To Find Comfort in a Pandemic, Cook Estie’s Cholent
Ready for some comfort and joy in quarantine? Time for a Cholent Party.
After my seventh Zoom call this week, it became clear that there's one blessedly mundane but real issue for the sheltering-in-place: the constant need to cook.
So over the next few weeks, how about I share with you some easy recipes that are delicious, super-simple, and, most importantly, good for the soul?
Let's start with the big guns: Estie’s Cholent recipe.
Given the current state of affairs, it seems perfect to make a dish that was invented in the hardest of times and with the humblest of ingredients, when few people had ovens and fewer had money.
My grandmother, Estie, used to make cholent every Shabbat during our childhood summers in Tel Aviv. Our oven was too tiny to fit a big pot, so on Friday afternoons, along with all the other mothers and grandmothers, Estie would lug over her giant pot of cholent to Mrs. Perchik’s, the neighborhood baker. In would go 10-12 cholents to Mrs. Perchik’s giant oven, with a little flag stuck in each pot bearing the family name.
Making cholent is so easy and therapeutic to make, and the reward, besides making a giant pot of etherial bliss that will last for days, is that, from the moment you start to fry the onions, your entire home begins to smell like safety, coziness, and family.
When you make cholent, be advised: You’re not just making cholent. You’re making a Cholent Party. It's a party because it gathers people together to cook and to eat and it is so much fun to eat, with so many divinely savory things to eat in one pot. Cholent is a perfect family cooking project, and also a great dish to cook together on Zoom with family and friends from afar.
To the uninitiated who might glance at the picture and ingredients and think: uhhhh…what? Trust me. The Jews from the old country in Eastern Europe knew what they were doing. And you don’t need to be Jewish or religious to enjoy this dish. As long as you have taste buds, you'll fall in love.
Now it’s your turn:
Estie's Cholent Recipe
Cholent fulfills my Impatient Chef principles of being a totally easy and flexible dish to make. If you don’t have pinto beans, use navy or kidney. You can also use farro or other grains, but the combo of pinto beans with barley yields a perfectly toothsome result.
Pretty much whatever you do, your cholent is going to be amazing. I’m giving you the quantities of ingredients based on what my family fights over, but if your family isn’t big into eggs or potatoes, you can use less. (Though you won’t BELIEVE how good roasted eggs are for dinner). The beauty of cholent is that it ALL works.
(But we always make this quantity even for a family of 4, because that’s what makes it a party, plus it lasts forever and freezes wonderfully)
6-10 eggs—boiled for 5 minutes to protect from breaking while slow-cooking. (Shells stay on till the cholent is done)
3 russet potatoes, cut in big chunks (any kind of potatoes work)
2 onions, quartered (to cook as is)
2 large onions (diced to sauté with beans/grains)
5 tbsp of vegetable oil (canola or corn but not olive oil. Don't ask. That's what Estie says.)
1 lb dry pinto beans (This is the one essential - they must be dry, not canned, because if you cook canned for so many hours, they'll be mush)
1 cup wheat berries (optional)
2 cups barley
10-20 cloves garlic, pounded (I get mine from the packages of pre-peeled garlic)
Meat of choice: 4-5 short ribs (2" inch pieces, if possible) - or brisket - or oxtails (my favorite) - or whatever meat will cook well for a long time. (Ponder this: how much meat do you want? It takes up room in the pot, so that's the reason to keep it in balance. But if you love meat, put more of that and less whole potatoes and onions, or less beans mixture, or less eggs.)
3-4 marrow bones (this adds huge flavor and is known to some of us as Jewish foie gras, eaten on toast with salt. But if you’re grossed out or it’s too hard to find, skip it)
Salt & Pepper
The secret to cholent is slow cooking. I usually put my cholent into the oven by 11 am and it’s ready for dinner by 5 or 6 pm. You’ll see recipes on the internet that show wildly varied cooking times and temperatures. You can also use a slow cooker, but I'm not sure the texture come out as well––crispy on top.
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Heat up 2 tbsp of oil and fry the diced onions in a large pan (I use cast iron) until translucent, maybe five minutes. Add 8-10 pounded and sliced garlic cloves and cook another five minutes. Add rinsed beans, barley and another grain and combine well, add a few big pinches of pepper. (more salt and garlic, more flavor)
2. Season the meat with garlic powder, salt and pepper. Estie used to rub the meat with additional crushed garlic—if you’re up for it, coat with remaining garlic cloves––you’ll be rewarded.
3. Into the biggest dutch oven or pot with a cover you have, put in: beans and barley, potatoes, quartered onions, eggs (unpeeled), marrow bones, short ribs. I like to put a thin layer of the bean mixture in the bottom and then add the rest on top. Try to get the eggs buried under other things so they don’t get overdone. Put the meat towards the top and make sure there’s a layer of beans/barley on top surrounding everything.
Then add as much water as you need to cover the whole mixture, so that there’s maybe a 1/4 inch water over everything. Then drizzle remaining 3-6 tbsp of oil across the top of the cholent, along with a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. The more oil you add, the crunchier the top and richer it will be. (full disclosure: Estie never used measuring cups. She just poured the oil into the palm of her hand and dumped it in, probably 1 1/2 cups worth. Yikes but it made it incredibly rich and amazing.)
4. Put cholent in for 45 minutes at 400, until the water on top comes to a boil. Then turn down the heat to 325 and cook for two hours. Take out and check it. Stick a spoon to the bottom and see if there’s liquid left, if there’s not much, add more water, maybe few cups to once again submerge everything. (The water is what will cook the dry beans and grains and make everything amazing) You never want to let the cholent get dry.
5. Cook an additional three hours, so altogether about 6-7 hours. Or 7-8 hours. Seriously, you can't mess this up. If there's too much water, keep cooking. If the beans on top aren't cooked enough, add more water till they're covered and cooked. You'll know your cholent is ready when the beans are tender and the top of your cholent is carmelized into a golden brown––and when you can't stand waiting anymore. If you want it crispier on top (you do), turn the heat back up to 450 for 15 minutes or till crispy crown before serving.
6. Cry tears of joy as you take your cholent out of the oven and your family fights each other for the spoon to get the perfect combo on their plate of each element––the beans and barley, a roasted egg, potato and onion chunks, a shortrib, potato kugel and marrow bone for toast. I always serve cholent with cucumber salad (recipe below) and a good bottle of red or sweet wine.
Pro tip: On the second night of eating cholent (and beyond), we scoop the cholent out onto a cooking sheet into a thin layer and reheat at 450 degrees for about 20 minutes, until everything turns amazingly crispy. We eat from it all week and then freeze some for another Cholent Party another time.
Note: Potato Kugel: My family loves this as part of cholent, but it's not a must. If you want to give it a try, you make and pour the kugel mixture directly into the side of the cholent pot before it goes into the oven. Or you can make it in a separate baking dish or skillet. Again, this is a matter of real estate — for us, the problem is that after piling in everything else we love, we have no room! This week we made it on the side, in a cast iron skillet, as shown below. But we also added a little to the pot, and the texture was divine — creamy and savory.
And here’s the perfect (and only) accompaniment to Cholent that you need:
Estie’s Hungarian Cucumber Salad
I always make this salad to serve with cholent, because it’s a great foil to the richness, and so easy to make. It also keeps in the fridge all week and is a great side salad to any meal.
8 Persian or 3 English/regular cucumbers, thinly sliced (about 1/4”)
1 sweet onion, thinly sliced
3-4 carrots, thinly sliced
3/4 bottle of seasoned rice vinegar
4 packets of Splenda or 1/4 cup sugar, to taste
1/2 cup water
I use the slice blade on my Cuisinart food processor, which means it takes about three minutes to slice the onion, cucumbers and carrots on this, but if you don’t have one, just enjoy the slicing!
Don’t worry about salting the cucumbers. Just slice everything up, add the vinegar, sugar, water and pepper, and then taste the “juice” until you like it––it should be a little sweet, a little tangy and a little peppery. Best if you make this a few hours ahead so it can marinate.
And that's it for now, friends. Please feel free to ask questions or post your photos in the comments section. Stay safe and find the joy!