Sabbath cholent is heaven-sent

Cholent bakers in Bialystok prepare their pots for the communal oven.

Cholent bakers in Bialystok prepare their pots for the communal oven.

Brrr…as I write the snow is bucketing down once again, joining the several feet of white stuff already piled around my house. It’s perfect weather for cholent.

Cholent (rhymes with “DULL lent”) is a stew prepared for the mid-day meal on the Sabbath. In traditional Jewish practice, lighting a fire and cooking are prohibited on the Sabbath, which starts at sundown on Friday and lasts until dark on Saturday night.

Slow cooking before slow cookers

Cholent, photo by noblepig

Cholent, photo by noblepig

In deepest winter it’s hard to go a whole day without hot food. What to do? Creative housewives developed a way to cook a hot-pot type dish at slow temperatures for a long time. That way they could have a hot dish without lighting a fire or putting food on the flame during the Sabbath. In Europe, they called the resulting dish cholent. The first references to it were in the 12th century.

No one really knows where the word came from. The best derivation I’ve seen is that it comes from the French chaud and lent – hot and slow. It could possibly come from shul ende – Yiddish for the end of synagogue services.

In Hebrew they call it hamin, which means hot. North African Jews prepare a similar Sabbath dish called dafina.

In the old days, women would put all their cholent ingedients into a heavy pot and put into a large communal oven, along with everyone else’s cholent pots, to simmer until the next day.

A heavenly scent

With the possible exception of baking bread, there’s no homier smell than cholent! It usually starts to be fragrant in the wee hours of the morning. By the time you wake up, you’ll start salivating in anticipation of a delicious mid-day dinner.

Cholent – called schalet in German – inspired poet Heinrich Heine. In the middle of his long poem Princess Sabbath are several verses extolling the dish, including these:

“But at noon, as compensation,
There shall steam for thee a dish
That in very truth divine is—Thou shalt eat to-day of schalet!

“Schalet, ray of light immortal!
Schalet, daughter of Elysium!”
So had Schiller’s song resounded,
Had he ever tasted schalet,

For this schalet is the very
Food of heaven, which, on Sinai,
God Himself instructed Moses
In the secret of preparing…

If you want to make a cholent, you don’t have to follow the recipe below. Feel free to improvise with ingredients. If you don’t want to use beef, use a turkey thigh or skinless, boneless chicken thighs – you can even make it vegetarian! Use sweet potatoes along with or instead of white potatoes. Use rice instead of barley. I would say the essentials are onions and garlic, some sort of starch (potatoes, beans, barley) and some root vegetables that won’t turn to mush with long cooking. For a vegetarian cholent, substitute vegetable broth for the water to give it some extra flavor.

Some people cook eggs in the cholent. The eggshell turns brown, and the eggs absorb some of the meaty flavor. You can also cook dumplings with the stew.

Plan ahead

For Sabbath (Saturday) lunch, start on Thursday night or early Friday morning by soaking a cup or two of dried beans in a bowl of water. They should double in volume. 

On Friday afternoon, before dinner, assemble the cholent and set it to cook in a slow cooker or in an oven set at 200 degrees.

If your Sabbath is another day, adjust these directions. Cholent would make a great after-church Sunday dinner! Start by soaking the beans on Friday night or Saturday morning.

You might want to check it in the morning to be sure it isn’t too dried out, but don’t add too much water; you don’t want it to be soupy. It should be moist, not wet, and have a nice, brown crust on top.

If you have leftover cholent, it’s good reheated for a lunch or supper. If you eat up all the meat but still have lots of vegetables and gravy left, turn it into soup! Just mash everything up, add a little more water and heat for lunches during the week.

(A confession: the last two times I made cholent I forgot to take photos! So I snagged these photos from the Web — what a wonderful resource!)

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