribs with a paper towel and sprinkle generously with salt and cracked black pepper. Set aside.
Heat a large Dutch oven and add the olive oil. Add the beef and brown on all sides. Remove to a plate and add the marrow bones. Cook until the bones are slightly browned in places. Place on the paper towels to drain. Add more oil if needed. Add the onions and cook until golden, 7-10 minute. Add the leek and cook until softened. Add the celery and carrots, mix well and cook until softened. Add the minced garlic and cook until fragrant.
Create a hole in the veggies and add the tomato paste. Let it cook until the edges begin to brown, 1 minute. Mix well and add the wine. Mix until blended. Add the beans and mix.
Add the marrow bones moving them so they are at the bottom of the pot. Add the beef pieces and the smoked duck, turkey or sausage, nestling it in among the beans. Add the stock around the sides of the pan and season with more salt and pepper and the herbs.
Bring to a boil over medium heat and stir often. If the beans absorb the liquid too quickly, add more stock or water as needed. Skim any foam that forms. Cook for 20-30 minutes, remove from heat and let cool 10 minutes. Add more liquid to cover solids by 1-2 inches.
Cover the pot tightly with aluminum foil. Then put the pot’s cover on top and place in the oven. Bake overnight. Check in the morning and add more liquid if needed. Continue to cook until serving time and then return, covered, to the oven for the remainder of Shabbat. Serves 8+.
NOTE: You can add chicken wings to this instead of the sausage, if you like a milder flavor.
Vegetarian Shabbat Cholent with Lima Beans and Barley (Pareve)
This cholent is so forgiving that you can add any grain and any vegetable to it. I have made it with farro, wheat berries, rice and all kinds of small beans.
2 to 3 large onions, about 3-4 cups chopped
2 to 3 leeks, trimmed, thinly sliced, rinsed well
3 to 4 shallots, thinly slic-ed
3 to 10 cloves garlic, finely minced, to taste
1/3 cup canola oil
1 cup barley
1 cup split green peas
1 cup dried baby lima beans
1 cup red lentils
3 cups chopped carrots
2 cups chopped celery
2 to 3 pounds Red Bliss potatoes, cut in half
1 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
1 to 2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 to 1 tsp. paprika
1/4 cup freshly snipped chives
6-10 cups water or vegetable stock
Optional: minced Tarragon, rosemary, thyme, to taste
Optional: tamari sauce, to taste
Optional: 1/2 to one cup dry white or dry red wine; 2-3 cans (15 ounces each) chopped tomatos
Optional: Sliced mushrooms, diced butternut squash, diced yams
Optional: Eggs still in the shell nestled in the veggies to cook overnight.
GARNISH: 1/4 cup fresh parsley, finely minced
In a large skillet, heat the oil and sauté the onions, leeks and shallots until they are translucent and completely softened. Scrape them into a heavy Dutch oven and add the rest of the ingredients. Season and stir well. Bring the cholent to a boil on top of the stove over medium heat, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat and simmer for 2 hours, adding more water or stock as needed and removing any foam that forms on top. Taste for seasonings and adjust as needed.
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Just before sundown, add enough stock or water so that the cholent is 1-2 inches under water. Cover tightly with foil and then with the pot’s cover and place in the center of the oven. Check for liquid level in the morning, adding more if needed. When ready, remove from the oven, stir, adjust seasonings, garnish with parsley and serve. Serves 8+.
Just a note: Red kidney beans contain a protein called phytohaemagglutinin that is toxic. Cooking at high heat kills the toxin, but the low heat from a slow cooker or low oven will not, and just 2-3 beans can make you very ill. To avoid this, boil your red kidney beans for at least 10-20 minutes before cooking them in a low oven.