The other day my dad said, as a joke, “You should write about cholent. Perfect pandemic food!” We laughed because cholent is an old-school Jewish Sabbath dish that is famous mostly for being terrible. It’s a meal that was born of the need to have a hot meal on Shabbat in spite of the Biblical prohibitions against lighting fires. Traditionally, Eastern European Jews dropped off vessels full of meat and grain and beans at local bakeries, where they cooked slowly in the cooling wood-fired ovens. The result often had the heft and texture of cement and not much more flavor.
My family often tells the story of the one time my mother tried to make it. After the endless cooking time she brought the casserole dish out, and promptly dropped it, shattering the vessel and dumping the leaden mush all over the ground. She never made it again. No one was particularly disappointed.
But after I thought about it for a while, I realized my dad wasn’t wrong in that cholent is a dish that is kind of perfect for right now. It uses a lot of pantry ingredients, which is helpful. It’s easy to assemble and cooks a long time in a slow cooker or low oven, so there’s not a lot of fuss. It is a one-pot wonder, combining all your meat, veg, and carbs in one convenient bowl. It’s peasant food, which means it’s an inexpensive way to feed a crowd, but the leftovers freeze up nicely. Even if you’re just serving two or four people, you can make a full batch and freeze half for a future meal. Done well, it’s comforting in the way of any slow-cooked food. It’s adaptable, so you can use this recipe as a guide but adjust to your palate.
And if anyone in your household has a negative reaction to the word “cholent,” just call it a casserole.
Serves up to 8, but can be halved
- 4 large Yukon gold or red potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1" rounds
- 1 large yellow onion, diced
- 2 lbs. beef chuck, pot roast, or boneless short ribs (or pork shoulder if you don’t care about kosher laws), cut into 1 1/2" chunks
- 1½ cups pearl barley, wheat berries, or brown rice
- 2 cups dried navy or light kidney beans or other small bean
- 6 cups chicken or beef broth
- 2 Tbsp. maple syrup, pomegranate molasses, date syrup, or honey
- 2 Tbsp. spice blend that you love (This could be a curry powder, garam masala, or a barbecue rub. Use what you have and enjoy. My favorites are Spicewalla Tandoori Masala and Cocoa Exchange Caribbean Seasoning Blend.)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 cup panko or plain breadcrumbs
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
- 4 Tbsp. chopped flat leaf parsley
Season your meat well with salt and pepper. In the bottom of a 6-quart slow cooker or a large Dutch oven, spread the potatoes in an even layer. Layer on the onions, followed by the meat.
Mix the grain and beans together in a small bowl, then put the mixture on top of the meat. Mix the broth with the maple syrup (or other sweetener) and pour over everything in the pot. Sprinkle on your spice blend, and then add enough water to cover the ingredients by about half an inch. Cover the pot.
Cook in your slow cooker set on low or in a 200-degree oven for about 12 hours, stirring occasionally and adding more water if needed. The cholent is done when the grain is tender, the beans are fully cooked through and creamy, and the meat falls apart into shreds as you stir. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, and more of your spice blend if you like.
Sauté the breadcrumbs in the olive oil until crispy. Serve the cholent in bowls with crispy breadcrumbs and chopped parsley on top.