Iris Lax loves her cholent. The marketing director of the Osher Marin JCC, who says cooking is a passion of hers and who loves to entertain, has fond memories of waking up to the smell.
“It gives you this warm feeling,” said Lax during a class dedicated to the art of mastering the Jewish stew, part of the JCC’s four-part “Cooking Jewish” series. “It feeds your soul.”
For the uninitiated, cholent is a stew that observant Jews have cooked since ancient times. It is started Friday before sundown and left to simmer slowly overnight, thereby allowing religious Jews to have a hot meal on Shabbat without violating the ban on starting a new fire.
According to Claudia Roden, an expert on Jewish cuisine and author of “The Book of Jewish Food,” the word is believed to have its origins in medieval France, combining the words for “hot” (chault) and “slow” (lent). In England, where family cholent pots were often taken to the communal bakery to be cooked and picked up by the children after synagogue, the word was widely believed to come from the words “shul” and “end.” Sephardic Jews have their own version, as well — “hamin” (hot).
I was dismayed to read in Roden’s book that “A test of ‘who is a Jew’ is supposed to be whether you like cholent.” I guess in that case I would fall into the not-a-Jew category, along with many fellow Jews of my generation. Perhaps it’s because we didn’t grow up with cholent, or because it lands in your stomach with a thud.
While a Facebook post on this topic made me realize that plenty of my friends love it — I got descriptions of a cholent made from duck, a Persian-style vegan one, one made from short ribs and Malbec, and one veggie version that uses jackfruit — I also got this response: “I despise it. And I don’t use that word a lot. Tastes like a burnt accident to me.” And this: “Love, love, love, at least I love my mom’s.” A kibbutznik friend, who had to eat it every Saturday growing up, informed me that all the variations people offered may well be very tasty but weren’t traditional in the least.
Amazingly, while working on this column, I received a recipe from the j. weekly newsroom that came over the wires: a “happy” cholent, in celebration of Colorado’s new law legalizing marijuana, featuring 31⁄2 grams of marijuana. The unnamed chef who supplied the recipe “guarantees it will lift your Shabbat spirits.”
In any case, even though I said I was a naysayer, Lax encouraged me to come to her class. Instead of using the ancient method, she taught us how to make cholent in a slow cooker. Students came with their own, which they then filled with Lax’s recipe and brought home to cook for the next day’s Shabbat lunch.
Lax’s recipe doesn’t deviate much from the traditional formula of beef, potatoes, beans and barley. She says it’s a “mishmash of different traditions” she’s tried over the years, though it does have some rather interesting additions that give it a unique flavor: a can of Bush’s vegetarian beans, ketchup, a bouillon cube, lots of Hungarian paprika and a can of Coke, which, Lax says, makes the meat caramelize.
I know many brisket recipes call for Coke, but I had never heard of putting it in cholent. A Google search shows it is quite common. I’ll admit that as someone who has built my personal-chef business around using only whole foods, eschewing those that are processed or made from genetically modified ingredients — this carries into my personal kitchen, as well — this was a bit troubling for me. I suppose one can always use grass-fed beef, organic ketchup and organic cola. But then there are those who would say that when it comes to food, I’m way too snobby for my own good (there is some truth to that), and that every once in awhile, it’s fine to relax. So, reader, I leave it to you to decide.
What I learned in Lax’s class was that cholent is an incredibly easy dish to make, even for people who don’t cook much. While there is a bit of chopping of onions and potatoes, it’s mostly just layering everything into the slow cooker, seasoning as you go (“The potatoes need more salt than other things,” Lax noted, adding that potato chunks should be large, or else they’ll fall apart.) While chicken can be substituted for the beef, she said, use thighs, as breasts will be too dry, and take off the skin before cooking.
Bill Wild, a Mill Valley resident who describes himself as “curious, with admiration and respect for Judaism,” said he enjoyed the class. “There was a bonding of emotion with food presentation that worked for me,” he said, “but learning the Jewish tradition about [cholent] puts it in its context.”
While Lax was an engaging teacher, and proudly told the class how her cholent recipe was served to guests at her son’s bar mitzvah at his request, I’m afraid she didn’t make a convert out of me. Perhaps the short ribs and Malbec version or one with jackfruit would be more my speed.
To find out about the next three installments of “Cooking Jewish,” which focus on chicken soup, challah and Passover, visit www.marinjcc.org/jewishlife/cooking-jewish.
Iris’ Cholent Recipe Made with Love
6 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, cubed (sprinkle with sea salt and paprika)
1 1/2 lbs. beef stew or flanken, seasoned with salt and pepper (for vegetarian cholent, omit this ingredient)
1 cup pearl barley (rinse and soak for an hour in cold water)
1 cup small white beans (rinse and soak for an hour in cold water)
1 cup pink beans (rinse and soak for an hour in cold water)
2 Maui sweet onions, quartered
1 large can Bush’s vegetarian beans with sauce it comes in
1/2 cup ketchup
12 oz. can Coca-Cola
hard-boiled eggs, sprinkled with salt and paprika (as many as you can fit on the top; no shells)
salt, chili powder and paprika to season
In a large Crockpot or slow cooker, layer the ingredients in the order above. Add water to come to top of pot and a bouillon cube (beef or vegetarian) and cover.
Set Crockpot on high for 6 hours and then turn to low and cook overnight (it will be ready around 1 p.m. the next day).
Remove eggs and mix everything together. Enjoy!
Alix Wall is a personal chef in the East Bay and beyond. You can find her website at www.theorganicepicure.com. Please send story ideas to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.