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Monday, January 29, 2007

The Magic Of Cholent - Introduction

Over the past few months I have promised and promised a great "cholent" recipe for the readers of Help! I Have A Fire In My Kitchen. So before the actual recipe let me explain to the readers who are not familiar with this dish exactly what it is.

Actually Wikipedia has a fairly good article on Cholent. But there are some things missing and some things which must be added.

First and foremost the dish is called "Cholent" by "Ashkenazi" Jews and called "Hamin" by Sephardic and Yemenite Jews.

Wikipedia gives the Etymology of the word Cholent as follows:

The word cholent is thought by some to be derived from the Old French words chaud meaning "hot" and lent meaning "slow". Others believe it is derived from the Latin calentem, meaning "hot" — a term documented with this exact meaning in the Spanish form caliente ever since the Late Middle Ages. The term chamin is mentioned in the Mishnah Tractate Shabbat (3:1).
Whereas I am not a linguistic expert, I will say that the name cholent simply means "mishkabobble"! (Another non-word) A mishkabobble is a hodgepodge of things all put together in one combination. In terms of cholent wherever the word comes from it certainly can be a mishkabobble. As many people out there that make cholent, there are that many recipes for this dish. It is simple as all that.

Cholent is "sabbath" dish. Probably the best way to define it is to call it a stew, from the meat and potato family. And the roots of this main dish are not difficult to figure out at all. In the days when most people did not have money to buy meat and certainly such meals were saved for festive occasions, Cholent or "Hamin" became a steady dish for the Sabbath meals. Additionally it began as a "poor man's" feast. As the original cholent recipe was simple. Meat and potatoes and if possible some bones from the meat thrown in. (Bones had no meat on them but did give taste to the dish.)

The more love that goes into making it - the better it comes out. I have no explanation for this, I just know it to be true. Cholent does not make for a beautiful picture. It is not an eye-pleasing "gourmet" treat for the succulent pleasures of the eye. It is a dish of love, full of normal ingredients, made in a specific way. Many are connoisseurs of Cholent. They will taste a cholent and declare its worth. This is not about the "commercial" cholent sold in many prepared food stores. That stuff is yuckie. I cannot even look at it let alone taste it. Cholent is simply one of those dishes that if you do not make in your home, if you do not love making it, and if you do not like eating it - then don't make it. Leave it be.

There are a great deal of factors that must be kept in mind as one reads on how to make this dish and what goes into it. I will try to list them and explain a bit.
  1. Traditional Jews do not turn off or on electricity on Sabbath, nor do they make any fire (which of course includes the gas range). The way we keep food hot is to make it before the Sabbath, and leave it either in an oven which is kept warm throughout the Sabbath or on a Sabbath Platter - which is simply a large electric hot-plate. It is critical to understand that while we do not turn off or on electricity nor do we light fires, a sabbath platter left on from BEFORE the Sabbath begins can be used to keep food warm or to heat up food.
  2. Now a bit more complicated. The law states that dry food (i.e. say chicken, meat, macaroni and cheese which were cooked totally before the Sabbath) can be placed on the platter during the Sabbath to warm up. However, an object that contains water such as soup or cholent MUST be on the platter from before the Sabbath until you wish to serve it. Once one removes this object from the platter it cannot be put back on the platter. (Due to the fact that the water cools and thus you would be "cooking" the water again if you put it back on and this is prohibited on the Sabbath.)
  3. Therefore a meat meal for the Sabbath which would allow one to eat hot and also be affordable by all was one which would be put into a pot, the meat, water, spices etc. would be put into it and it would simmer all of the Sabbath until being ready to be served.
A few other important points:
  1. Cholent is not a "healthy" dish. It is not made with the "health" factors in mind.
  2. Cholent is no longer a poor man's dish. Indeed it can get very expensive depending on the recipe.
  3. Vegetarian Cholent is very popular (though I am really not a fan of it and find it totally without merit. Some things should just not be made veggie dishes. Period.)
  4. Cholent is difficult to make and easy to make. I know that is a contradiction but you will understand that soon. Thus I am giving this a 5 star rating for difficulty.
  5. Cholent may be an "acquired taste". The closest thing I can think to it without the hot spice may be a good "chili".
  6. If you never made cholent before do not think it will come out without letting it simmer overnight. Forget it. This is a dish that requires near 18-24 hours on the platter or in a warm stove.
  7. Cholent is heavy. It makes you sleepy. It is heavy on the tummy. This is not a dish for someone with stomach problems.
The two most important ingredients to Cholent, and I kid you not, are total love of the dish, and your sense of smell. This is one dish where smell in the cooking process and certainly all the while is critical to knowing if your cholent worked out or not. The more love that goes into making it - the better it comes out. I have no explanation for this, I just know it to be true.

While cooking your cholent will smell one way. The next morning when you awake on the Sabbath, you will know by one whiff whether it worked out to be a "taste of the Garden in Eden" or it will be just okay. You will have to use your nose during the entire process. You will have to be concentrated on timing and on preparation. You will have to purchase the ingredients before Friday. And if it works you will find you have indeed added to the "Neshama Yisareah" (the added soul) of the Sabbath.

Oh and let me not forget this one. There is NO ONE that I know that makes Cholent or Hamin that will tell you it always comes out the same. It is one of those dishes that has a life of its own and certainly every cholent is unique. Believe me I know!

The two most important ingredients to Cholent, and I kid you not, are total love of the dish, and your sense of smell. It can be made in a crock pot, a pot for the oven, or a pot for the stove. Each method will give it a unique taste. Though cholent is certainly a "Jewish" food, I should note that at least in my days of growing up in NYC, "cholent" crossed all religious and ethnic boundaries and I know quite a few people who are not Jewish that love this dish - when it is made correctly.

After this giant introduction you will maybe understand why at the recent Bar Mitzvah of my son, I had to make the cholent for the entire synagogue after Sabbath prayers, for the Kiddish - that dear people is cholent for 150+ people! (Two members said they would break my arms if I did not make my cholent for the Kiddish after synagogue!)

And so despite an entire spread of cured herring, Yerushalmi Kugel (we will also do this recipe later) candy, whisky, soda, cake and treasured "rogoloch" from the famous Marzipan bakery in Jerusalem, salads, nuts and a zillion other things, I made my famous cholent for the kiddish.

And so the time has come to reveal the recipe in the next post. I hope you enjoy. And if you do follow this recipe (with all my secret ingredients - which I have never revealed) it will still take practice to make perfect. But always remember - the more love the better it will taste.

If you are interested after reading this post make sure you read the following two posts in this 3 post series:
  1. The Magic Of Cholent - Preparation & Ingredients
  2. The Magic Of Cholent - Directions For Cooking

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1 Fire Comments - Click To Post A Comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice post. Thanks.