Slow-cooking, hearty cholent a filling meal before the fast

At a surprise 40th birthday party for a friend, her mother stood at the stove stirring a huge cauldron of simmering stew. The chicken, flanken, potatoes, carrots, dried peas and barley in the pot emitted an aroma that made the offerings prepared by the caterer pale in comparison.

“This is Lynda’s favorite food,” her mother said, dipping a ladle into the depth of the pot and asking me to take a taste. I wasn’t expecting to swoon. “What is this?” I asked.

“Cholent, a Sabbath stew,” she said. “But in our family, we eat it all the time.”

This party 22 years ago was the first time I had even heard the word. I immediately asked for her recipe, which I have been making ever since.

With Yom Kippur beginning this year on a Friday (Sept. 17), it occurred to me that the best thing to eat before the fast begins would be chicken cholent. Many Jews customarily consume chicken and rice on Erev Yom Kippur.

A one-pot meal brimming with nutritious foods, cholent is a traditional Sabbath dish. However, it is usually served for lunch on Saturdays or as a hot meal immediately after the Havdallah service that brings Shabbat to an end.

Cholent is an ideal hot meal for Sabbath observers, who do not cook or perform any work from Friday at sundown until Shabbat ends 24 hours later.

My friend’s mother, who was born in Germany in the 1920s, told me that every Friday before dusk the Jewish women in their neighborhood brought pots full of raw stew ingredients to the Jewish bakery. With sundown approaching, the women would place their pots in the oven, just minutes before the baker turned it off to observe Shabbat.

Over the next 24 hours, the meat, potatoes and barley, which started out swimming in water, turned into a chunky, mouthwatering cholent to be served steaming hot immediately after the Sabbath.

A signature dish of Ashkenazis, cholent can be made from almost anything. One reason is because in the Old Country, Jews were poor and threw any scrap of food they could find into their stews. However, a traditional cholent is made with meat and meat bones, potatoes, beans and barley. More modern recipes for vegetarian cholent dotted with tofu now abound.

Not to be outdone, Sephardis for centuries have prepared spectacular Sabbath stews infused with the most marvelous seasoning. These aromatic recipes are often called hamim, or hot in Hebrew.

In Morocco, this style of stew is called tagine, named for the conical pots in which the dish is prepared. Sabbath stews hail from Egypt, Iraq, Syria and any country where Jews have settled.

Jewish women in Morocco traditionally paid a non-Jew to set up a pile of hot coals. Before sundown on the Sabbath, they carried their tagines full of stew ingredients and sunk them into the coals. Guarding against thieves, the non-Jew watched over their food, which barely bubbled on red hot coals that gradually cooled over the course of a full day.

The key to a good cholent, hamim or tagine is to simmer the medley of ingredients gently for many hours. Original recipes entailed 24 hours of low-heat cooking. However, many people new to this lengthy preparation are hesitant to keep food on a fire overnight while they are sleeping. Most recipes turn out well after six to eight hours with the right amount of water (see note that follows). Cholent is a flexible and forgiving dish that can be made in slow cookers, inside the oven or on a stovetop.

Detractors of cholent complain that the stews are brown and unappetizing, with ingredients blurring together until they lose their characteristics. Yet I find the blend of flavors irresistible and have learned that by adding some ingredients with perky colors, such as tomatoes and carrots, you can overcome the potential of  ending up with a khaki-colored meal.

A hearty dish that is filling but not fancy, cholent is in line with Yom Kippur’s solemn theme. As it can be prepared hours in advance, cholent is a practical dish for home cooks who want to avoid the last-minute rush that often precedes arriving at Kol Nidre services on time.

I suggest serving rice with your stew of choice. It’s easy to digest, and rice is a balanced accompaniment to a one-pot meal brimming with vegetables and chicken.

Whether it’s cholent, hamim or tagine, a hearty hot stew on this special night carries the warmth and tradition that our ancestors bestowed on our parents and grandparents as they lit Sabbath candles every Friday evening and once a year atoned for their sins.

A word about water

Most stew recipes do not indicate how much water is needed, which many cooks find maddening. However, it’s almost impossible to gauge quantities of water because so many factors influence the result, such as temperature and consistency of the heat and the thickness of the pot.

However, if you add too much water to the pot, you’ll end up with soup, which is not a terrible fate. To remedy, leave the pot uncovered and raise the flame to cook off some of the excess water.

If you put too little water into the pot, the ingredients are in danger of drying out or even burning. You can always add more water and stir it to combine evenly.

Keep an eye on the pot to check for water levels. Stir at least once every half hour. Ideally the ingredients in your cholent should yield a thickened gravy. However, it doesn’t matter how a cholent turns out, because thick or thin, this foolproof dish is always delicious and sustaining.

The following recipes are by Linda Morel.

Chicken Cholent

(Ashkenazi-style)

Serves 8

No-stick vegetable spray (optional)

8 skinless chicken thighs

4 sweet potatoes

8 carrots

1 parsnip

1 large onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 lb. string beans, cut in half horizontally

1 Tbs. dill, minced

salt to taste

8 Tbs. parsley, minced (optional garnish)

Use a large stockpot, preferably stick-resistant. 
If not using a stick-resistant pot, spray interior generously with no-stick vegetable spray.

Rinse chicken under cold water and place in the pot.

Scrape skin from sweet potatoes and cut each into 8 chunks. Scrape carrots and parsnip and cut into 1-inch chunks. To the pot, add the sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnip, onion, garlic string beans and dill.

Add enough cold water to just cover the ingredients. They shouldn’t slog around in excess water. Gently stir ingredients. Cover the pot and place it on a medium-high flame until the water simmers. Reduce to the lowest possible flame. Let cholent simmer for 6 to 8 hours, or longer if you’ve got the time, until the gravy thickens. For safety, do not leave cholent pot unattended.

Add salt to taste. However, for the Erev Yom Kippur meal, use salt sparingly so as not to cause thirst and undue comfort during the fast.

Serve over rice in large soup bowls. Garnish with parsley, if using.


Chicken Tagine

(Moroccan-style)

Serves 8

No-stick vegetable spray (optional)

8 skinless chicken thighs

4 white potatoes

1 large onion, chopped

1⁄2 tsp. fresh gingerroot, skinned and chopped

1 (28-oz.) can chopped tomatoes

1 (15.5 oz.) can chickpeas

2 or 3 zucchini, diced large

4 tomatoes, chopped

1⁄2 tsp. ground cumin

2 tsp. ground cinnamon

salt to taste

8 Tbs. cilantro, minced (optional garnish)

Use a large stockpot, preferably stick-resistant. If not using a stick-resistant pot, spray interior generously with no-stick vegetable spray.

Rinse chicken under cold water and place in the pot.

Scrape skin from potatoes and cut each into 8 chunks. To the pot, add chicken, potatoes, onion, ginger, canned tomatoes, chickpeas, zucchini, chopped tomatoes, cumin and cinnamon.

Add enough cold water to the pot to just cover the ingredients. They shouldn’t slog around in excess water. Gently stir ingredients. Cover the pot and place it on a medium-high flame until the water simmers. Reduce to the lowest possible flame.

Let tagine simmer for 6 to 8 hours, or longer if you’ve got the time, until the gravy thickens. For safety sake, do not leave cholent pot unattended.

When ready, add salt to taste. However, for the Erev Yom Kippur meal, use salt sparingly so as not to cause thirst and undue discomfort during the fast.

Serve over rice in large soup bowls. Garnish with cilantro, if using.