Israelis are known for going against the stream, swimming against the current. And the best example might be the way Israelis welcome the new year. Come January, and the (fat, Western) world goes on a diet. In Israel, on the other hand, people take out their largest pots and start making heavy, oily, flavorful cholent.
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Cholent is a Jewish invention. It is a stew cooked overnight, put in the oven on Friday evening and served for lunch on Saturday, in order to keep the religious prohibition against cooking on Shabbat. Different Jewish communities from around the world have different versions, which I’ve been discussing here every January for the past few of years. Iraqis have tbeet, a chicken stuffed and covered with rice; Yemenite Jews cook jachnun and kubaneh, overnight baked pastries that are served with eggs, schug (a hot pepper and cilantro condiment) and hilbeh (fenugreek paste). Some Sephardic Israelis make a simple macaroni and chicken version. But the most popular overnight Shabbat stew of all is cholent, in its Eastern European or Northern African (where it’s called hamin) version.
The history of hamin/cholent begins in Medieval Spain. With the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, the overnight stew travelled with them to Eastern Europe and to North Africa. The basic stew includes a piece of beef, like chuck, that can hold up to long cooking; potatoes; and legumes (beans in the cholent, chickpeas in hamin). There are no spices, except salt and pepper; none are really needed, since the long cooking does these simple ingredients only good. It brings out their deepest flavors, caramelizes them, and makes them perfectly tender.
The ultimate comfort food.
I love changing and recreating this stew, because it's so hard to make mistakes. This version has all the basics, including lamb shoulder, potatoes and great northern beans. But the flavors are enhanced by white wine, porcini and rosemary, as well as some chestnuts for taste and texture.
Lamb, potato and porcini cholent (overnight stew)
Cholent, like many other stews, has a great work-result ratio. This recipe will take you less than 40 minutes to make. After 12 hours in the oven, the deeply flavored, caramelized dish can feed the whole family and a few neighbors who won’t be able to resist the aroma.
1 lb. great northern beans or any favorite beans
3 to 4 lbs. boneless lamb shoulder or beef chuck, tied
course sea salt
ground black pepper
1/4 cup neutral vegetable oil, such as corn
2 yellow onions, halved and sliced
1 oz. dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in hot water
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
10 garlic cloves, chopped
4 tablespoons chopped rosemary leaves
2 cups white wine
8 medium size Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and halved
2 cups roasted peeled chestnuts
1. The night before or the morning you prepare the dish, cover beans in 4 inches of water to soak.
2. Take lamb or beef out the fridge about an hour before you’re ready to start cooking.
3. Sprinkle 1 1/2 tablespoons salt and 1/2 tablespoon black pepper all over lamb and massage with your hands. Heat oil in a large oven-proof pot over medium-high heat. When pot is hot, brown lamb on all sides, for about 10 minutes. Transfer to a tray and lower heat to medium.
4. Add onions to pot and sauté for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until nicely browned. Drain porcini and wash to remove dirt. Add porcini, sugar, garlic and rosemary to the pot and sauté for 3 more minutes. Add wine, bring to boil, and scrape bottom of pot to release any tidbits, then add 1 1/2 tablespoons salt and remove from the heat.
5. Drain soaked beans and add to the pot, mix with onion mixture, and grind fresh pepper on top. Arrange lamb and potatoes on top. Mix chestnuts into potatoes.
6. Preheat oven to 225 degrees Fahrenheit (110 degrees Celsius).
7. Put pot back on medium-high heat. Add 4 cups boiling water and bring to boil. Remove foam from top and let the stew boil gently for 5 minutes.
8. Cover pot with lid, then seal with two layers of aluminum foil. Put in the oven and bake overnight, for up to 15 hours.
9. Remove from oven, and let stand for 10 minutes. At this point, most liquid will have soaked into the stew. Serve.