A 1,000-YEAR-OLD recipe is having a moment.
Cholent’s ancient origin lies in overnight cooking that suits the rules of the Jewish Sabbath while still creating a hot, substantial Saturday lunch of slow-cooked grains, beans and meat. Its 21st-century popularity combines our current appreciation of pantry staples with a need for comfort and a love of simple recipes on TikTok.
I called my cousin Na’ama Bar-Ilan intending to talk pronunciation, not recipe specifics. Until recently, I was sure cholent sounded like “holl-unt,” with a guttural “h” like in challah. Na’ama is from Tel Aviv, and she says cholent is a Yiddish word, not Hebrew, and sounds more like “choun’t” — an auditory mash-up of “chew” and “shouldn’t.” When I mention the cholent variations I’ve seen, she counters that it isn’t one recipe with variations, but “an entire world of recipes.”
She’s exactly correct. The version made in Na’ama’s Eastern European family includes barley; her grandmother added eggs and potatoes or sweet potatoes to Na’ama’s vegetarian bowl, while the omnitarian version included beef. I mention a turkey mole cholent from food historian-rabbi Gil Marks; she remembers Iraqi versions with whole chickens, and we veer off to the pandemic popularity of macaroni cholent, where the stew is topped with thick pasta, which can adapt to low ‘n’ slow cooking. We both reject soupier versions common in some parts of Europe, and both appreciate a pickle plate on the side.
Every Jewish family has its combination, with the only requirement being that the ingredients hold up to lengthy cooking. Grains like wheat berries and spelt work as well as my preferred emmer or Na’ama’s barley. Ditch the beef, and replace it with more dried fruit or whole potatoes for a meatless version, or lighten the meat flavor via poultry legs and chicken stock. For added sweetness, swap figs for prunes. Replace wine with well-watered balsamic vinegar. Change up chickpeas for whatever bean your heart desires. If you want eggs, leave them in their shells to cook, then peel before serving.
Potatoes are a standard today, but I call them an upstart, given that their use in European and Asian kitchens is around 300 years younger than the first written recipe for cholent. I leave them out, as the grains and beans give this dish abundant rib-sticking comfort as-is, and potatoes freeze poorly when I make cholent in double batches. When you want to go all-in on carbs — who doesn’t, on occasion? — serve alongside mashed potatoes.
Note: Be sure to soak the chickpeas overnight — they will need almost twice as long to cook if you skip that step.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound chuck or round bone roast, cut into 4 equal pieces
1 medium yellow onion
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup red wine
¾ cup emmer
½ cup dried chickpeas, soaked in cold water overnight and drained
10 dried figs, stems removed
4 cups beef stock
2 teaspoons Spanish paprika
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1¼ teaspoons salt, or to taste
In a Dutch oven set over medium-high heat, warm the oil. Brown the beef in the oil, about 2 minutes per side. Stir in onions and garlic, and cook until soft and golden, around 6 minutes. Add wine, and scrape the pot for any browned bits. Remove from heat.
To finish in a slow cooker: Add beef-onion-wine mixture to the bottom of a slow cooker. Top with emmer, soaked chickpeas and figs. Add stock, then sprinkle on paprika, pepper, turmeric, cumin and salt. Cook on low heat for about 10 hours, depending on the slow cooker — chickpeas should be tender all the way through. Taste and adjust seasoning.
To finish in the oven: Preheat oven to 300° F. Leave the beef-onion mixture in the Dutch oven, and add emmer, chickpeas and figs. Pour in stock, then sprinkle on paprika, pepper, turmeric, cumin and salt. Cover the pot and cook for 4 hours; stir gently, and add more stock if needed. Continue cooking another 3½ to 4½ hours, until the chickpeas are tender. Taste and adjust seasoning.