Kugel, matzo balls, chicken soup, rugelach, knishes, latkes. These classic dishes all win the prize for the best of Jewish comfort food (cue opening number for Fiddler on the Roof).
But cholent is content to share the stage. She is no belting diva or primping prom queen. No peacock on your dining room table. She is humble, the salt of the earth. While some recipes may dare you to chiffonade, meuniére, melanger, filet, frappe, this hearty stew simmers unassumingly in its pot. Beans. Potatoes. Onions. An afternoon nap with a full belly on a cold winter day. The smell of home.
Even her origins are proletarian. While some dishes are designed with only flavor in mind, cholent was developed over centuries to conform to the Jewish law that prohibits cooking on Shabbat. The pot was brought to boil before the day of rest began and kept warm until the following day when it was traditionally eaten for lunch on Saturday.
Rachell Goldberg, a local personal chef specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine, recalls stories of her Moroccan safta’s (Hebrew for grandmother) hamin, the Sephardic-style cholent that the family ate every Shabbat during the coldest months of the year. Lacking an oven in her home, Safta Rachel would bring the pot before Shabbat each week to a communal oven in her Haifa neighborhood of Madregot Eglon where it cooked overnight until the noonday meal. You made it and you let it go. A wonderful antidote to the meddling perfectionism of many of today’s cooks (you know who you are) and the way some of us live our lives (again, you know who you are). Yes, cooking can be therapy.
While cholent makers today love to whisper about their secret ingredients – fried salami, a can of beer, a flanken bone, a daikon radish – it requires only what most cooks already have in their pantry. The original kitchen counter cooking. The poor man’s delight. Whatever you have – throw it in. Whatever goes in – comes out cholent. It forgives and forgets.
In this way, cholent varieties abound. Jews from all over the world have made their own style of cholent for generations, using locally-available ingredients. North African hamin is rife with garbanzo beans, Iraqi has chicken and rice, and nearly all Sephardic hamin contains eggs browned by the long-cooking brew.
Here are two delicious iterations – Safta Rachel’s traditional Moroccan hamin coming to you savory and piping hot from the Madregot Eglon communal oven, and a modern vegetarian Ashkenazic version with a sweeter note. While the hamin contains chunks of beef, the dish is lighter than its Ashkenazic cousin because the ingredients are cooked separately and mostly left whole. The barley and chopped elements of the Ashkenazic cholent thicken the stew considerably.
With cholent or hamin, however, the recipe isn’t everything. Lore has it that even when sticking to a precise recipe, no two come out exactly the same. The dish takes on the emotions of the week, the complexities of life. It’s bitterness or sweetness. It’s oldness and newness. And the love you have for those you feed. Your wish to nurture and ground them at your table before they step back out into the blustery uncertain cold of the world.
So before you feed your hungry guests, withstand the urge to fancify and festoon this humble brown dish. Just love mixed with the richness of life, cholent is content au naturel. And once in awhile, we should all be too.