Saturday, February 20, 2016

Rebecca's Cholent

A clever answer to the question of what to do for dinner on Shabbat.

Beef stew is one of my favorite things to eat on a cold wintry day, but this is unlike any beef stew I've ever had before. Rich, filling, and definitely tasty, I happened to stumble upon a recipe for this dish while discussing what recipes I should feature for Rebecca next with my best pal Ari. Although I'd never heard of it before, despite it having a long, long history, it definitely sounded delicious, and I was excited to try it out for myself.

We wound up needing to improvise the instructions just a tiny bit, which means this wouldn't be exactly how Rebecca's mom would have made it in 1914, but otherwise, I'm telling you now that this was a fun new discovery for me, and will probably be for you as well, if you've never had it before!

Most food people associate with Jewish culture isn't necessarily traditionally Jewish. Because Judaism is a religion that spread to most corners of the globe, a lot of food we associate with Jewish culture is actually more specific to regional cuisine and customs than religious ones, although Jews would often adapt local recipes to make them Kosher. Bagels are a good example of this, which we talked about way back at the beginning of this blog. They were created by Christian Poles originally, and Polish Jews introduced them to other Jews.

Cholent is different. Although beef stew obviously isn't exclusive to any one ethnic or religious group, the specific combination of basic ingredients (I say basic because every family makes alterations and additions depending on personal taste and preference!) and the method of cooking the stew is a dish developed by and for Jews!

According Jewish law, you aren't allowed to cook on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. Some families would get around this by hiring a non Jew to come over and do the cooking for them, but cholent was developed to be a very, very long cooking dish so you could actually begin it before sundown on Friday, the beginning of Shabbat. You'd get all of your major cooking done before the sun went down, and then put the pot in a low oven until dinner time on Saturday. After cooking for almost a whole day, all the ingredients are well cooked, tender and very flavorful. Because the stove finishes the cooking for you, technically, you're not violating the law by letting it sit for several hours. This is a great make in advance meal, and although it has a lot in common with some of our more modern slow cooker recipes, this dish actually appears in writing going back as far as 1180!

As I mentioned, everyone has their own version of cholent. It varies by location and by family, and even has different names depending on what country the recipe came from. The one I decided to make is a pretty basic cholent recipe from Allrecipes, selected mostly because I'd never had this before, and wanted to get something that would give me a good idea of what cholent at its simplest should be like. If I'd never had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before, I wouldn't try to make one with Nutella first to get an idea of what it should taste like, right?

I started working on this on Friday night after I got home from work. I took three onions, chopped them up, and put them in a pan with four tablespoons of vegetable oil as instructed. Once they got nice and clear, I added four pounds of stew beef and got them browned on all sides. My green pot was actually too small to do this properly - four pounds is a lot of beef! - so it took a lot longer than it probably should have.

I transferred everything into a larger pot, and then added in one cup each of dried pinto beans and dried kidney beans, which were both rinsed before adding them into the pot. This was what really set this apart from other beef stews for me, because we generally don't put beans in the stews that are part of our regular recipe rotation, unless we're talking chili. I love chili, and was pretty confident I'd enjoy the beans in this stew as well.

You let the beans cook until the skin gets wrinkly. My mom was worried that because the beans weren't soaked, they might not cook even if they sat overnight. I figured if people have been doing this for almost a thousand years, we'd probably be fine, and happily waited until the beans got wrinkly before moving on.

Next one cup of pearl barley, five diced potatoes (I like to leave the skins on, even though the recipe asked you to remove them), enough boiling water to cover the ingredients, two packages of dry onion and mushroom soup mix, two tablespoons of garlic powder, salt and pepper all gets added into the pot. This gets brought to a boil, and then you turn the heat down to low and let it cook for twenty minutes.

This makes a lot of stew!

I let mine sit, and when I came back to take a look and see how it was going, everything was pretty thick and had gotten a nice dark color to it.

So, here's where we ran into a road bump: I don't have an oven safe pot that's big enough to hold all the ingredients, which meant we had to improvise. On top of that, my mom and I were both a little worried about leaving the stove on all night long, so we decided to make use of a modern convenience instead of dividing the stew between two pots. We put the stew in the fridge over night, and the the next morning, I put everything into a slow cooker and left it on high for ten hours.

Once it was time for dinner, I checked to make sure everything was cooked correctly (it was!) and told everyone it was good to go!

Cholent is generally a very, very thick stew, and mine definitely lived up to that. The barley absorbs a lot of the liquid, so there isn't much of a broth, and the beans help make this a very substantial bowl of food. It's not really the most photogenic thing I've ever made, but it smelled good, I like all of the ingredients individually, and I was excited to give it a try.

I know I already spoiled what I thought about this dish in the intro, but I just want to say again that it was definitely different, but not at all in a bad way. I really liked the addition of the beans, and the thickness meant this was a great meal for when you're really hungry and want something that's actually going to fill you. I didn't eat that much of it, but still felt nice and full for the rest of the night. I've been trying to be better at not grazing too much after dinner, and this was a good night of not feeling like I needed to eat twenty other things because I still didn't feel full.

My taste testers also enjoyed it, and were more than happy to bring leftovers home, which was definitely a good thing! As I keep saying, this makes a lot of stew, and definitely can feed a crowd. Another reason why it makes such a good Shabbat dinner!

Now that I know what a basic cholent is like, I'm interested to see what else can be added to it, or how ingredients might vary regionally. It's always interesting to try out a dish that's been enjoyed by people for not just generations, but literally centuries!

You know that's a sign someone's doing something right!

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