I’ve been puttering around in my comfort zone for a while in the kitchen, so it’s about time for another capital-A Adventure: cholent! I used to love my bubby’s cholent, and sadly never got the recipe from her, so I’m working from scratch. I’m actually working from two different recipes, one from Second Helpings, Please (a quintessential Montreal Jewish cookbook) and from this recipe, which was the highest-ranked cholent recipe I could find online.
For those who don’t know, cholent is a Jewish stew typically eaten as a Sabbath lunch. It’s a stew made with meat, beans, potatoes, barley, and whatever else you’ve got handy. Start it up Friday night, leave it in a warm oven (200 degrees) until noon Saturday, and voila! Lunch!
Now, the first part of this experiment was that I wanted to make it in the crock pot, to save the sanity of my boyfriend. Marc’s the sort of guy who checks the stove every single time we leave the house, to make sure he didn’t leave it on. I think having the stove on all night would give him a heart attack. First problem: both my recipes are for conventional ovens, not crock pot. I read somewhere that you’re supposed to cut the liquid for crock pot recipes, except if you’re cooking rice or pasta. But what about barley? Nobody thinks about poor, neglected barley! In the end, I decided to put enough boiling water to not quite cover, on the assumption that the liquid from the meat and beans will fill up the rest and that the barley will (hopefully) absorb a lot.
Next problem: what sort of meat to use? Most cholent recipes call for brisket or chuck roast. I checked the kosher section of my grocery store before cooking, and there were slim pickings: pickled veal rolls and chicken giblets seemed to be the extent of what was on the shelves on a Sunday night. So instead I bought (non-kosher) stewing beef, on the thinking that this is a stew and it’ll probably work itself out in the end.
Further problems: soak the beans or not? One recipe didn’t specify, the other said dried. But many other cholent recipes I consulted said to pre-soak the beans, which I really didn’t have time or inclination to do. So instead I used a 19-oz can of mixed beans, rinsed them well, and prayed for the best.
Yet another problem: what kind of barley? One of the nice things about living near a big-ish grocery store is that there’s plenty of selection. The bad thing about it is sometimes there’s selection when you didn’t expect any. (I remember buying cornmeal for cornbread and being faced with two different weights, and having no idea which one I was supposed to use. And let us not forget the mayhem that ensued when I used rice vermicelli instead of wheat for the tex-mex fideo last summer.) Anyway, at the grocery store were “pearl barley” and “pot barley.” I had no idea what the difference was. I seemed to remember one of my recipes saying to use pearl barley, so that’s what I picked up.
Note for curious readers: I looked up the difference, and apparently pearl barley is pot barley with the bran layer milled off. So it’s less nutritious than pot barley, but less chewy and cooks faster.
More problems! Potatoes! What kind? How many? One recipe called for “6 potatoes, pared and quartered,” the other for “5 large potatoes, peeled and cut.” Neither specified a type. I got a small bag of potatoes at the grocery store, “small” meaning both that the bag was small (3 lbs) and the individual potatoes were quite small. I think they were yukon gold. The bag says “yellow fleshed,” which really doesn’t help at all. Anyway, I eyeballed what looked like the equivalent of 5-6 large potatoes (about 1.5 lbs) peeled them (my potato peeling skills need work — don’t ask), and then either quartered or halved them, depending on how big they were.
There were more issues, like which ingredients to cook in the pan and which to just throw into the slow cooker. Thankfully, I get the sense that this recipe is pretty forgiving. At least, I hope it is. In the end, my recipe is below.
Surprisingly, I really wish I had kishke. It’s essentially Jewish haggis. Intellectually, I think it’s gross. But my grandmother used to put some in with the cholent and it was the most delicious thing ever. Really. (I didn’t know at the time that it was made from intestines. I just knew it was awesome.) But I wasn’t about to start making my own kishke (that’s just too adventurous for my adventures in cooking right now), and I couldn’t find any readily available in the grocery store. Perhaps some kosher butchers sell them? Must investigate!
The final verdict!
So, twelve-to-fifteen hours later, it was time to eat. It turned out that the water level had stayed pretty much consistent throughout, so there was a dry/burnt layer on top, which I discarded. (Note to self: next time put water to cover!) Everywhere else, the barley had absorbed the water so that the cholent was exactly the consistency I’d hoped for.
It was, in short, lovely. A wonderful stick-to-your-ribs sort of meal, very meat-and-potatoes-y. The stewing beef worked out perfectly adequately, and I’m glad I got the untrimmed instead of the trimmed. I couldn’t find any of my beautifully-carmelized onions in the final dish, though. Maybe they just absorbed in after all that cooking?
For next time, I found an interesting vegetarian kishke recipe (you have to scroll down about halfway). Vegetarian kishke?! Brilliant or blasphemous, you be the judge! Anyway, I may try it next time I make this recipe.
Marc and I both ate our fill for lunch, and we’ve got two large margarine containers full of leftovers, so I call this one a success. So long as I remember to put more water next time.
Julie’s crock pot cholent
Prep time: 1.5 hours (or if, unlike me, you have any degree of knife skills whatsoever, 45 minutes)
Cook time: overnight
1.5 lbs potatoes (equivalent of 5-6 large), peeled and cut
3-4 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 onions, sliced
2.5 lbs stewing beef, cut into large chunks
1 can (19 oz) mixed beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup pearl barley
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 tsp dry onion soup mix (I used Lipton)
salt, pepper, and paprika to taste
1. Peel and cut the potatoes. Put into the crock pot as you go.
2. Slice onions. Turn on stove to medium and sauté onions in a large pan until golden and wonderful, about 15 minutes. Add to crock pot.
3. In the same pan, brown the beef. Do it in two batches if you have to. It doesn’t have to be perfectly browned because it’s going to be stewing for at least 15 hours, so it’ll definitely be cooked at the end of it. I did about 2 minutes per side. Add to the crock pot.
4. While the beef is browning, boil some water in a kettle.
5. Add beans, barley, and garlic to the crock pot. Sprinkle onion soup mix over the top. Add salt, pepper, and paprika to taste. Stir everything up.
6. Add boiling water from the kettle until it just covers all the ingredients.
7. Set crock pot to low and cook until tomorrow’s lunch, at least 8-10 hours but longer is perfectly fine.