My dear mother Ida, may her memory be a blessing, never made cholent, the long-cooked stew traditionally served on the Sabbath that is perfect for our current winter weather. In New York, where I grew up, weekend fare meant lox and bagels, smoked fish and our local deli’s fabulous cream cheese. I never even heard of cholent until I made aliya to Israel.
Cholent (hamin in Hebrew) holds a place of honor in Jewish culinary history, but not because it excels in any particular flavor or health benefit. In fact, most people find standard Ashkenazi cholent — which contains peeled potatoes, beans, grains, fatty and/or smoked meats, onions fried in generous amounts of oil, long-cooked eggs and the ubiquitous kishke (cow intestines stuffed with a mixture of flour or matzo meal, fat, onion and seasonings) — a tad (or more) hard to digest. Not surprising, really.
There is another alternative, however – vegetarian cholent. It’s satisfying, healthier, tastier and far easier to digest than the regular kind, with the added advantage that it doesn’t leave you with an intense desire to fall asleep in your chair while you’re eating it. It also won’t encourage reflux or other undesirable aftereffects.
By law, any good cholent is always based on an overabundance of onions, cut into wedges and then halved. These must be patiently sautéed in oil over medium-low heat for a good 20 minutes or more until well-browned. Toward the end of the saute process add a heaping tablespoon of honey, brown sugar or real maple syrup to help in the the browning that is crucial to the successful hue of your cholent. I’ve known some people to add carob powder or even coffee to the cholent pot as well. (And a bottle of beer never hurt either, the darker, the better. — ed.)
Cholent, Vegetarian style (8-10 servings)
1 cup black eyed-peas, soaked overnight
1 cup chickpeas, soaked overnight
1 cup barley, rinsed and drained
1 cup whole spelt grains or freekeh (toasted wheat), rinsed and drained
1-2 heads garlic, separated into cloves, unpeeled
¼ cup olive oil
3 very large onions, cut into wedges and halved
1-2 tablespoons honey
1 bag microwavable small potatoes, halved
500 grams potatoes, thickly sliced and halved
250-300 grams (about ½-⅔ pounds) Jerusalem artichokes, scrubbed or peeled and cut into large chunks
6-8 eggs, preferably organic
1 half tablespoon cumin
1 half tablespoon turmeric
1 teaspoon regular, smoked or hot paprika
1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds
Coarsely ground black pepper to taste
One and a half teaspoons smoked salt, or sea salt (or more to taste)
5 bay leaves
- If you forgot to soak the beans overnight, put them in a pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Let boil for 5 minutes uncovered, then cover and soak for 1-2 hours before using. Drain and transfer to a large bowl. Add the barley.
- Put the freekeh in a small cloth bag with a little olive oil and salt. Set aside.
- Heat the oil and sauté the onions slowly over medium-low heat until golden. Add the honey and cook until the onion is browned. Add the onions to the bean mixture together with the oil in the pan.
- Add the vegetables and the seasonings and mix with your hands or a wooden spoon. Transfer to a large heavy casserole dish together with the cloth bag and eggs (which should be gently hidden in the mixture). Add water to cover plus another 2.5 cm of water, bring to a boil, partially cover and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes. Close the cover and continue to cook over very low heat, or in a low oven, overnight. Check occasionally and add a little boiling water if necessary.
- Serve with a dollop of zhug (spicy Yemenite condiment) and a green salad on the side.